Professor Clayton Childress recently published an article in "Public Books," an online publication dedicated to bringing "scholarly depth to discussions of contemporary ideas, culture, and politics." Professor Childress' piece discusses two books, Álvaro Santana-Acuña’s Ascent to Glory: How One Hundred Years of Solitude Was Written and Became a Global Classic and Maryann Erigha’s The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry and how industry insiders portray their knowledge and lack of knowledge about what works are likely to be both profitable and popular.
Professor Childress is an Associate Professor of Sociology with undergraduate teaching responsibilities on the UTSC campus. We have included an excerpt of the article; the full article is available on Public Books.
Storytelling is Big Business
by Clayton Childress
A common refrain among people who work in media—and, by extension, among the academics who study them—is that when it comes to what will be profitable, “nobody knows anything.”1 Sometimes people scoff at the idiom because it is taken to mean that nobody knows anything about what will be popular, not that nobody knows anything about what will be profitable. What makes this distinction consequential is that knowing what, and who, will make money should be important in the business of hits. And so, not knowing means that business decisions are often made using the flimsy tool that we turn to when facing our own ignorance: guesses based on our taken-for-granted assumptions, tastes, and biases.
Not all assumptions are based in ignorance. For the most part, people both inside and outside of media industries know what will be popular. Book publishers in the United States, for instance, publish over eight hundred new books per day, and on whatever day you are reading this I can almost promise you that none of those new books will end up being more popular than Barack Obama’s A Promised Land. The same goes for Disney executives in 2019, on the day before the theatrical release of Avengers: Endgame. Not only did they know that an Avengers sequel would be popular, but they also knew that even though a film called I Spit on Your Grave: Déjà Vu would be released at the same time, it was not going to be offering much competition.