Thursday, April 8, 2010

Betting on Hollywood

If there is any teeny-tiny semblance of art and healthy human expression in today's outcrop of Hollywood movies, then that teeny-tiny semblance will more than likely wither completely away in the not-too-distant future. According to a recent NY Times article, a company named Cantor Exchange is trying to open "an online futures market" that will allow studios, institutions and moviegoers to place bets on how well a Hollywood movie does at the box office.

In simple terms, this means anybody who has some money to play around with can place a bet on how well a Hollywood movie will do during its few first weeks in theaters. You can either bet on it doing well, or against it. Contracts will trade at $1 for every one million that the movie brings in.

"So if 'Robin Hood' is expected to bring in $100 million in its opening weeks, a single contract could be bought for $100 by a trader who thinks Russell Crowe’s role in the movie will drive sales far above expectations. If that trader guesses right, and the movie sells $150 million in tickets, the trader makes $50."
In the case of the studios, company profits can be further maximized by betting on one of their movies that they think will perform well at the box office while losses can be minimized by betting against one of their movies that they think will flop. And, according to Cantor, there will be no "conflicts of interest" within the studios because the market will supposedly be designed in a way so that a studio would never be able to make more money by purposely making a bad movie and then betting against it. Cantor insists that there will always be an incentive for the studios to make a good movie; good, of course, meaning financially successful.

Now, if this all sounds confusing to you, you're not alone. Most of this is Wall Street talk, which is all about 'derivatives' and 'contracts' and other jargon that is meant to be complicated to understand for anybody who has a soul. The fact of the matter is that the "future" of a Hollywood movie is being turned into a kind of game that inevitably makes people more concerned about the financial success of a movie than what the movie is actually about (i.e. the artistic success), the ramifications of which are detrimental to both Hollywood and society as a whole.

With this new futures market, a movie is essentially only as good as how much money it makes on its opening weekend, which has always been the way things were in Hollywood, though Cantor's new market only exacerbates the situation. This is basically the last slap in the face of any filmmaker out there who is trying to make a meaningful movie and get it out to a large audience. All attention to meaning and substance and emotion and truth and personal expression in a film is replaced by razzles and dazzles, things like sex and violence and action and corny gags that will thrill an audience upon an initial viewing and therefore boost initial box-office profits. The hare-film (one that is instantaneously successful) essentially replaces the tortoise-film (one that proves to be successful over a longer period of time). In fact, the tortoise is never even given a chance to win; it never even gets a number in the race.

Of course, this is all fine and swell as long as Hollywood can come to admit that all it does is squeeze out commodities that exist for the sole purpose of making money. But they never come out and actually say this. They still have their prestigious Academy Awards ceremonies where they all pat each other on the back for their "artistic excellence" and try to convince middle America that their films have significant artistic value. For some reason, Hollywood-types have always attempted to convince themselves and others that they are artists (when they're technically businessmen). In other words, they have always tried to claim the word "art" as their own. This is probably because - deep down - they feel guilty about making crap for the purpose of getting rich and achieving fame. They know that financial achievement and artistic achievement - by nature - rarely come in the same package. But they don't like this harsh reality. So they go and basically try to change reality.

And, perhaps, some day they will succeed. After all, if everybody starts believing that what Hollywood makes is art and true art becomes extinct, then the commodity that is a Hollywood film will, indeed, become the only kind of art we know. Commerce will BE art, and even if this isn't a truth in actual reality, what's important is that it will be a truth in our reality; or, our unreality - whichever way you want to look at it.

For your reference, here are the NY TIMES articles alluded to in this blog:

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