Slated Editorial Director Colin Brown is back with another essay in his series on packaging films. You can check out Colin's writing on the filmonomics blog, and you can see this post in its original format here.
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 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 bargain-basement players that was able to successfully compete 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 caliber 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. 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. The documentary world will quickly tell you how
crucial editors are in honing their fact-based stories. And you only
have to visit a film set to appreciate the importance of those
surrounding the director.
In drawing up his index for The Numbers, 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 filmmaking 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."