The Single Most Important Fact, Perhaps, of the Entire Movie Industry: Nobody Knows Anything

William Goldman? Will Rogers? Kevin Smith? Gus Van Sant? Robert Towne? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Predicting the box office success of a forthcoming movie is apparently impossible. It is also difficult to anticipate the critical response. These challenges are encapsulated in a Hollywood adage of exasperation:

Nobody knows anything.

Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: William Goldman wrote the screenplays for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Stepford Wives (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Marathon Man (1976), The Princess Bride (1987) and other significant films. In 1983 he published “Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting” which included the following passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The “go” decision is the ultimate importance of the studio executive. They are responsible for what gets up there on the silver screen. Compounding their problem of no job security in the decision-making process is the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry:

NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING.

Interestingly, the famous humorist Will Rogers who suffered financial setbacks in the film world made a similar observation in a 1928 essay that was reprinted in his autobiography: 2

I can’t write about the movies for I don’t know anything about them, and I don’t think anybody else knows anything about them.

It’s the only business in the world that nobody knows anything about. Being in them don’t give any more of an inkling about them than being out of them.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Before Will Rogers highlighted his bewilderment in film land he applied the same expression to a different industry. In 1923 he penned a newspaper column about rugs: 3

In investigating their business I found that there had never been a rug manufacturer that failed. If things looked bad, all he had to do was make another rug and sell it and open up a branch factory with profits. It’s the only business in the world that nobody knows anything about. You don’t have to, because your customers don’t know, either.

In 1940 a self-help book for authors titled “Trial and Error: A Key to the Secret of Writing and Selling” by Jack Woodford applied the saying to the burgeoning world of broadcast radio: 4

Radio writing is still hopelessly in the air. Nobody knows anything about it; not even those who occasionally write for the radio, and I know several. Not a studio in the country has any definite idea as to its needs, or any definite plan for dealing with authors.

Goldman elaborated on his remark within his 1983 book: 5

And why did Universal, the mightiest studio of all, pass on Star Wars, a decision that just may cost them, when all the sequels and spinoffs and toy money and book money and video-game money are totaled, over a billion dollars? Because nobody, nobody—not now, not ever—knows the least goddam thing about what is or isn’t going to work at the box office.

In 1985 “The Los Angeles Times” printed a piece about the movie “Brazil” directed by Terry Gilliam which began with the epigraph “Nobody knows anything” credited to Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade”. The body of the article repeated the quotation: 6

“Brazil” is not quite like any other film, which Gilliam says is the reason he wanted to make it. But, in their ever-frantic attempt to forecast the commercial future of a project (“Nobody knows anything”), studio executives think in comparative terms.

In 1987 “The Des Moines Register” of Iowa published an article discussing a cable TV documentary titled “Will Rogers: Look Back in Laughter”. The reviewer ascribed a modified instance to Rogers: 7

“Hollywood is like a desert home in Africa,” Rogers said. “Open the door and every kind of animal comes in.” Or how about: “The movie industry is the only business in the world that nobody knows anything about.”

Rogers proved he didn’t know anything about the movie business. He went broke making silent films.

In 1990 “The Observer” in London published a profile of Goldman under the title “Cynic who takes lid off Hollywood”: 8

With his now-celebrated dictum, ‘Nobody knows anything,’ Goldman portrayed the panic and ignorance with which the Hollywood studios go about their business.

Nothing is predictable, no one is secure, however famous: ‘The one line in the book that I really stand by is that Hollywood is about the next job.’

In 2018 movie director Kevin Smith interviewed his colleague Gus Van Sant and inquired about “the best piece of advice, not just to a young film maker, any film maker, this film maker.” Van Sant tentatively credited “Chinatown” screenwriter Robert Towne with the maxim: 9

Gus Van Sant: . . . I guess Robert Towne said “Nobody knows anything”. It’s sort of like what you’re thinking yourself, make your own decisions, and try not to listen too hard to everyone’s advice because you’ll go crazy.

In conclusion, William Goldman should receive credit for the concise film world maxim “Nobody knows anything” based on the 1983 citation. Will Rogers proclaimed an equivalent observation in 1928.

Image Notes: Camera shown against colorful background from geralt at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person who saw the interview with Gus Van Sant and was confused about the attribution. This inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1983, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman, Chapter One: The Powers That Be, Quote Page 39, Warner Books, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  2. 1949, Autobiography of Will Rogers, Selected and Edited by Donald Day, Chapter 13: It’ll Take Two Generations to Sweep Up the Dirt, (The passage appeared between entries dated September 2 and September 6, 1928), Quote Page 184, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1923 April 15, The Pittsburgh Press, Section: Editorial, The Low Down On Bohunk Rugs by Will Rogers, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1940, Trial and Error, A Key To the Secret of Writing and Selling by Jack Woodford, Chapter 23: Excuria—Poetry, Pays and Other Perversions, Quote Page 247, Garden City Publishing Company, Garden City, New York (Verified with scans)
  5. 1983, Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman, Chapter One: The Powers That Be, Quote Page 41, Warner Books, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  6. 1985 October 21, The Los Angeles Times, Section: VI, Film Clips: Nobody Knows Yet How ‘Brazil’ Will Turn Out (Continuation title: Gilliam Fights for His Style ‘Brazil’) by Jack Mathews (Times Staff Writer), Start Page 1, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  7. 1987 April 25, The Des Moines Register, A peek at the king of humorists: If there’s a Will Rogers, there’s a way to laugh by Dave Rhein, Quote Page T1, Column 6, Des Moines, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1990 October 28, The Observer, Cynic who takes lid off Hollywood (Interview of William Goldman conducted by Sean French), Quote Page 49, Column 2, London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 2018, Website: Internet Movie Database imdb.com, Video at the IMDb Studio at Sundance 2018, Title: Why Gus Van Sant Chooses Stories Like ‘Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot’, Description: Kevin Smith interviews Gus Van Sant, Video clip location: 2 minutes 25 seconds of 2 minutes 53 seconds. (Accessed February 12, 2018) link