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Independent Film Success: Luck or Merit?

Two of my favorite economics bloggers — Felix Salmon at Reuters and Joshua Brown at The Reformed Broker — are debating a new work by a third writer, Black Swan‘s Nassim Taleb, that has something to say to independent filmmakers. To bring their dialogue into our world: has the DIY revolution led to a system in which luck is the primary determinant of independent film success?

Let’s start at the beginning. The work referenced — “Why It is No Longer a Good Idea to Be in The Investment Industry” — opens with a new term, “the spurious tail,” that refers to “the number of persons who rise to the top for no reasons other than mere luck, with subsequent rationalizations, analyses, explanations, and attributions.”

From the paper’s precis:

Because of winner-take-all-effects (from globalization), spurious performance increases with time and explodes under fat tails in alarming proportions. An operator starting today, no matter his skill level, and ability to predict prices, will be outcompeted by the spurious tail. This paper shows the effect of powerlaw distributions on such spurious tail. The paradox is that increase in sample size magnifies the role of luck.

Salmon explains further:

Taleb’s point in this paper is not that if you have a large enough number of operators, then by sheer statistics some of them are going to get lucky. Rather, his point is that as the number of operators rises, it becomes more and more likely that any given outperformer was simply lucky. If you live in a world of fat tails rather than thin tails, and if you have, say, 1 million operators, then the lucky few get very lucky indeed, even if they don’t have any skill.

Taleb’s paper deals specifically with investment managers and financial services, but in his response Salmon finds another group he believes the argument is more applicable to: the creative class.

From Salmon:

The professions you really want to avoid, after reading Taleb’s paper, are not financial but rather creative. Where do you find millions of people all trying to succeed against the odds? Just look at how many bands there are, how many aspiring novelists, how many struggling artists. Nearly all of them think that if they create something great, that will improve their chances of success in their field. But given the sheer number of people they’re competing against, and given the fact that the number of breakout stars in each field is shrinking rather than growing, the fact is that just about everybody with massive success will have got there by sheer luck.

Here’s where Brown comes in, with an argument that I am personally more sympathetic to:

As to the idea that most artists and creative types who break through are merely lucky, I would amend that by saying most mediocre artists who break through are lucky (like Carly Rae Jepsen or Jessica Simpson). But most truly gifted artists who break out were going to break out no matter what. And then sometimes an amazing artist or writer or musician who deserves to break through gets unlucky, but this is the exception — it is the reason why we know names like Jeff Buckley and Mitch Hedberg and John Kennedy Toole. But the cream rises to the top in most cases, while force of will along with undeniable talent plays a significantly larger role than random fortune. Led Zep wasn’t lucky nor was Alicia Keys and the possibility of there being a great many similarly-talented artists who we’ve not heard of is undoubtedly a slim one.

There are a couple of interesting points being discussed here. First there is the addition of the “spurious tail” to the “long tail” argument, which was all the rage in the indie film blogosphere a couple of years ago. The theory, advanced by Wired‘s Chris Anderson, was often, incorrectly, adopted by independent filmmakers who believed it spoke to their ability to make a living from niche content. (The “long tail” theory more accurately referred to the ability of distributors to make a living by aggregating all of such content.) Taleb dubs “spurious” the ability of a large volume of operators — or, in Salmon’s take, artists — to disrupt the correlation between ability and a metric of achievement. In his investment advisor model, because a fraction of these “spurious” (i.e., lesser skilled) folks can achieve outsized gains, they wreck the credibility of the system and depress skilled but lesser-performing operators, who despair that their own abilities aren’t being correctly measured. This “spurious tail” also grows, meaning that current operators are competing with an expanding base of future operators, some of whom are just going to get lucky.

As mentioned, when it comes to a discussion of the arts, I’m more with Brown here. Feel free to disagree with me, but I believe that good work does rise to the top, and that succeeding as a filmmaker involves a potent mixture of ability and creativity. Luck helps, of course, but I don’t believe that the larger number of filmmakers means that those who do succeed will have done so by random forces. Sure, as Brown notes, luck may produce a few mediocre voices, but they will burn out over the long run.

But to extend Brown’s criticism of Salmon further, I’d say what’s missing here, what makes the application of Taleb’s work to the creative class faulty, is the system of measurement used. Investment returns can be precisely quantified. Can’t the returns of creative artists? I would argue that the typical units of measurement — record sales, box-office performance — are only partly relevant as they are influenced by so many other factors (marketing and advertising spends, and the skill of the distributors). I think the real unit of measurement is cultural impact, and, indeed, that’s where I think the financial services/creative class analogy fails. Indeed, I think it is precisely the difficulty of modeling a creative project (and its required investment) that is so vexing to so many independent artists. One can have all the skill in the world – be a great writer, storyteller, be able to work with a crew. But an artist not only has to have something to say, but that something has to resonate with the culture, whether that be the dominant culture of the mass media or the culture of a specific niche or subculture. There’s an intangible at work, which explains why, frequently, some skilled storytellers are passed over in favor of rougher, rawer voices whose essence somehow speaks more directly to the issues, dreams and anxieties that percolate within our society. (Conversely, it’s why some so-called “hack” artists succeed — because their work more directly, and I would argue, authentically, addresses that lowest common denominator.)

Keep in mind here that in my formulation, “skill,” when applied to filmmakers, is defined expansively. It doesn’t just refer to one’s creative chops but also one’s ability to navigate the system. Maybe that’s an unfair linkage when applied to, say, a painter. But most non-experimental film is an industrial art that incorporates the contributions of others, and managing those contributions is simply part of the job.

But there may still be something in Taleb’s paper for filmmakers. His paper was inspired by contemplating the phenomenon occurring when “a population of operators in a profession marked by a high degrees of randomness increases,” and this is an issue in independent film as well. There is simply more media out there — some of which defining itself as “independent film” and much of it not, but still competing for our eyeballs. Is the noise, the sheer volume of this work, overwhelming our system’s ability to evaluate it and thereby defeating whatever meritocratic impulses exist in that system? Is the concept of good work eventually rising to the top a quaint one? I think not… but, like I said, feel free to disagree.

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