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Filmonomics: Thinking in Teams
By Ted Hope
By Colin Brown
It has been ten years since the publication of Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game and still the quest goes on to find those hidden signals and data points that might do for the film industry what Billy Beane and his bean-counters did for professional baseball – namely, unlock the secrets of success in a business distorted by old wisdoms. There is much to be gained from such a statistical treasure trove. In film entertainment, as in sports, the scouting establishment has shown a habit of undervaluing those most often responsible for winning results. A costly obsession with conventional star performers has blinded both industries to what really makes teams tick. To borrow both baseball and cinema parlance, it all comes down to finding those players who can truly “produce”.
For those who haven’t read Michael Lewis’ book, or seen the subsequent film adaptation Moneyball in which he was portrayed by Brad Pitt, Beane was the irrepressible general manager of the Oakland A’s who defied the traditional benchmarks that had long been used to gauge baseball players. Instead of relying on stolen bases, runs batted in and batting averages as the surefire measures of offensive success, Beane’s front office came to realize that on-base percentage and slugging percentage were more meaningful indicators – overlooked qualities that were hence cheaper to acquire on the open market than those based around speed and contact. That insight allowed him to assemble a team of basement-bargain players that was able to compete successfully against far richer competitors in Major League Baseball, or at least until those giants caught on and started mirroring Beane’s strategies.
In the collective wisdom of the movie business, the stars of the game have historically been both the actors and the auteurs that coach them. Much of the value system for independent movies is still predicated on the need to attract a recognizable calibre of acting and directing talent in order to unlock the necessary finance, specifically foreign pre-sales and a distribution deal in the US. This is no economic accident. Ever since the days of the star system, film audiences have been media-conditioned to idolize celebrities from their bleachers. And much as we all know that filmmaking is an elaborate act of collaboration, we instinctively see cinema as a personal expression of a director’s creative vision. European law goes so far as to enshrine this godly status by designating the film director as the movie’s “author”. Attend any film festival and you’ll fall soon enough under the spell of directors’ names and actors’ faces. They are what excite audiences and move markets.
But it doesn’t take particularly rigorous statistical analysis to see the flaws in this starry-eyed system. As an industry, we place inordinate financial stock on a handful of top performers. Isolate the film names on Forbes most recent list of highest paid entertainers and compare them with, say, The Numbers’ own assessments for how much industry players contribute in value to an average non-franchise film and you will see remarkably little correlation in their top tens. They share just one filmmaker – Steven Spielberg, who tops both film lists – and also the name of Robert Downey Jr.
Tempting as it might to conclude from this discrepancy that so much of Hollywood’s A-List is vastly overpaid, there is a more revealing insight here. Ranked three notches higher than Downey Jr. on that “bankability index” put out by The Numbers is the prolific film composer, Hans Zimmer. His inclusion drives home the economic contributions of those who might not ordinarily move the packaging needle. Explaining his methodology, head researcher Bruce Nash said he went the extra mile to ensure that his rankings took into account the team dynamics involved in making movies.
“If you left Steven Spielberg alone on a desert island with film-making equipment he might make something amazing, but it wouldn’t be what we think of as a ‘Steven Spielberg’ movie. To make a ‘Steven Spielberg movie’ you need Steven Spielberg, of course, but you also need an actor like Tom Hanks, a composer like John Williams, an editor like Michael Kahn, a cinematographer like Janusz Kaminski, and so on. In fact, I would go further than that and say that some relationships are critical to a certain type of film: Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is one of the things that makes Steven Spielberg’s films so recognizable.”
Nash would have done well to have also mentioned Spielberg’s regular producer Kathleen Kennedy in that same symbiotic breath. Her estimated $18.5 million average contribution to every movie she works on puts her just behind Downey Jr. in that same bankability index and makes her the only woman on its current top ten. The fact that she is not a household name means she doesn’t even figure in the Forbes Power Celebrity 100, where only Jerry Bruckheimer features as the token Hollywood producer. This is not so much a reflection of continuing gender inequality – in this particular instance, Oprah Winfrey lords over a top ten list that also includes Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Madonna, Taylor Swift and Ellen DeGeneres – as of the extent to which the producer’s role in filmmaking keeps being underplayed.
As the person with the ultimate control over a film’s budget, with a direct say over whether too much or even too little is being spent realizing a particular story, a producer’s creative instincts and business acumen have surely the single greatest bearing on a film’s profitability. And yet producer track records are rarely seen as primary determinants of a film’s commercial success. If you are looking for meaningful data-points when assessing projects, producers are as good a place to start as any – provided you can distinguish between those who actually shepherd the production through to completion and those who came by their producer credits as a result of access to some slice of money or casting. This is not to dismiss the value of executive producers; beyond even the financial lifelines they provide during the developmental stage, they play a critical role in giving a project their early stamp of approval. Line producers, production managers and assistant directors are absolutely vital too in terms of nuts-and-bolts production logistics and on-set problem solving. But the real driver remains that entrepreneurial force that stays in the trenches alongside the filmmaker until the film is delivered.
“Producers are the CEOs of films. They’re the managers of their production LLCs. If I don’t believe in the producer team behind a project then I won’t invest, no matter how enticing the rest of the package may be,”declared James Belfer in a post he wrote earlier this year. He’s the executive producer who founded Dogfish Accelerator after becoming convinced that a tech-funding approach based around teams and their content business models was applicable to independent film. Seeing the film business through fresh eyes allowed him to see the industrial disconnects. “The strength of a producer team is largely overlooked in indie film. A director with a script and an actor is nothing but just that until a producer comes aboard and makes that package into a film. When I invest in a film I am not investing in a single idea or piece of talent—I’m investing in what the producers say they can execute. Failure to execute the vision they present will be no one’s fault but their own.”
To the uninitiated, such an approach might seem counter-intuitive. After all, the whole concept of “execution-dependent” film projects, those where only the best screen interpretation ends up being a hit, is wrapped up in the auteur mythology. These are the ambitious, non-generic film ideas that you imagine only a very small handful of signature directors can pull off, not the high concept propositions that any number of journeymen and women could direct. And yet, particularly when it comes to projects by novice filmmakers, their execution depends squarely on the producing forces behind them.
Just listen to John Krokidas sharing his hard-won experiences as a debutant director on the just-released Kill Your Darlings in this article for Vulture, and you’ll appreciate the importance of producer Christine Vachon in launching his filmmaking career:
“Something I didn’t know going in is that first-time directors are considered by financiers to be ‘deadly attachments’ meaning that even if financiers are interested in your script and your vision, you are still considered to be a strike against their desire to invest in the film. In some ways, that’s fair: They don’t know whether you can deliver the goods yet, and they might fear that you’ll have a nervous breakdown in the middle of shooting, as some first-time directors have. In order to balance out your deadly attachment, then, these financiers want you to cast movie stars. I think it’s funny that the question I get asked the most is, “How did you get so many movie stars to be in your film?” because the real answer is “Out of necessity!”
With Vachon lending credibility to this period drama about the great beat generation poets, Kill Your Darlings was able to attract a cast that led byDaniel Radcliffe, Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall, Jack Huston, Ben Foster, Jennifer Jason-Leigh and Elizabeth Olsen. Even then, luck played its part. It was only after The Woman in Black, starring Radcliffe, and Chronicle, starring DeHaan, held the top two positions at the box office when they opened in the same February week in 2012 that financiers believed in their respective pulling power. Until then, no one thought Radcliffe had value beyond Harry Potter.
Like so many independent films, Kill Your Darlings endured a long gestation, a typically testing period during which a producer’s reservoirs of patience and managerial psychology really come to the fore. They are the ones reminding the filmmaker, and the rest of the film world, that this project is not a delusional act of craziness. Giving a masterclass at a recent film festival in Poland, Vachon highlighted this cheerleading role as one of the elements that define what a producer does:
“I identify material. I work very closely with directors – frequently writer-directors – to help them realise their vision. I help them package the film. I help them find talent and take that package to market. All the while, I cheerlead and push. ‘Kill Your Darlings’ took about seven years – in those years I had to keep up my enthusiasm. I had to keep saying: why are we making this film? Why is this film important? What are we trying to say? How can we make it on the resources we have?”
As Vachon notes, the downward pressure on indie movie budgets means that both producer and filmmaker must collude together these days in making the creative and financial worth together. Otherwise, the movie they want to make won’t get made. Knowing when and where to make the necessary concessions is part of that collusion, as producer Peggy Rajski tells us:
“That’s where I think good producing comes in. You’ve got to be able to make the case why someone is right creatively and then find a way to make that work budget wise and/or with other casting choices. And you’ve also got to help your director explore other possibilities if need be. I’ve had many a discussion about the merits of one person over another, and can the part be adjusted to fit their particular strengths (and minimize their weaknesses). Sometimes you can make the leap and sometimes you can’t. It’s like Alexander Payne deciding he was going to make ‘Nebraska’ in black and white no matter what. He couldn’t really explain why it was so important to him. It just was. And his producers had to negotiate that relentlessly with the studio and move it from a ‘no never’ to ‘okay if you can do it for this price’. It’s the same deal with actors. Usually your bargaining chip is the budget.”
If the director-producer relationship is the glue that holds the project together, how should filmmakers set about finding their producerial soulmates? Fortunately, an exhaustive answer to that vexing question has just been provided by Scott Macaulay in a terrific article he wrote this month for his IFPmagazine Filmmaker. In interviews with the likes of Mary Jane Skalski,Mynette Louie, Lydia Dean Pilcher, Ryan Koo, Andrew Corkin, Tim Perrell, Alicia Van Couvering and Randy Mack, parallels are made with the dating world where many of the same compatibility issues come into play. Like any relationship, of course, this works both ways – which is why, as a corollary to those matchmaking insights, it is worth also reading this checklist from Mynette Louie in which she outlines the twelve traits that she as a producer looks for when assessing directors.
How much of this can be left to the computational wonders of algorithmic pattern recognition and game theory is open to debate. Even Nate Silver, the poster-child for statistical analysis who has applied data science to everything from baseball to presidential elections, believes in incorporating human intuition as an early “bullshit detector” that can establish how much signal there really is amid all the informational noise. As was the case with Billy Beane, finding the real deals need not require rocket science.
“Einstein supposedly said that I don’t trust any physics theory that can’t be explained to a 10-year-old. A lot of times the intuitions behind things aren’t really all that complicated. In ‘Moneyball’ that on-base percentage is better than batting average looks like ‘OK, well, the goal is to score runs. The first step in scoring runs is getting on base, so let’s have a statistic that measures getting on base instead of just one type of getting on base.”
You could say much the same about the film business. Black box wizardry has been applied to everything from improving audience movie recommendations to determining the probability of commercial success on the basis of screenplay analysis. Collaborative filtering algorithms, neuroscience and artificial neural networks are just some of the scientific toolkits being deployed to those ends. But could it be that investors would see more immediate benefits by evaluating producers in the way they already score actors and directors? In sports this would be akin to betting as much on the team’s management, as on the coach and players. Those who doubt the wisdom of that approach need only look at British soccer where one of this season’s over-performers, Southampton FC, owes it success as much to its highly focused executive chairman as it does to the prowess of those he has hired to bolster the performances on the ball-field.
Challenging the relics of long-cherished doctrine and articles of faith is never easy in any industry. But, as Beane proved, it can certainly pay to kill your darlings.
In the final installment of this series on film packaging, filmonomics will look at how a project’s early financial components can affect how the film industry assesses that package.