How Our Stats Can Serve or Enslave Us
How Our Stats Can Serve or Enslave Us a guess post by Nick Savides
How Our Stats Can Serve or Enslave Us
a guess post by Nick Savides
We live in a world where we can improve our lives by improving our statistics, at least those that the marketplace finds valuable. That’s better than other historical alternatives, like marrying into status or bribing government bureaucrats or killing neighboring tribes for their resources, right?
Even in such a system though, stats matter more in certain refer
rofessions. In sports they matter most of all. The more home runs, touchdowns, goals, or baskets that players can score, the more valuable they are to their teams and the better they get paid.
On top of that, there’s a general consensus that a forward in soccer who averages 3 goals a game is better than a forward in the same league who averages .3 goals. Similarly, it is the rare sports commentator who will try to argue that the quarterback who throws a 1000 yards a season is better than the one who throws for over 5000 yards.
Things get a little more complicated when it comes to creative work though. Consider: Transformers: Age of Extinction has made vastly more money at the box office than Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, but there is not widespread critical consensus that Age of Extinction is a vastly better film.
That’s not to say that stats are irrelevant to creative people. Producers like Ted Hope have acknowledged that they take Twitter followers into account when making casting decisions.
Publishers do the same when they offer writing contracts to new writers, and festivals like SXSW look at social media numbers when deciding who gets media passes. Long before the rise of social media, advertising rates were calculated based on the number of views a show was getting. And so on.
Numbers Aren’t Everything
The numbers matter, but they aren’t everything, and artists who prioritize them above all else risk stifling the very creative spark that drives them to artistic expression in the first place.
For example, someone might study popular online videos and discover that videos with kittens or Kardashians do very well. He or she might then reasonably conclude that a viable career awaits the person who can produce a series of videos that includes both kittens and Kardashians. And yet, some of us might prefer to never create anything than to be forced into that kind of artistic career.
While I won’t be making any kittens-and-Kardashians videos any time soon, I do understand the pressure to chase the numbers. I am a filmmaker in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and I also host The nsavides Podcast, a show that focuses on the art of collaboration in film, music, and other creative pursuits.
The numbers matter for both my video projects and my podcast; they’re not just vanity metrics. More views for my videos means more decision makers might notice my work, and that could lead to more opportunities. More listens to my podcast could translate into more advertising dollars, bigger guests, and more exposure. Those are all valuable things, especially since I am audacious enough or crazy enough to try to build a sustainable filmmaking career.
From a strictly statistical perspective, it is very unlikely that any given person will make a living as a filmmaker. This study from Cultural Weekly, suggests that less than 2% of the money spent to finance features submitted to Sundance will get recouped. That’s Sundance, one of the most prestigious festivals around the world and one of the few places where independent films are occasionally purchased for over a million dollars.
Similarly, studies like this one from Stephen Follows suggest that the vast majority of filmmakers who make one feature film won’t go on to make another one.
All that to say, a sustainable filmmaking career is a long shot for most of us, so every little bit of encouragement helps. Seeing stats go up for my videos or podcast episodes can be encouraging, but a decline in the numbers, or even just a lack of growth, can have an opposite effect.
As the numbers drop, the pressure to improve them increases. This is true for any person or group whose survival depends on numbers in some way, in other words, basically everyone who participates in modern society. If you don’t face that kind of pressure, then your boss, significant other, or family member probably does, or you live on an island.
To see evidence of that pressure, think of all the sales during seasonal slumps, or the pledge-drive tactics that nonprofits rely on, or the restaurants that run variations of Taco Tuesdays, where special promotions are held on days that normally don’t bring in as many customers. The independent film equivalent is the bombardment of updates from a crowdfunding campaign that is racing to meet a goal.
When my numbers take a hit, I find myself considering all kinds of possibilities to counteract the downturn. Sometimes that can lead to ideas about how to provide more value to others. Those kinds of ideas are appealing to me, but other numbers-minded ideas aren’t as endearing.
Some of them include spammy marketing, less thoughtful discussions on complicated issues, more bubbly surface-level coverage, and so on. Alternatively, the babes-in-bikinis or thugs-in-the-clubs videos tend to do quite well with the young people, so I could try my hand at those, or, God help me, a kittens-and-Kardashians video.
Those things might get results, but in following those possibilities I would corrode my inclination to do creative work. Implementing some of those ideas might also come with health risks, like a higher proclivity for vomiting and alcohol consumption.
Maybe you can relate?
I don’t imagine that most of us got interested in filmmaking, or any creative pursuit, really, for the chance to pressure the world at large for more views, attention, and money, but that’s what so many of us end up doing. We get caught up in the stats race aided and abetted by all the social networks we’re supposed to be on, many of which have devolved into self-promotional cesspools. Along the way, we lose sight of why we were once drawn to artistic expression and then wonder why inspiration has gone away.
I’m not suggesting that the answer lies in turning away from social networks or self-promotion. Having an active presence on Facebook and Twitter has definitely helped me grow my show, and sometimes even self-promotion offered with the right intentions can be a public service.
Before you balk at that, can you not think of any meaningful products and services that you discovered from marketing? My laptop, my cell phone, and many of the films I’ve seen have all made my life a little better, and these are all things I’ve discovered through marketing, which is just a fancy way of discussing a company’s self-promotional efforts. Similarly, if someone is really excellent at what he or she does and honestly believes that I might benefit from that ability, then I’d like to hear about it.
As long as an artist’s self-promotional efforts are sufficiently grounded in serving others, then I’ll all for it. (I talk more about that in this guest post I wrote for Radio Film School.) All I’m suggesting is not to lose sight of the why behind what we do as we work on building the stats that can transform our lives.
Let me go back to my podcast so that I can show you what that looks like. The why behind my show is to learn from and be inspired by other filmmakers, musicians, and other creative leaders while exploring complex ideas and connecting with others in meaningful ways.
Mentioning the show to others in thoughtful ways while offering value is in keeping with that aim, but carpetbombing people with spammy updates isn’t. Along those lines, when I take into account my reason for doing the podcast, I realize that getting more advertisers doesn’t necessarily mesh with what I want the podcast to be. Being advertiser dependent might impede my ability to have honest conversations about challenging ideas, for example.
As to my claim that improving my numbers will allow for more notable guests, I’m already getting guests whom I respect and admire. Some of them have won Oscars, Emmys, a National Book Award, and a Pulitzer. Getting noteworthy guests for the show has been a priority and will continue to be a priority, but I don’t want to undermine the things I value just to get them.
What’s More Valuable Than Stats?
In our obsession with numbers, we sometimes forget that some things are more valuable than impressive stats. Let me illustrate with a few questions:
Would you rather have one million views on YouTube for your latest cat video or just one business relationship with someone like Steven Spielberg? Would you rather have 20,000 more Twitter followers or just 10 more true friends who will be there for you when it really matters?
The quality of our relationships doesn’t have to be inversely affected by the quantity of them. A number of successful people have developed close relationships with all kinds of interesting people. It’s just that if we place too much emphasis on improving the numbers above all else, then we might alienate the very people who could have the biggest impact on our lives. After all, how many spammers do you consider close friends?
Of course, filmmakers who ignore stats entirely do so at their own peril. Even Werner Herzog has to be mindful of financial considerations that will affect his ability to pay back his investors, but if Herzog placed all his focus on serving the stats, his films would cease to feel like Werner Herzog films. To maximize his box-office numbers, he’d want to focus on stories with broader commercial appeal and built-in audiences, like the Transformers films.
Would be a little sad if cinephiles could no longer choose between Transformers and Werner Herzog films, simply because Werner Herzog felt pressured to chase after monster box-office numbers, right?! What a tragedy that would be, and I say that as someone who enjoys watching a well-made Transformers film on occasion.
A Happy Ending?
A Happy Ending?
This article is not intended to be my interpretation of Italian Neorealism. For this reason, I will make an effort not to end on a downer.
Instead, let me conclude by sharing a story from a recent episode of my podcast. I was astonished to discover that it took screenwriter and producer David Paterson 17 years to bring Bridge to Terabithia to screen.
That’s seventeen years for 1 hour and 36 minutes of screen time, and it took that long even though the film was based on the Newbery Medal-winning novel written by his mother. You’d think that a film based on an esteemed book wouldn’t take that long to produce, especially when securing the rights isn’t an issue.
Actually, that sounds almost tragic, but stay with me. The story gets a little better.
As David explains in the interview, he could have gotten the film made sooner, but that would have meant compromising on certain story elements that were important to him.
Someone who cared only about numbers might have grown apoplectic when tracking the film’s revenue stats over time: 16 years of consecutive zeros! But when the film was finally released in year 17, it became one of the 50 highest grossing films of 2007.
The film had such a strong opening weekend that the Disney people wanted to announce a sequel right away, but David declined for personal reasons. As he’s done throughout his career, he refused to let the allure of better stats overrule his artistic sensibilities.
That approach has served him well. Paradoxically, it has brought him the kind of box-office success that most stats-minded filmmakers can only dream of.
Sometimes the statistics will take care of themselves when we stay true to our creative instincts. Things don’t always work out that way, but it’s encouraging to know that they can.
David’s upcoming film, The Great Gilly Hopkins, took him 10 years to make. It stars Sophie Nélisse, Kathy Bates, Glenn Close, Octavia Spencer, Julia Stiles, and Bill Cobbs, and it opens on October 7 in the US. His interview on The nsavides Podcast can be heard by visiting podcast.nsavides.com/davidpaterson. It is also on iTunes.
Nick Savides is a filmmaker in Baton Rouge and the host of The nsavides Podcast, where he interviews filmmakers, musicians, and other creative people who rely on collaboration to do amazing things.