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Auteurs Make Horrible Economists: The Subtle Costs of Creative Control
by Justin Fischer on 05/28/14 05:16:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.



The intention of this post is not to pick on auteurs. Nor is it a commentary on the quality of work auteurs produce. That's a subjective conversation best had over beers. You won't solve it, but at some point you'll be drunk enough to forget what you were talking about.

This post is about a more empirical issue: the economic cost of being an auteur. Stories about auteur-led projects are rife with anecdotes about decision bottlenecks and wasted work. So what? If the end result is great, who cares how inefficient the production was? Why should we restrict the creative process of game designers with decidedly non-artistic concepts like budgets or ROI?

If you are going to spend someone else's money on game production, you have an obligation to be responsible with that money. And if you are going to hire someone to help you make a product, you are responsible for that person's livelihood.

Well, if your studio is just you then you shouldn't. Make the art that feels right to you and hold onto it until it is absolutely the best thing you can make.

But, if you are going to spend someone else's money on development - on a contractual basis, as an employee, or even when using Kickstarter - you have an obligation to be responsible with that money. And if you are going to hire someone to help you make a game/movie/product, you are responsible for that person's livelihood and, in many cases, the well-being of his or her family. And in those scenarios, budgets and ROI are supremely important.

Bottlenecks Destroy Value: A Simplistic Economic Example

Imagine a bridge that sits on a major commuter route. The amount of time it takes each car to cross the bridge is equal to the number of cars on the bridge. So if 20 cars are trying to cross the bridge at once, it takes each of them 20 minutes.

Now, imagine that you and your coworker both commute over that bridge everyday. You can carpool or you can drive separately. If there are already 38 cars on the bridge, it doesn't really matter to you whether you carpool or drive separately because the difference in your commute time would only be a minute. The marginal personal cost (MPC) you incur by driving yourself is only 1 minute greater than if you were to carpool  (40 minutes vs. 39). And, really, who cares about +/- 1 minute?

The other 38 drivers, that's who. In addition to your MPC, you incur a marginal external cost (MEC) on them. If you and your friend carpool, you both increase the commute time of the 38 other drivers by 1 minute. In other words, your action consumes 38 minutes of someone else's time. By deciding to drive separately, you consume an additional 39 minutes of someone else's time. In mathematical terms, every car that someone adds to the bridge incurs an MPC of n and an MEC of n-1, for a total marginal social cost (MSC) of 2n-1.  And that assumes that every car only carries a single occupant. If the other cars have additional passengers, the MEC and MSC go up.

A short delay across several people can add up to a massive waste of time.

This is what economists call an externality: the economic impact your actions have on those around you. Externalities can be positive (you repaint your house and the value of your neighbor's house increases as a result) or negative (you paint your house black with pink polka dots and the value of your neighbor's house decreases). The central idea is this: when you incur an economic cost against someone else, you are destroying value. And if you incur X cost against Y people, the total value you destroy is X*Y.

That concept is ludicrously simple. You might even feel insulted by the fact that I bothered to spell out an equation that basic. But I want to drive home the point that a short delay across several people can add up to a massive waste of time. And it's amazing how often this idea gets overlooked in the real world.

Decision Bottlenecks Are Just As Effective At Destroying Value

Let's apply this same principle to a game production setting. You are an auteur and you want to make sure everything that goes into the game meets your full approval before it's actually integrated into the build. In other words, you are the canal through which all decisions flow. And you're a real stickler for details: you want to go through everything with a fine tooth comb.

So, let's assume that, on average, it takes you 30 minutes to review a potential submission for a feature or an art asset. And you can only effectively review one thing at a time. Five people need you to review their work before they can submit and move on or start addressing your feedback. No big deal. It's going to take you 2.5 hours to get through it, but that's your job as the creative lead. You're being productive and things are totally awesome.

Except they aren't. The marginal personal cost for each task you review is only 30 minutes. But you're exacting a massive external cost on your team. Remember: these guys can't move on to something else until you've approved their work. So the first person in your queue loses 30 minutes of productivity, the second loses an hour (waiting to meet with you and then meeting with you), so on and so forth, to a grand total of 7.5 hours of time someone has spent waiting for or sitting in a meeting with you. Your bottle-necking just consumed almost a full day of productivity across those five people (or around half a day if you're crunching.

 I'd be ignorant to say that auteurism is only downside. But, if you are going to take the auteur-route, you need to be sure you understand the trade-off you are making.

What if your typical daily queue is more like 10 people? For every day of work, you're now losing 27.5 hours of productivity. What if your queue is 5 people, but an average of 3 other team members need direction from each of the people who want to meet with you? In that case, you're eating up 30 hours. Every day, you are destroying more than a day's worth of productivity.

Now, let's extrapolate:

Productivity Destroyed by Decision Bottlenecks (given in 24-hour Days)
Productivity Destroyed by Decision Bottlenecks (given in 24-hour Days)

So, if you're bottlenecking like a maniac, and your project goes on for 3-years (which is on the low end for many of the highest profile auteurs in the industry), and you have a five-person queue at any given time, you destroy 234.38 days of productivity. Not working days, 24-hour days. You've wasted a total of 234.38 FULL DAYS of someone's life.

Certainly, this example is simplistic. Professionals will find ways to be productive whenever humanly possible, and people generally have more than one thing to work on. I'd be surprised if even the most controlling of control-freak auteurs really bottlenecked every decision that badly. But, if you want to be an effective manager and leader, these are the sorts of death-by-a-thousand-cuts time sinks you need to be aware of. You don't get centralized decision-making for free.

Down with Auteurs?

No. I'd be ignorant to say that auteurism is only downside. Clearly there is value in a having a single vision drive a project. Some of the best characters and series have emerged from auteurs. My point isn't that auteurs are terrible, destructive people. But, if you are going to take or endorse the auteur-route, you need to be sure you understand the trade-off you are making. The more control one person maintains the greater the marginal external cost to the rest of the team.

Genius is only apparent with the benefit of hindsight. You are only as much of a creative genius as your last game was a critical and commercial success.

And let's be fair: the opposite risks are true to distributed decision making. People move faster but it can be harder to maintain project coherence. Any development strategy carriers trade-offs in time, resources, or quality. You can't have your cake and eat it too. My point is not to say that auteurism is invalid, but to point out its risks when pursued recklessly.

People often site Miyamoto's famous quote, "A delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever." There's a logical fallacy in that statement. Yes, on an infinite timeline a delayed game will eventually be good, much as those monkeys will eventually type Shakespeare. But, on a finite timeline, the sunk costs of a delayed game can become financially irredeemable, especially in the very finite window after launch that publishers care about. And that's where the auteur theory breaks down. 

Genius is only apparent with the benefit of hindsight. Peter Molyneux famously took 10 Amiga computers from Commodore International when its representatives confused his company, Taurus, for a networking software company called TORUS. That is one of the legendary entrepreneurial stories of video game development, and it helped launch an industry luminary. But it's only a great story, and Molyneux only looks like a daring genius, because it worked. If he had been caught deliberately misrepresenting himself and his company, or even been punished in a civil or criminal court, he would have looked like an asshole.

The same is true of auteurism: you are only as much of a creative genius as your last game was a critical and commercial success. If your game fails, you can go from a genius with exacting standard to an out-of-touch, high-maintenance, pretentious artíst just as fast as Polygon or Destructoid can post an exposé about it. As much as this industry - professionals, journalists, and fans alike - loves and adores its heroes, it loves schadenfreude even more. We revel in the bloodshed of a fall from grace like Lisa Bonet in Angelheart. If you're the creative figurehead for a project, you are also the avatar of its failures. Nobody takes any of the claims Molyneux makes about his upcoming games seriously anymore. Denis Dyack has become a pariah. Ken Levine's stock has taken a serious dip.

The time wasted by decision bottlenecks is expensive. The opportunity costs begin to skyrocket.* Pair that with the reputation for exacting standards and scrapping/replacing existing content that is common for auteurs, and it's not a surprise that many of them regularly take 4 or 5 years between games. That magnitude of sunk cost is hard to recover. Making games is already a high-risk business, and indulging such a large need for creative control is gambling the fortunes of the publisher, studio, and employees on the convictions of one person.

That cost carries disastrous consequences when auteur projects fail. To reiterate my previous statement, as a studio head, manager, or lead you have a responsibility to the people who invest in your project. If you don't deliver on that responsibility, your creative prowess will only carry you so far. Silicon Knights is gone. Junction Point Studios is gone. Irrational Games has been gutted.

Putting aside the damage done to the reputations of people like Levine, Dyack, and Specter, their teams were negatively impacted as well. Employees bear their own opportunity costs. They forwent other employment opportunities that might have provided more stability. The employment options they might have after a studio closure may not be as profitable as those they turned down to work at that studio in the first place. And to reiterate my previous statement again, as a studio-head, manager, or lead you have a responsibility to avoid disrupting your team's lives and those of their families. Your vision is important, certainly. But is it MORE important than someone's family?

Business is business. Some amount of failure is inevitable. Every employee in every company bears risk. But, if you want to be an auteur, keep the economic costs you incur in mind. The career you impact might not be your own.

Justin Fischer is a Senior Producer in the industry and an MBA candidate at the Kellogg School of Management in Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter at @gamergoeslegit
In addition, he is the co-founder of Clockwork Otter, a team of industry veterans creating tools for Unity 3D. Follow them at @_clockworkotter
*An opportunity cost is defined as the return available from the best alternative use of your resources. This is the key difference between accounting profit and economic profit. Your accounting profit is your cash-in minus your cash-out. Your economic profit is your accounting profit minus your opportunity cost/s. For example, a venture capitalist can invest in you or in a bond that yields a 10% return. If she invests in you, and you provide a 7% return, you have destroyed value for her even though you turned a profit: she would have made more money with the bond.
In the auteur example above, if your resources are employees who are sitting around waiting for you to give them feedback, the best alternative use for those resources would be to have them actively produce code/content/etc. Wether the value destroyed by inefficient use of resources is offset by the value created by a potentially superior product that sells better is probably too abstract a question to answer definitively. The important takeaway is that it's not just accounting profit that you should worry about.

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Michael Joseph
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So you define auteurs as people who must personally sign off on every game design decision and that this makes them game production bottlenecks.

Assuming that is even mostly true, it doesn't take an auteur to be a bad producer. One can be a control freak who is incapable of trusting his coworkers without being an auteur.

Your essential theory is that auteur driven projects have a lower success rate. Because if the ROI was better, how could you argue against it? But you actually haven't even made that case.

And what about some of the most successful PC games like Counter Strike, XCOM, Civ, Sim City, GTA, Elite, and a host of others that started off as auteur projects? Without auteur driven projects, the video game industry would not exist. Maybe auteurs don't make the best producers in the mega budget AAA space, but the entire video game industry was built on their shoulders.

And auteurs are still driving the industry. The problem with modern day economists is they have no sense of history (because history is not on their side) and that has made them promoters of cynical, short term strategies.

Justin Fischer
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You're reading things that aren't there. I never said auteurs have a lower success rate or a lower ROI. What I did say was that if you are bottlenecking decisions and if you are scrapping and re-creating work, you are increasing risk.

What I did SPECIFICALLY say in the article is that auteurs create awesome ideas. But, I am pointing out that there is a drawback to that approach and one needs to be mindful of it to not let sunk costs get out of control. There is nothing cynical about pointing that waste is a real-world issue and managers and leaders need to watch out for it. There is also nothing cynical about point out that waste and decision bottlenecks have buried the profitability of games and put developers out of work. That is exactly what I would call a sense of history.

You're absolutely right that it doesn't take an auteur to be a micro-manager. And you are also absolutely right that many of the figureheads of our industry have been auteurs. But their success does not mean that letting creative ambition go unchecked is a sure-fire bet for success.

Michael Joseph
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You made a point of making your article about auteurs. My question is where do you show that the problem of auteurs wreaking havoc on the industry actually exists?

I suppose I'm reading into things that aren't there if I say that now you're defining auteurs as people who's creative ambition must be restrained by others because they're incapable of doing so themselves?

Seems to me you've created some caricature of an auteur in your mind and are warning others about the horrors of your personal boogeyman.

You would surely object if I provided a mirror image argument declaring that "soulless, talentless, clone crazy, copycat, I am the Decider, MBA hack game producers are threats to the long term health of your studio!"

Jamin Messenger
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Michael I still think you are reading things that aren't there, I am pretty sure the point of the entire article was to highlight the costs of auteurs, not argue against it.

Michael Joseph
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But he doesn't highlight the cost of auteurs. At best he highlights the cost of some auteur caricature that doesn't exist.

Ron Dippold
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The point I got is that an auteur driven game will cost more (time and money) and still may not pan out, and that you just have to be aware of it. Particularly, it does not scale well at all (though Levine and Kojima prove it is at least possible).

To me the Scales Poorly is the prime takeaway.

John Emerson
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A nice economic analysis of central decision making externality impacts. I am curious to hear what your solution(s) to the problem would be. Ideally I think it would involve limited decentralized decision making by implementing additional control routes (other leads/sub-leads) and controlling the flow of product by diversifying work obligations between long-term and short-term projects to continue value-adding tasks. Any practical solution examples you can point share?

Justin Fischer
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Thanks, John! I'm a big fan of Spielberg's approach (as I understand it). He definitely has a strong drive and vision for his films. But he also has a reputation for hiring people that he knows and trusts and letting them do their jobs. Someone ultimately has to be responsible for the creative cohesion of the game/film/album, but if you can hire great people and trust them to deliver great stuff (and be open minded when they deliver something other than what you expected) you can reduce the bottlenecking.

Nathan Mates
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It's not just auteurs. One project I worked on had a game director who was 1) a perfectionist, and 2) kept changing his mind. One of those two is bad enough. The combination was deadly. Gunplay and driving mechanics weren't really nailed down until 4 years (out of 5 total) years spent in production. All the designers had to retune missions to match the late changes.

Justin Fischer
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Totally. Anybody in a position of authority on a project can cock the whole thing up. Misguided producers (and I say this as a producer) can be especially destructive in that context. I point out auteurs specifically because anybody can get on board with calling a shitty manager a shitty manager, but the excesses of auteurs often seem to get a pass.

Michael Joseph
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Well who are these auteurs that are getting a pass? Jonathon Blow? Edmund McMillen? Jason Rohrer? Arnt Jensen? Phil Fish?

And what about these excesses you speak of? Let's just look at the biggest budget games out there...

Which ones are examples of the excesses of auteurs?

The people who might actually be impacted by the STEREOTYPES you're perpetuating are the designers who want to take a stand against a game design decision handed down from above which they feel is ill-advised. Now they will suddenly find themselves being labeled as these unhinged, out of control "auteurs" who are putting their own personal tastes ahead of their teams and companies.

Lihim Sidhe
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Mr. Joseph I sure you intend well but I really think you need to actually read the article. You asked this:

"Which ones are examples of the excesses of auteurs?"

To which the article answers:

"Nobody takes any of the claims Molyneux makes about his upcoming games seriously anymore. Denis Dyack has become a pariah. Ken Levine's stock has taken a serious dip."

Levine's situation being the most recent. And from what I can gather from the various articles I've read, including interviews with former employees, Levine's exacting control essentially cost 150+ people their jobs. Not because he's an asshole or an evil person. It's because as this article pointed out he bottlenecked Irrational into being gutted.

What this article is pointing out that even an auter like Levine's caliber should put their trust in their team more often than not. I mean there is a reason they got hired right?

Michael Joseph
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So Molyneaux, Dyack and Levine are auteurs who have bottlenecked the many productions they worked on (at the companies they either founded or co-founded) over the decades to the detriment of those products, their companies and their employees?

What is the ratio of products shipped vs projects started for these designers? How do they fair against the industry average? How does their actual ship date - estimated ship date compare to the industry average for AAA titles?

These are Mr. Fischer's examples?

The fact is, Mr. Fischer takes the word "auteur" to mean "control freak." The whole part about personal creative vision is thrown out the window.

Maxim Zogheib
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>Yes, on an infinite timeline a delayed game will eventually be good

This statement requires too many additional conditions for it to work, like a static technological environment, abscence of competition, infinitely large niche space etc... etc...

Justin Fischer
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Exactly my point. I mean on an impossibly INFINITE timeline. Reductio ad absurdum, if you will. Clearly a 13-year gestation period for Duke Nukem Forever didn't benefit the project.

Paul Tozour
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Justin, I want to thank you for a really excellent article. What you're recommending here is a level of common sense and big-picture thinking that a lot of studios, large and small, and a lot of seemingly experienced developers, genuinely lack in practice.

Justin Fischer
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Thanks! Much appreciated!

Paul Tozour
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Part of what I also find interesting about this is that it's equally applicable to highly-centralized design approaches -- the "auteur" model that you spell out, with one individual whose indecisiveness or insistence on unnecessary changes can bust an entire project -- and to highly-decentralized design approaches, where groupthink and design-by-committee can cause massive creative thrashing and indecision.

Michael Joseph
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My final point.

Just as companies need visionaries to guide them to new paths of success, game productions benefit tremendously from auteurs. Game productions need people who hold the creative vision for their projects and who can communicate that vision to the rest of the team and lead them to doing good work. Being an auteur is not synonymous with "control freak." To say otherwise is a type of defamation.

If the entire point of this article is "control freaks are bottlenecks" fine... I'm in agreement. But to call control freak lead development the "auteur model" is on it's face wrong and I find that provocative.

If you really want to debate the merits of the "auteur model" it should be whether being lead by a strong, confident, creative visionary is a net positive or negative. I not only think it's a clear positive, I think such qualities are a requisite of great leadership. Management style (which is all you're talking about) is a separate aspect of project leadership and is unique to every individual.

It's not to say that visionaries can't be wrong and finding good ones aint easy, but it's better for their to be one creative visionary at the helm than a whole kitchen full all fighting for dominance. AAA development in particular will always be a team effort both technically and creatively, but someone must lead and ensure that the green-lit ideas and suggestions from various team members fits the overall vision. Team members should be encouraged to seek full understanding of that vision so that they can contribute in meaningful and rewarding ways.

When I read
what jumps out is the lack of a strong, confident, creative vision for that project. I think we saw the same thing happen with Thief and Hitman Absolution.

We need to stop diminishing the value and the necessity of auteurs in this industry.


John Owens
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I think the problem with the industry is that historically one man has normally done both the roles of the producer and director either explicitly or implicitly by hiring a weak yes man that does the other role in name only.

The bottleneck cost of signing off each asset can be reasonably overcome by a good producer and the cost of having a weaker member of the team being responsible for the approval can lead to much greater re-work if the asset has lots of dependencies.

I hate to say it, I too got the feeling that it was an article arguing against the auteur whether it was meant to or not and quite frankly the only time the points in this article are valid is when an individual does both roles. Still a good thought provoking article.

Justin Fischer
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You're got a point there. George Lucas is notorious for hiring yes men, and the results speak for themselves. I like Lincoln's team of rivals approach to management. If you have a strong creative personality who always wants more time and more iterations, he/she needs to be paired with an equally strong personality who pushes hard for dates and another strong personality who pushes for the team's health and sustainability so that the project doesn't just devolve into a pile of crunch as a matter of course.

I would debate your assertion that the only time the points are valid is a situation that specific. Even a creative lead operating in a company with a highly distributed decision-making process can bottleneck, and there will still be a MSC to the team. In the case of the extreme examples I listed, sure, but they were extreme to illustrate a point. But it doesn't take a control-freak to bottleneck.

George Menhal III
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Nice article.

I think Mikami and his team at Capcom had things moving correctly back in the 90's, when they were making the Resident Evil games. There was an article not long ago on this subject, and it shed some light on why Mikami pushed for Capcom to adopt a more director-led culture within the company. This model for making video games produced many of my all-time favorites. Some were more financially successful than others, but the games these teams produced are simply undeniable.

Justin Fischer
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Mikami is the closest thing I have to a hero in the industry, but he's no stranger to massive waste. Most of the RE games under his leadership have undergone massive reboots. RE4 is my favorite game ever, and it got rebooted at least twice if I recall correctly. Did the ends justify the means? Capcom might be able to answer that question from a pure profit and loss perspective, but I don't think anyone could answer that question from a creative or opportunity cost perspective.

But send me a link to that article. I'd love to check it out.

Marc-Andre Caron
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I find that the article is really about control freaks. Whether they be auteurs or not (read: creatives or managers) they all have the terrible narcissistic tendencies that we learn to despise over the years. And they typically throw their own teams under the bus at the first occasion.

What's interesting here is that you only seem to mention the problem when it comes from creatives. They are better publicized but I've met a lot more managers that had that problem. And managers usually bring with them the extra problem of grossly oversimplifying all creative processes.

So I agree with you but your article has a faint smell of "Us managers know, you creatives don't." that I'm uneasy with.

Justin Fischer
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That's a fair criticism. As I said to Nathan Mates above, you are absolutely right. Anyone in a position of authority on a project including (especially) producer-types, can really screw up development.

My counter-point would be to emphasize exactly what you said: creatives get more press. Most people in lead/management positions (for any discipline) don't get 3k word career write-ups in Polygon or intimate portrait articles in Game Informer. Creative leads, particularly high profile leads, are often subjected to a level off celebrity (or even idolatry) and that can lead to an "ends justify the means" mentality when it comes to their creative process.

I don't think we should reduce the creative process to a rote, railroaded, factory line. I would instead argue, as I said in the article, that we should be mindful of the trade-offs we make and their costs. That goes both ways. It applies as much to too much control as it does to not enough.

Michael Joseph
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"I would instead argue, as I said in the article, that we should be mindful of the trade-offs..."

Oh get off it already.

What trade-offs? You never really talked about the benefits of auteurs so how can you claim you talked about trade-offs?

"Some of the best characters and series have emerged from auteurs."

LOL. You know what? If that's all the positives you have to say about auteurs, then I think it's just another strike against this article of yours.

If you were being honest and you perceived auteurs as being bad managers, then instead of attacking them outright, you would be trying to help them be better managers because they are so valuable. But that's not what you're doing. So just stop with all the dancing. You don't like auteurs and that's that. Whether this is because you have some deep seeded insecurities or not we can only speculate.

I love auteurs. You know why? Because they give us those rare gifts that come once in a great while and which will last forever... while the cynics like yourself just crank out vast quantities of manure in the name of business and you call it "good."