Economist Richard Bronk makes a fascinating case this week for the reasons why economists failed to predict the downturn. 'Economists and bankers,' he suggested, 'assume they can reduce uncertainty to measurable risk based on systematic regularities in the past that can tell you what is going to happen in the future.'
In other words, the mass of figures we accumulate tells us with a degree of accuracy what has just happened but is all but useless for what is going to happen next.
If that's true of bankers than how much truer is it of a film industry built on creativity, innovation and at least a degree of dumb luck' Surely the tyranny of the spreadsheet cannot hold sway here. But in difficult times we all reach for the comfort blanket of numbers. Everyone wants reassurance that there is something rational about our situation that can be measured and there are plenty of supposed experts to fulfil that need. The industry is awash with figures.
When Adam Smith's 'hidden hand' guiding the market has had its grubby fingers in the till, a desire for anything approaching a fact is desirable, even in a business built on fiction. As an interstellar philosopher in Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy puts it: 'We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!'
Yet reading over the mass of box office and market data, you could make a good case that we are either triumphantly seeing off recession or about to fall off the precipice. Raw numbers seem to suggest a fabulous 2008 at the box office, for example, with some figures making the hits of yesteryear seem positively anorexic. But even here, there are question marks over admissions levels and profitability and the headlines about Hollywood job losses ask questions about the state of the studios.
A piece in the Los Angeles Times this week suggested bad figures for Sony were good news for CEO Howard Stringer because they proved he was right to demand reform.
The data about the state of the film markets ought to be more cut and dried. Things sell or they don't. Yet here again, it's difficult to see the big picture until it's all over and the pre-market predictions are highly debatable.
The European Film Market in Berlin has been boasting a 40% increase in buyers and the numbers look great on paper. A Berlin bounce would be nicely alliterative but after a couple of years in the relative doldrums, no one is looking too hard for green shoots. Rather like brisk retail business in some of the recent holiday sales on the high street, people may simply know there are bargains to be had in the current climate. It's when the unsustainable levels of production have worked their way through the system that you get a real feel for the market.
No doubt we will all be brilliantly wise after the event with fantastic figures to prove the point but we need to be looking forward and that's still the problem.
There is no winning formula for film, there never has been and there never will be. The vicissitudes of public taste cannot be reduced to a nice round number, irritating though that may be. You can identify three imponderables in any equation. First there is the collective boredom threshold of the public. (The loss of influence of critics has made that harder to read.) Secondly, there is the time it takes to make a film, which means that understanding today's tastes is largely pointless because they will have changed by the time the movie hits the market. And thirdly, as Bronk points out: 'Innovation and creativity breeds uncertainty.' Film is all about reinvention and, indeed, breaking the rules.
The conclusion is not that we should ignore the facts and figures - hard facts like exchange rates are inescapable. A little more common sense, if not scientific principle, could and should also be applied to a business that takes that 'no one knows anything' idea as gospel. The rethinking of distribution, for example, is a logical reaction to known inefficiencies.
But no one should be fooled into thinking that there are mathematical measures for probable improbables. This remains an aggravatingly wonderful people business.