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Attention, Hollywood: Star Directors and A-Name Actors Are Great. But It’s the Team That Counts.

Attention, Hollywood: Star Directors and A-Name Actors Are Great. But It's the Team That Counts.

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 basesruns 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

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
 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.

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 recently 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.”

With Vachon lending credibility to this period drama about the great beat generation poets, Kill Your Darlings was able to attract a cast led by Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan, Michael C. Hall.

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 realize 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?”

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 on the team’s management, as well 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 that unexpected success as much to its highly focused executive chairman as it does to 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.

Read the full post here.

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