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While running Paramount in the mid-1970s and early-1980s, Mr. Eisner championed the concept of “the box” — that is, a fixed scope for any given project that could not be exceeded. He also decreed that no film could cost more than $10 million to produce, a low number even at the time.

Despite paltry budgets, films including “Grease,” “Saturday Night Fever” and “Terms of Endearment” became cost-effective hits for the studio; at Disney, Eisner-shepherded movies such as “Ruthless People” and “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” provided low-risk bang for the buck.

Similarly, Los Angeles-based film producer and financier Ryan Kavanaugh claimed in a pair of magazine interviews that his company, Relativity Media, has developed a proprietary quantitative computer model that predicts the likely box office success of potential projects based on the past performance of similar movies.

Like “Moneyball’s” fictional Peter Brand evaluating baseball free agents and potential draft picks, Relativity’s number crunchers reportedly evaluate possible movies by feeding dozens of variables — director, genre, release date, and so on — into their computers, which then predict the likelihood of profitability and average profits for each title. Relativity reportedly won’t invest in a project if the probability of turning a profit doesn’t reach around 70 percent.

Film economics expert Arthur De Vany cautioned that a “Moneyball” approach to moviemaking has inherent limitations.

“[Relativity] has one thing right, which is to look at the external odds instead of the scouting report,” said Mr. De Vany, a University of California-Irvine professor and author of “Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainty Shapes the Film Industry.”

Recalling that ‘Moneyball’s‘ fictional baseball scouts evaluate body types instead of relevant stats, Mr. De Vany said, “Kavanaugh is looking at the stats instead of asking what looks like a good movie.

“However, [evaluating] a baseball player with known stats and attributes against others is different than predicting how well he would perform having never seen him play. That is the movie problem. Each movie is unique — and as [film producer] Robert Evans said, only goes around once.”

Cases in point? Relativity-backed films “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” and “The Fighter” were hits, while “Season of the Witch” and “Land of the Lost” — both of which scored well in computer simulations — were not.

According to Mr. Courshon, such box office unpredictability can paradoxically make Hollywood less likely to adopt a singles-hitting approach.

To illustrate, Mr. Courshon cited Paramount, which reacted to the success of low-budget 2009 hit “Paranormal Activity” by creating a new division, Insurge Pictures, that was supposed to produce 10 films a year at a cost of $100,000 per project.

“Where is Insurge today?” Mr. Courshon said via email. “They look to be nowhere. Their web site is one page that shows nothing. …

“Making 10 movies per year for $100,000 each is too outside the box for a Hollywood studio. They’d rather spend $150 million on a movie with the right box office stars, because they know how to work that business model and usually not lose money.”

Hollywood haircuts

Confronted with declining audience sizes and shrinking DVD revenues, however, there are signs that Hollywood is changing. In July, Disney stopped production on “The Lone Ranger,” starring Johnny Depp, because a desired $200 million budget was climbing into the $250 million range. Cost concerns led Universal to back out of a sprawling movie-and-television-series project based on “The Dark Tower” novels by Stephen King. And Warner Bros. reportedly may abandon plans for a sequel to “Green Lantern,” a $200 million would-be blockbuster that grossed just $116 million.

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