Storytelling Is Big Business | Public Books


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.” 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.

In some ways, it is because we know what will be popular that it is much harder to predict what will be profitable. The simple math is that if you want the Obamas to write memoirs, you’ll have to pay them a reported $65 million to do so, whereas the typical advance for an unknown schmo like you or me might fetch $40,000 if we’re extremely lucky, and about $10,000 if we’re just garden-variety lucky. The same logic applies in Hollywood, where if you want to make Avengers: Endgame, which everyone knows will be popular, it will cost you $600 million, whereas if you want another I Spit on Your Grave movie, which nobody else wants either, it will cost much less.

Because profitability, unlike popularity, often comes down to a mismatch between expectations and outcomes, the biggest return on investment is the surprise hit. It’s the $40,000 advance for Dreams of My Father by the unknown schmo who then goes on to be president. It’s the $4,000 advance and five-hundred-copy initial print run for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It’s FX giving Vince Gilligan the rights to Breaking Bad back for free because, unlike AMC would go on to do, they didn’t see a path for the show.

The fact that profitability is more about unpredictable popularity, rather than just popularity writ large, also explains why those who claim to be able to predict hits algorithmically are in the business of selling their advice on hits, rather than in the business of trying to make hits themselves. It’s also for this reason that Netflix’s recent explanation of how they use algorithms to predict hits basically amounts to a roundabout way of saying that they can’t. After all, while we tend to attribute magical qualities to those rare individuals who predict unlikely events, over time it becomes clear that soothsayers aren’t real, and that having predicted something that probably wasn’t going to happen is just a sign of bad judgment.

What is and can be known about what will be popular and profitable—or even iconic—is selectively deployed and selectively withheld.

So while it’s true that nobody knows anything about what will be profitable, we also need to remember that the people telling us these stories work in the business of storytelling, and they know how well underdog stories about surprise hits sell. While it doesn’t mean such stories are untrue, they do a lot of social lifting, as they essentially function as Horatio Alger myths for media elites.

So, what stories are doing the lifting? And which have “failed to” pull themselves up?

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 are both about how much and how little people know, and claim to know, about what will be popular and profitable. In Ascent to Glory, we learn of the profitable mythmaking around One Hundred Years of Solitude, whereas in the Hollywood Jim Crow, studio executives who generally claim to not know anything suddenly claim to know everything when it comes to Black-led films.

Across both books, the takeaway is that what is and can be known about what will be popular and profitable—or even iconic—is selectively deployed and selectively withheld. When creating and selling culture, you’re selling a story about that culture, too.


It was predictable that One Hundred Years of Solitude was going to be popular. Still, as far as predicting what will become a global classic, perhaps even more so than anticipating profitability, really nobody knows anything. Instead of One Hundred Years, any one of that period’s similarly positioned novels—José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso (1966) or José Donoso’s The Obscene Bird of Night (1970)—could have become the classic that went on to be published in nearly 50 languages and to sell over 50 million copies.

In the deeply researched, page-turning, and wonderful Ascent to Glory, Santana-Acuña tells the full story of the creation and global diffusion of Gabriel García Márquez’s masterwork. If Santana-Acuña’s book is a love letter to One Hundred Years of Solitude and its fans, it’s also a love letter to those wizened enough to resist sanding off the jagged edges of history.

If it were a typical creation myth, the entirely fanciful and fantastical version of this story would be that García Márquez had a flash of artistic genius that froze time and place, and that he worked at a breakneck pace to get his already fully realized classic onto paper. There would have been setbacks, of course—any good story requires those—but García Márquez would have worked through the nights while steadfastly progressing toward the light that guided him through the process. That One Hundred Years would go on to be a global classic would be, in this version of the story, repudiated by a chorus of doubters along the way. But its fate would also be undeniable, thanks to the dogged dedication of García Márquez, our intrepid hero. To his immense credit, Santana-Acuña avoids all the trappings of the hero’s journey in both content and structure.

Instead, from Santana-Acuña’s prodigious archival work, we learn that, while the popularity of One Hundred Years was not preordained, it could have been predicted. Rather than appearing out of nowhere and working quickly in isolation, García Márquez spent nearly 20 years building up both the skill and the international network of collaborators and allies to position One Hundred Years as a work of art. García Márquez developed and perfected the book across a globe-trotting writing career and received no small amount of feedback along the way. Critics, elites, confidantes, and even regular readers contributed to the workshopping of different chapters of One Hundred Years. A year before the book’s release, friends and allies were writing of its impending brilliance in publications in over 20 countries around the world. If there’s a David-versus-Goliath story here, even before publication One Hundred Years was already Goliath.

The book, and García Márquez, were also blessed with a global commercial sector that had creaked into place prior to their arrival on the scene. Both novel and writer benefited from a Spanish publishing industry that had quintupled its output in the 10 years prior to One Hundred Years’s release. Due to geopolitical relationships at the time, this industry was highly networked and coordinated with cosmopolitan publishing centers in North and South America, too.

García Márquez was also blessed to be riding the crest of a wave that was then known as the New Latin American Novel: a category that consolidated a range of multiethnic, multilingual, and intercontinental authors and their works. Rather than being a singular achievement, One Hundred Years was brought into the light through a movement that has since been cast back into the shadows by the brightness afforded to the novel itself.

It’s hard to go back and see One Hundred Years as just a regular hit, which it was upon its release in 1967. Reviewers at the time read it as more aesthetically traditional than innovative and recognized the wealth of intentionally comedic beats in the novel, too. These days, we don’t much talk about the humor, as usually things can be either funny or of lasting importance, but not both. Global classics live off the oxygen of others. As such, One Hundred Years is now treated as both the founding and concluding document of an entire genre, magical realism—never mind that the book was far from being either the first or the last of its kind.

And how do we make sense of its “classic” status? A hypothetical: if there are 100 people in a room, let’s say 80 of them have heard of the novel. Of those 80, perhaps 65 know its author, and 55 can identify it as a work of magical realism. From that 55, suppose 30 can identify a reference to Macondo, and then 15 are aware of the Buendía family. Of these 15 people left from our initial 100, perhaps 5 of them, if not fewer, have actually ever read the novel. Through this thought experiment, it is clear that the book has resonated well beyond the text. One Hundred Years, as Santana-Acuña convincingly argues, has become a series of indexicals.

A global classic is many people being able to recognize a reference to Rosebud while never having seen Citizen Kane. It’s the red ruby slippers; it’s “you’re gonna need a bigger boat” and “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Becoming a global classic requires the efforts of brokers and intermediaries around the world acting as if they were coordinated to keep a thing alive, despite being completely uncoordinated in doing so.

That’s where the magic happens. And, in the exceedingly rare instances in which a hit does happen, how in the world could it be predictable?


Hollywood executives are quite okay with nobody knowing anything about what will be profitable when it comes to white-led films. But for Black-led films, suddenly and miraculously everyone knows everything about what will and won’t be profitable. Despite “nobody knowing anything,” these executives suddenly know that Black films don’t sell well and that they underperform in the international market especially.

In Maryann Erigha’s probing, razor-sharp, and damning The Hollywood Jim Crow, what is and is not predictable about hitmaking gets flipped. In making her argument, Erigha relies on quantitative data, public interviews, and (anonymized) private emails. In the quantitative data, she finds Black directors and actors trying to navigate a two-tiered system in which they’re cordoned off into lower-cost (and, therefore, almost always lower-profit) genres. For a Black-led cast to get a big budget, it’s going to take a white director (e.g., Bad Boys II, Ali, and Dreamgirls), just as for a Black director to get a bigger budget, it’s going to take a white-led cast. Studio logics assert that “international audiences” might be okay with a Black cast or a Black director, but not both, which, if you think about it, is an impressively strange proposition.

It’s in the private email conversations that we learn what’s actually happening. Here, an overwhelmingly white cohort of industry players posits that moviegoing fans of westerns might not be willing to see Antoine Fuqua direct Denzel Washington in a western, even with Chris Pratt and Ethan Hawke signed on too, because—well, you know.

Back out in the real world, Erigha shows that it is hard to find evidence for this industry-wide insistence that Black success is limited to some genres and not others. By way of a recent example, it’s hard to find additional overlap between Get Out, Girls Trip, and Black Panther beyond their Blackness and their profitability. And that’s not new either, as one could say the same about profitable 1980s films like Do The Right Thing, The Color Purple, and Coming to America.

At one point, the same executives also assert that it might not be worth the investment to make a Best Picture push for 12 Years a Slave because Oscar voters, not the executives themselves, might be “uncomfortable sending a global message from a Brit that we are or were terrible people.” In this instance, the supposed problem is not that director Steve McQueen is Black and making a film about US slavery that doesn’t center on a white hero, but rather that he is doing so while British. Such is the unending flexibility of racism.

Every generation gets its own personal Jackie Robinson to be the first apparently exceptional person who broke the color barrier.

This two-tiered system is predicated on treating Black success, both domestic and international, as exceptional. Through this logic, Moms Mabley was an exception, as was Sidney Poitier. And Richard Pryor was an exception until Eddie Murphy was an exception, too. And Angela Bassett is an exception, as are Halle Berry and Regina King, and Denzel Washington and now apparently his son, John David Washington, too. And this all before we get to Oprah Winfrey, Robert Townsend, or Jamie Foxx, while also not forgetting that Tiffany Haddish and Kevin Hart are exceptions, too. Of course, a Viola Davis fan, or a Taye Diggs fan, or a John Singleton fan, or a Jordan Peele fan, or an Ava DuVernay fan, and so on—it’s not hard to go on—might jump in and protest that their favorite apparently exceptional person hasn’t been name-checked yet. The point is that, across generations and even across preferences within generations, everyone gets their own personal Jackie Robinson to be the first apparently exceptional person who broke the color barrier all over again.

The kicker, of course, is that these same executives will also quickly tell you that nobody knows anything about what will be profitable, let alone a runaway hit, or a Do The Right Thing that stands the test of time and becomes a classic.

It’s hard to look at this metronomic repeating of history and make the case for reform, and Erigha doesn’t. Rather, she thinks it will take new institutions. As noted by Open Mike Eagle, the cocreator of The New Negroes—which lasted for one season on Comedy Central—even Black Comedy Central employees didn’t trust the network to know how to make or promote that show, despite a stated desire to do so. Sometimes the old institutions just won’t do. New institutions, however, just like the old institutions, likely won’t know anything about what will be profitable. But perhaps they won’t selectively pretend to.

Together, these books not only tell a story about popular and profitable culture. They’re also about the culture of storytelling that happens around popular culture.

Once you start paying attention, you notice that improbable success stories get attached to practically every piece of culture that becomes iconic. When elite decision makers are wrong, you can be sure that “nobody knows anything” about what will be profitable, but when they’re right, maybe they possess a special something that everyone else lacks.

That is an awful lot of power to wield. And it’s that coordinated power that allowed for One Hundred Years of Solitude to become the iconic novel that it did. But it’s that same coordinated power that has denied so many potentially iconic books and movies from ever having a chance at all.

 

This article was commissioned by Michèle Lamonticon

Featured image: Clifton Hill, Niagara Falls, Canada (2017). Photograph by Kosta Bratsos / Unsplash



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