Nate Silver: In Hollywood, 'Nobody knows anything'

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Nate Silver

Nate Silver, photographed in his Wicker Park neighborhood in 2008. (May 15, 2013)

Q: Studios make calculations along the lines of "Bradley Cooper means X amount at the box office, and Mark Wahlberg means Y," but they don't necessarily calculate whether the movie will be any good.

A: What's also difficult in the motion picture business is it's hard to separate out the marketing budget from the film's success, by which I mean if you take a mediocre product and you market the hell out of it and you give it a good time slot, it's going to do relatively well, although that's (changing). If you'd taken a different film and invested the same resources and production and marketing behind the other film, which might have been inherently a better product, then it would have done as well or better instead. So separating out the cause and the effect is often very challenging, especially when you have people who are in essence acting on their predictions of what will work or what won't ahead of time. You can have self-fulfilling prophesies or self-denying prophesies in other cases.

Q: And people who will benefit if they can fulfill their prophesies.

A: Why are egregiously terrible films put out? It's because (there are) a lot of people whose careers would be in jeopardy if those projects were killed, so it's hard to stop that inertia sometimes toward a bad project once the ball gets rolling.

Q: Quentin Tarantino has talked about directors being like boxers and having peak periods before they go downhill. Bands are like this too; many put out a certain number of good albums before they lose it. Shouldn't there be a way to calculate which filmmakers or musicians will continue to put out worthy material?

A: You could look at Pitchfork (reviews) and how they evolve over time, or album sales, or something. But people who are in the arts, once they kind of achieve success, then it can be a tricky thing. You don't become as hungry anymore. Look, there are a lot more people who have one or maybe two great ideas and really do market themselves well — and by ideas I mean that very liberally in terms of a sound or a film or anything else. But it's a lot easier to have one great idea than be someone who has the aptitude to consistently be a genius.

I have become a foodie of sorts, but even restaurants have, like, a sweet spot that sometimes lasts for only a year or two, when the chef is really invested in it — and when that chef becomes well-known and famous and wants to scale up and opens another venture and the concept becomes kind of played out and it might become dumbed down, you see a decline in quality there. I think part of the problem, too, is basically in all of the arts — and I even encounter this a little bit myself in terms of what I do — there's always a demand in kind of a capitalist system to grow, let's grow, let's grow, and a lot of things when it comes to creativity are really hard to scale up.

Q: In your Oscar predictions, you had Christoph Waltz (who won best supporting actor for "Django Unchained") coming in third and Steven Spielberg ("Lincoln") ahead of Ang Lee (best director winner for "Life of Pi").

A: Yeah, you talk to people who are getting tired of Spielberg now, but that was such a weird category this year because the nominations were all screwed up (with Ben Affleck not getting nominated for best picture winner "Argo").

Q: This was yet another illustration of William Goldman's "Nobody knows anything."

A: People like to lump things into the realm of the predictable and the unpredictable when it kind of exists along a spectrum. In baseball the metrics are very good and the stats are very advanced, but even the best hitter only gets on base 40 percent of the time. With something like predicting the Oscars, I think historically we've gotten something like 70-something percent of our predictions right. I don't frankly think there's any model that could do a lot better than that. It's just hard when you're dealing with a narrow group of people who are not revealing that much about their preferences, who are being lobbied actively by the different studios. It would be more helpful, too, if we knew things like which films were in second place or what percentage of the vote they got.

Q: Since you're speaking at Spertus, I'll ask this: Would you call your pursuit a Jewish pursuit?

A: I don't know if I would self-consciously call it that. My parents always valued learning for learning's sake, and I think that's very much a part of Jewish culture. I think the fact that Jewish people view themselves as having been oppressed historically — which means you don't necessarily want to trust the mainstream view; you need to articulate your own path in life — I think that's something I embody.

Whether it's because I have a Jewish ethnicity or not, I'm not sure. I should mention that my mom's not Jewish, so officially there's debate about what I am, and my dad was very secular. But I do see it more as kind of an ethnic background instead of a religious tradition per se in that some of the same cultural advantages or stereotypes, however you want to put it, come through in my upbringing and my values. | Twitter @MarkCaro

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