Ammar Mian

Why Most Blockbuster Movies Suck

Transformers, Michael Bay, and Shitty Blockbusters

David Foster Wallace once said that the larger a movie’s budget, the shittier that movie is going to be. The so-called Inverse Cost and Quality Law works because a $100mm+ film only gets financial backing if its investors are maximally certain that at the very least the movie will break even. Thus the aim shifts away from art and towards minimizing loss.

“A megabudget movie must not fail […] and must thus adhere to certain reliable formulae that have been shown by precedent to maximally ensure a runaway hit.”

Put otherwise: when the stakes are high and there’s a lot to lose, life become an error-minimizing function.

This is odd. Humans are drawn to increasingly larger ambitions despite occupying an uncertain world in which errors are inevitable. Our error isn’t that we are mistake-prone; our error is that we put ourselves in a position such that we have so much at stake when (not if) we screw up.

Your Life, The Blockbuster

Many families in suburban communities across the world have determined that attending an elite university is vital to success in life. The stakes are high, as the cost of attending these universities is astronomical, as is the cost of striving for admission into them. Their error-minimization functions revolve around straight As, high SAT scores, and a checklist of involvement in extracurricular activities.

The margin for error is low, so you play it safe.

The stakes for success become so high, it paralyzes entire generations of overeducated children. They are strictly guided by their error-minimization functions -- the aim in life shifts away from art and towards minimizing mistakes. As former Yale professor William Deresiewicz put it in his book Excellent Sheep:

“The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

These elite achievers march through their 20s and 30s preventing small, perceived errors and end up as domain experts in things they don’t really care much about.

Expertise is not a bad thing by any means. If you aren’t careful though, you might allow your error minimization function to be the sole guide of your pursuit of proficiency. By so conscientiously removing error from everything you do, you have ignored one large possibility: that your model of “right” and “wrong” might be incorrect in a significant way.

William Easterly calls this the Tyranny of Experts — ironically, those who know the most about a particular domain are most likely to make the biggest predictive blunders about things outside their bandwidth.

Your Life, the Low-Budget Art-House Film

The frequency of correctness, then, is not the only important thing at play in life. The magnitude of correctness matters as well.

Our schools have trained us to view frequency of correctness as the North Star of achievement. This worldview can be quite valuable — a doctor who doesn’t know anatomy inside-out will be a poor doctor. However, the danger lies in ignoring magnitude from the picture. Some types of mistakes are permissible; other types are irreversible.

Consider tech investment firm Y Combinator’s entire portfolio of investments, all high-risk early-stage startups, most of which receive ~ $250k in initial seed funding. <1% of 1000 companies invested in by YC deliver >60% of all their returns.

Y Combinator has been frequently wrong (almost 20% of their portfolio is now defunct), but so far no combination of those wrongs has killed them. Meanwhile, they have been right even less frequently, but when they have been right, the returns on those investments have been large. Even for their investments that "failed", most of their founders and employees land on their feet and end up doing great things elsewhere. Their failure did not ruin them.

Addicted to Big Theories of Correctness

For fear of being incorrect, a person, organization, or society can optimize its symbolic life into a closed system that diverges from reality in a dangerously significant way. Helicopter Parents. Nanny States. Efficiency Machines. Classical Economics. The Theory of Everything. These tropes are well documented, and yet we can’t seem to avoid them.

You could do almost everything right, but one big wrong could ruin you. You could do almost everything wrong, but one big right could save you. Your sensitivity to magnitude makes the difference. Keep the stakes small and in the areas you actually give a damn about.

December 2017