Thursday, November 5, 2009

Goldman's Law

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


In the computer world there’s something called, “Moore’s Law”. The name was coined by Caltech professor, Carver Mead, and referred to Intel Co-Founder Gordon Moore’s 1965 article, "Cramming more components onto integrated circuits", Electronics Magazine, 19 April 1965.

As described in its entry at Wikipedia, "Moore's Law describes a long-term trend in the history of computing hardware, in which the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years." This has held up ever since, and is projected to continue for several years more. It’s the main reason electronics hardware has gotten cheaper or stayed cheap, even as it got ever more capable and powerful.

I propose to establish the coining of “Goldman’s Law”. As every screenwriter well knows, Wm. Goldman stated in his seminal work about his career, Adventures in the Screen Trade, that, “Nobody knows anything” when it comes to predicting success for films. This is even true, amazingly enough, after-the-fact!

To wit:

Back in the early 1980s, Chuck Ross, a freelance writer, tried an experiment. He re-typed Casablanca under the original source-play’s title, Everybody Comes To Rick’s. He changed the name of Sam to “Dooley” (after Dooley Wilson, the actor who played Sam), and listed the author as “Eric Demos". He made 217 copies and sent a copy to each entry on the then-current Writers Guild of America-West List of Signatory Literary Agencies.

As reported on the Museum of Hoaxes website:

"Of the 217 agencies Ross sent the script of Casablanca to, ninety returned it unread. They did so for various reasons — it was their policy not to read unsolicited manuscripts, they weren't taking on new clients, or they were no longer in the agency business. Seven never responded. Eighteen scripts apparently got lost in the mail.

"Thirty-three agencies actually recognized the script. For instance, Alan Green of the Gage Group wrote back to Ross, "Unfortunately I've seen this picture before: 147 times to be exact."

"Eight noticed a similarity to Casablanca, but didn't realize it was Casablanca.

"However, thirty-eight agencies claimed to have read it, but rejected it. In other words, of those agencies that actually read the manuscript (or claimed to have), the majority did not recognize it as Casablanca, nor did they think the script was good enough to be worth representing.

"The comments Ross received included:

'I just think you need to rework it... you have excessive dialogue at times.'

'To bridge the gap between "talented writer", which you now are, and "professional writer", which is yet to come, you need professional help. And that will have to be paid for. I could recommend a "literary surgeon" who would help you, but are you ready to accept professional help????'

'I think the dialogue could have been sharper and I think the plot had a tendency to ramble. It could've been tighter and there could have been a cleaner line to it.'

'I gave you five pages to grab me -- didn't do it.'

'Too much dialogue, not enough exposition, the story line was weak, and in general didn't hold my interest.'

'Story line is thin. Too much dialogue for amount of action. Not enough highs and lows in the script.'

'I strongly recommend that you leaf through a book called Screenplay by Syd Field, especially the section pertaining to dialogue. This book may be an aid to you in putting a professional polish on your script, which I feel is its strongest need.'

"Perhaps strangest of all, three agencies expressed a desire to represent the work. A representative of the Lil Cumber Attractions Agency asked Ross who he might have in mind to play the character of Rick. The following conversation ensued:

Ross: 'Humphrey Bogart.'
Lil Cumber Rep: 'I meant somebody available now.'
Ross: 'Somebody like Bogart...'

"Finally, the Irv Schecter Co., after not replying for six months, contacted Ross to ask permission to send the script to a literary agent to see about the possibility of turning it into a novel.

"Ross's experiment led him to conclude that many movie agents have difficulty recognizing both well-known screenplays and quality writing, and also that submissions by unknown writers stand little chance of getting published."

The stats for this are fascinating: only 30 per cent of the WGA agencies that actually saw it, recognized it. And 38 others (35 per cent of those that reviewed the Oscar-winner) actually rejected it! 90 of the 199 scripts that made it to their destination were turned around at the door. That’s 45 per cent! But, perhaps the one that stands out the most is the eighteen (out of only 217) that were apparently lost in the mail; eight per cent! Lost! That ought to give you chills when you send out that mortgage payment on the last day. So, it’s probably not true. Probably most (or all) of those eighteen were just thrown away on arrival or are still awaiting their turn from deep within the agency’s slush pile.

Ross had done a similar number on the publishing world with Jerzy Kosinski’s award-winning novel, Steps, to similar effect. I’ll leave it to you whether Goldman’s Law extends to publishing or even to all of media.

Nonetheless, if ever there was evidence for the accuracy of William Goldman’s assessment, this was it! [Source article – Ross, Chuck (November-December, 1982), "The Great Script Tease", Film Comment, 18(6): 15-19]

So, after establishing through a Google search that there has been no prior motion, I hereby nominate “Goldman’s Law” to be established within the screenwriting arena in the same manner as Moore’s Law has been established in the electronics arena.

So it shall be written,
so it shall be done.


Lee A. Matthias


  1. It just goes to show:

    A) Many people just coast through life.
    B) Never trust a critic
    C) There's one born every minute
    D) There is nothing wrong with rehashing an old concept.... Unless of course, you get caught.

  2. Ian Banks- Tranistion

    Quotes Goldman's law- man you have made it into literature- congratulations.

    Now work out the royalties on that one...