March 16, 2010

Betting on the Box Office

From my new column at Taki's Magazine:

I certainly don’t know much about investing, but I can give you one solid tip: don’t bet in the movie box office futures market.

Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald expects to get federal regulatory approval to begin trading movie pseudo-shares in April (and a start-up called Veriana Networks also hopes to get into the business). The rationalization is that movie-makers could unload some of the risk of a flop on investors, but the appeal is that it’s more fun than gambling on pork bellies.

What could be a more perfect embodiment of our post-modern economy? While the Asians manufacture everything, Americans will try to get rich by selling each other cinematic synthetic financial instruments.

Betting on box office numbers isn’t a new idea. For a decade, hobbyists with too much time on their hands have been competing on the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX) for pretend money by predicting how well new movies will perform.

Read why betting real money on how well upcoming movies will perform is a bad idea there, and comment upon it here.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

16 comments:

l said...

What's next? Bank of America pitching Fantasy Football as an investment?

Who would have thought that American capitalism would end like this?

agnostic said...

Arthur De Vany wrote an awesome book called Hollywood Economics, which is a cross between a trade book and an academic review of the data on box office success.

He shows that the distribution of box office revenues does not have a defined variance or standard deviation. So you have a mean as your best guess, based on all sorts of characteristics -- budget, is it a sequel, superstar actor, etc. -- but the error bars around that guess are infinitely wide that the guess doesn't give you any information you can act on.

I can't recommend the book enough. It has a lot of history too, not just number-crunching. There's a chapter on the history of bogus anti-trust suits against the major movie studios and how that crippled the business.

gwern said...

It's kind of funny to read someone who is so interested in statistics go and write something like:

> "It’s not that the HSX prediction market is tremendously accurate. This year, it notoriously underestimated the popularity of Alice in Wonderland. Similarly, Avatar traded mostly at a little under $200 million through the fall of 2009, but wound up paying off at over $400 million. Most notably, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ dropped as low as $6 before taking in $296 million in its first four weeks."

jody said...

hmm. i don't know about this. there are a couple guys on boxofficemojo who will do far better than random at guessing box office.

i think the biggest advantage any regular gambler in NFL betting achieves is usually around 10% to 12%. that is to say, accurate about 60% of the time, so betting on games is not a 50-50 proposition, not a random outcome for them, as long as they make lots of bets and approach it as a numbers game.

the hottest topic at boxofficemojo has to be the new nolan movie. this is the one with the biggest range of guesses. there are two generally agreed upon scenarios, a performance like the prestige, or a performance like batman begins. but they can't agree on which way it will go. predicting this is like running a monte carlo simulation in finance.

what is most frustrating is that while nobody seems to know what it will do at the box office, we already know with certainly that it absolutely, positively cannot win best picture, even if it is awesome and the rest of the 2010 field is weak. the academy hates science fiction and it hates christopher nolan.

they made a big deal out of bigelow being the first woman to win best director, but science fiction movies are still 0 for 82. when is the academy going to get around to "righting a wrong", as they would say? never, that's when. if you're a tremendously talented director, don't make great science fiction movies with critical and mass appeal. not if you want to win any academy awards, that is.

Anonymous said...

Who would have thought that American capitalism would end like this?

Henry Ford warned of it. He talked about about the war between finance and industry.

anony-mouse said...

The Asians may manufacture everything, but what more than a few of them like to do is to gamble.

And more than a few sharp eyed round eyes have made money because of that.

Personally I'd rather live in Las Vegas right now, even now, than some water and air polluted back alley in China.

And in a world that is more and more becoming to resemble Casablanca, it would be good to be Rick.

Of course you shouldn't bet-you should own the casino.

DCThrowback said...

Anony-mouse wins. Well played. I guess no one remembers 1989 when the Japanese were going to own us all.

coldequation said...

I'm not familiar with HSX, but if I understand it correctly no money is involved. There's the problem. If they were playing for real money, they would weed out the bad investors and draw in some real talent.

I don't believe that it's completely unpredictable. At the very least, you can pretty well bet that anti-war movies about Iraq like Valley of Elah or The Green Zone will bomb.

jody said...

it's not random. in fact, the boxofficemojo guys have lots of math for predicting this stuff.

in fact, the single most important factor is correctly estimating the opening weekend number, or at least getting close to it. 90% of movies behave according to a mathematical pattern based on that one single number.

there are some variables, but the BOM crew knews them all too. holidays, time of year versus type of movie, and so forth.

mailer said...

Anony-mouse wins. Well played. I guess no one remembers 1989 when the Japanese were going to own us all.

Good point. Maybe China will implode soon.

Peter Frost's most recent blog posts have been a series titled "China and interesting times."

He argues that China is undergoing a massive native fertility decline and will have a huge immigrant influx from sub-Saharan Africa and will thus undergo population replacement. In which case, this could end up being one of the greatest blunders in history, certainly one of the greatest avoidable blunders ever.

Anonymous said...

China is undergoing a massive native fertility decline and will have a huge immigrant influx from sub-Saharan Africa

Where is the evidence for this, have the Chinese shown any desire to import millions of Africans?

Anonymous said...

Furious D explains it pretty well. Everyone is trying to screw the investors. So only people who don't know the game or who know it too well play it.

jody said...

peter frost has no idea what he is talking about. all china has to do to make their population EXPLODE is lift the 1 child policy. why do people forget about this rule?

china has been deliberately trying to keep their population growth down. chinese leaders actually have to work really hard to prevent china from having 2 billion people.

this is a HUGE advantage over every other nation. this ace up their sleeve solves so many potential problems for china. they have an option that other nations do not. in a global economic competition, they can active their supercharger whenever they feel it is necessary.

immigrants? nope. just let rural chinese men make chinese women pregnant with 4 kids. china makes more IQ 99 chinese, america takes in more IQ 87 mestizos. china wins.

Anonymous said...

peter frost has no idea what he is talking about. all china has to do to make their population EXPLODE is lift the 1 child policy. why do people forget about this rule?

Read Peter Frost's 3 recent blog posts on the matter, and the comment threads over there.

He makes his case and responds to objections.

He says his next post will extend his argument further. His basic claim is that China will undergo the same demographic transition in the near future as the West is currently (i.e. population/race replacement).

David said...

> Who would have thought that American capitalism would end like this? <

Marx did. He said the capitalists would eat themselves (or would make the rope that hangs them, etc.).

> Henry Ford <

Yep.

Anonymous said...

Is no one going to comment on the obvious insider information which the Hollyweird insiders would possess when approaching such a futures exchange?

Insider information, like, say, whether or not the movie actually sucks?