Let’s go to extremes. Is the movie Black Swan also a Black Swan event?
To put it another way, is director Darren Aronofsky’s backstage drama, which opens in theatres Friday after gaining sensational buzz through the Venice and Toronto film festivals, related to the kind of rare but influential phenomena described in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s bestselling book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable?
Taleb is an idiosyncratic former options trader and guru of statistical randomness whose book spent 17 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list in 2007. An expanded second edition was released after the 2008 economic meltdown.
Taleb’s subject is the under-appreciated importance of extreme events in shaping our world. Programmed to expect the typical, we repeatedly fail to prepare for the epic changes in our increasingly complex world, he argues.
Simply by being part of the arts world, the movie Black Swan already conforms to the pattern of what Taleb calls “Black Swan dynamics.” This is the place Taleb calls Extremistan, where what’s normal is rarely in the middle.
Some of the “outlier” artistic phenomena mentioned by Taleb are Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ, Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the Harry Potter series and the Beatles.
Hollywood may be the capital of Extremistan, a place where less than 8 per cent of the movies earn 80 per cent of box-office revenue. One of the scholars Taleb cites with admiration is Arthur De Vany, the author of Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry, a statistical analysis of more than two decades of box-office data.
Now, statistics prove that William Goldman’s famous dictum was right: Nobody knows anything. Or, as De Vany concludes: “There are black swans out there. There is no formula. Nobody knows anything.”
While tiptoeing the path of skepticism, De Vany finds opportunities to pick many bouquets of insights: why movie stars often cost more than they make for a film; why Hollywood should concentrate on PG-rated, not R-rated movies; why the third weekend is often more important than the opening weekend in determining which films are hits and which are flops.
As a veteran independent filmmaker, Aronofsky knows that financing a movie is all about long shots. At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, he compared his approach to filmmaking to “wild style” graffiti, a form that distinguishes its author’s work from the other scribbling on the wall.
In a world jammed with media clutter, he says, you need to give audiences “something they won’t forget.”
He thought he had an edge this time: two Oscar nominations for Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei for his last film, 2008’s The Wrestler. But even after the improbable success of Slumdog Millionaire, an almost direct-to-video film that won the Best Picture Oscar and earned $238-million internationally, studios weren’t any friendlier to risk.
Aronofsky says it was a “nightmare” getting his film made, in spite of his track record, a high-profile cast (Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Winona Ryder, Vincent Cassel and Barbara Hershey) and a modest budget of $17-million.
Today, this particular Black Swan looks like a great investment for Fox Searchlight, with a modest risk and an upside that could go very high – a probable Oscar Best Picture nomination and a devoted cult following for years on DVD.
Perhaps it will even inspire new interest in Taleb’s book and the science of behaviour economics.
One of the first major profiles on Taleb, in 2002, was by New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell( The Tipping Point, Outliers). Gladwell’s 2005 book Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, an investigation into instant decision-making, is being adapted for a movie by the Academy-Award winning writer Stephen Gaghan ( Traffic) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino.
I wonder how long it took for a studio executive to green-light that one.