- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 22, 2011

Facing runaway production budgets, shrinking audiences and undependable revenue streams, Hollywood is at a financial crossroads.

Is it time for the movie industry to adopt its own version of “moneyball”?

In the new film “Moneyball,” actor Brad Pitt plays Billy Beane, the real-life general manager of baseball’s Oakland Athletics and a man with a problem: His star slugger, Jason Giambi, is a free agent. The cash-strapped Athletics can’t afford to match a mammoth contract offer from the rival New York Yankees.

To compensate, the GM hires Ivy League math whiz Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill) to identify and acquire an “island of misfit toys,” a group of cheaper, less-talented players whose undervalued ability to get on base collectively can replace the slugger’s home run hitting. The bargain-basement A’s don’t win the World Series — but they do make the playoffs, ripping off a record 20-game winning streak en route.

Could a similar strategy — making less expensive movies, and more of them — be the answer to Hollywood’s own fragile business model?

Hollywood movies that performed poorly at the box office relative to what they cost to produce include "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" with Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton. (Associated Press/Disney)
Hollywood movies that performed poorly at the box office relative to what ... more >

“This is a fear-based industry,” said Los Angeles-based independent producer and distribution consultant Jerome Courshon. “Nobody wants to upset the apple cart and look for ways to do things significantly differently.”

Of bombs and Bombers

Today’s film industry is like the free-spending Yankees, wedded to a blockbuster-oriented business model in which studios expend ever-increasing sums on a smaller number of star-studded, special effects-driven productions in the hope of spawning mega-hits like “Avatar” and “Titanic” — two movies that cost about $280 million and $200 million to make, respectively, but earned a combined $4.6 billion in worldwide box office gross.

As a result, the major studios reportedly have trimmed the annual number of films they release by nearly a third over the last five years, while the average cost of their movies has jumped from $42 million in 1995 to $78 million this year.

Yet, as with baseball, bigger costs mean bigger risks: When the Yankees spent almost $40 million to sign Carl Pavano to a four-year contract before the 2005 season, the oft-injured pitcher’s lack of production was a big reason the team failed to win the World Series for four consecutive years.

The cinematic equivalent? This summer’s “Cowboys & Aliens,” a film that cost an estimated $163 million to produce but only earned $129 million in worldwide ticket sales. It’s only the latest in a long line of high-priced, effects-laden bombs, including 2010’s “Prince of Persia” — which had a $200 million budget and earned $90 million — and 2009’s “Land of the Lost,” a $100 million film that made just $30 million.

“Limiting the risk of box office bombs has for some time centered on choice of product — superhero spectacles are targeted at the younger folks who are inclined go to the multiplex,” said Christopher Sharrett, a professor of communications and film studies at Seton Hall University. “But the move to new technologies like CGI and 3-D tends to emphasize the maxim that it takes money to make money.”

With the above squeeze in mind, some in Hollywood believe their industry needs a Beane-like approach — call it movieball.

Movieball?

In a recent interview, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner suggested that studios should try to string together small hits instead of always swinging for home runs, because the growing riskiness of the blockbuster model means that “you can make a small fortune, but you better come with a large fortune.”

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