Sept. 4, 2011, 7:46 a.m.
Today Media Predict has launched a new site where regular people can get paid to place bets on what will go big -- or bust -- in media. There's a good reason why. As the famous quotation goes: nobody knows anything.
"Nobody knows anything," William Goldman originally wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade. "Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time out it's a guess."
It's true to this day. Despite our modern technology -- despite the wonders of Apple, Google, and Facebook combined -- statistically speaking most new media content flops. It's true of movies, video games, books, music, everything.
Goldman's occasion for making his remark was actually "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which, he points out, every studio turned down. "Why did Paramount say yes?" writes Goldman. "Because nobody knows anything. And why did all the other studios say no? Because nobody knows anything . . . [N]obody, nobody -- not now, not ever -- knows the least goddamn thing about what is or isn't going to work at the box office."
Clearly Goldman had a point. After all, the history of media has been filled with spectacularly bad decisions, when future successes went neglected:
-- "[T]hey felt sorry for me more than anything else. There were a lot of condolences," said George Lucas on professional feedback before the release of "Star Wars."
-- After frustrating years of seeking publication, a woman self-published a novel with her brother and his wife's money. The book: Sense and Sensibility.
-- After test audiences panned a sit-com, network executives aired the pilot in the middle of the summer, presumably to have it behind them. The show: "Seinfeld."
It goes on. Many of the most cherished hits in media -- from the Harry Potter series to "American Idol" -- almost never saw the light of day. Generally in media 10 percent of the product line generates 90 percent or more of revenue, and a few scattered hits compensate for a vast quantity of also-rans, every year.
That said -- woe to anyone who thinks he or she might know better.
Of course, it's common to take pot-shots at the so-called elite -- the "gate-keepers" who choose media content for the masses. The job becomes less glamorous if you try it yourself. When your colleagues fail 9 times out of 10, it's a little nerve-racking to step up to the bat, with your bonus, your kids' tuition, and your mortgage on the line. Therefore it's little surprise that some executives get conservative, putting out genre novels, boy-bands, and stale rom-coms -- all in hopes that these offer a "safe bet." One can hardly blame them, when every year brings a fresh crop of short-lived idealists who do stick out their necks and try something different. For every "Hurt Locker" or "Little Miss Sunshine," there are hundreds of indie films that barely make it to DVD.
So nobody knows anything, apparently. But instead of carping over this bitter truth, perhaps the time has come to accept it. No one individual knows anything. But together -- collectively -- we have a chance.
This much is also obvious. If you had a thousand executives present at early screenings of "Waterworld" or "Gigli," they might easily have known that the emperor had no clothes. Resting in the comfort of their own homes, average consumers might guess that the "The Dark Knight" would interest more people than "Battlefield Earth." For a single individual in the hot seat, the choice is excruciating. Ask thousands -- free from that crushing risk -- and the choice is simple.
Of course, market research is supposed to do this sort of thing. Via test audiences and focus groups, decision makers can escape their own heads and see "what plays in Peoria." These tools do provide a great asset -- working with a co-pilot is better than flying blind -- but a truly dependable research tool has never been found.
Media Predict offers the one thing that stands a chance of approaching that ideal -- markets. The method, simply, has a remarkable track record of success. For over twenty years The Iowa Electronic Markets have outperformed the AP and the Gallup polls in forecasting election outcomes. Our own markets have consistently predicted Oscar winners, television cancellations, viewership volume and more. Markets are not perfect, but they are better than anything alternative.
And the reasons are clear. In markets, people make money if they make correct predictions. They lose money if they don't. This profit motive makes everyone tell the truth -- something too often lacking from other methods like surveys and focus groups. We could go on an on about additional virtues (which we will save for our client meetings) but our internal evidence shows that we have only begun to tap, as the saying goes, the vast Wisdom of Crowds.
"Crowds? Won't that lead to mass-market trash?" the pundits will object.
Simply, no. Media companies have an obvious and overwhelming economic interest in distributing worthwhile products, from a sophisticated novel to a well-made comic-book. They'll release anything -- as long as it works. And markets, more than any other available tool, can help them discover that successful content.
It's more important than one might think. Ask your friends to list their top-ten most treasured possessions -- soon enough you'll hear about a Dylan album, or a Salinger book, or a box-set of "Arrested Development." Think about how much these things mean to them -- and then think if there were more of them, for you and for everyone.
Put another way, what if media were better? No, it would not head off tsunamis or financial meltdowns. But at media Predict we'd like to think that, if more people had media they loved, then people would be happier, more psychologically sound, and more aware of the world around them. Of course, at the end of the day Media Predict is a business; we hope to serve customers and make money. But we are also a step toward achieving this goal.