May 12, 2008

Hollywood's O.B.P.: I don't quite understand why no one in Hollywood has been smart enough to incorporate the principles of MoneyBall into film and TV production. Well, I take that back. Having read several weeks of Allison Hope Weiner's dispatches on the Pellicano Trial, I can see why the "star" mentality has, in spite of all the evidence that it does nothing to improve a film's bottom line, managed to take on nearly sacrosanct status in the "industry": the people who get hired to run studios don't exactly come from the top of the class from the Ivy League. A-students don't greenlight Speed Racer or Jumper, or spend years in court trying to put Napster out of business.

But you would figure at least one studio exec would figure out there are very, very few performers who can actually make a difference at the box office, and there are very, very many people with a SAG card out there who can do as good a job at a tenth of the cost. How many more bombs will George Clooney or Tom Cruise or Uma Thurmon detonate before someone realizes that the conglomerate's shareholders would get more value from Jon Hamm, to pick just one example? And it isn't simply the flops that produce the biggest wastes of money; does anyone believe that Gwyneth Paltrow, in her riveting portrayal of the "blonde sidekick" to the real star of the film, drew a single person to the multiplex to see Iron Man, or at least one more than would have gone if her role had been inhabited by Rebecca Romijn or Amber Valletta?

I suspect Hollywood is at the same stage that baseball was in back in the 1980's, when people like Bill James and Pete Palmer were just starting to attract a readership around the startling idea that the men who ran ballclubs didn't know what they were doing. On the diamond, it was the belief that batting average was the most important indicator of talent; in Hollywood, it's the equally stupid dogma that how famous a star is the determiner of how profitable a TV series or movie will be.

The suits who run TV networks already seem to have caught on to that. There are a great deal more networks than there are studios to divide the money, thanks to cable, and the willingness of the people who have run HBO and FX, to name two examples, to take risks on shows which initially feature no-name talents has produced extraordinary results. But film has been much slower to grasp the new reality. The next person to run Paramount or Sony who figures out that the type of movies that make a ton of money aren't star vehicles anyways, and that the cost of doing business will go way, way down once it is understood that screenacting talent is not a rare or limited resource, will revolutionize the business more than Louis Mayer.

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