Why Hollywood needs a new set of stats to calculate stars’ pay

You could call is ‘the Moneyball’ approach

Brad Pitt, left, and Jonah Hill in a scene from "Moneyball." (Melinda Sue Gordon, Columbia Pictures-Sony/AP Photo)

Last week’s post about how the budgets for television shows may need to go down in order to adapt to the internet sparked some interesting discussion over on Twitter. The discussion involved films, of course, with one commenter suggesting that A-list actors such as Tom Cruise command huge salaries because they’re proven draws.

That got me thinking: do movie executives really cast their movies based on the drawing power of the actors? Of course they used to, so the better question is perhaps whether they still do? And if so, is it possible to play games with such a system, similar to how baseball manager Billy Beane played “Moneyball” with the Oakland Athletics?

Surely I’m not the first person to have thought of this – it would actually only surprise me if this sort of thing wasn’t widespread in Hollywood.

Beane’s Moneyball strategy, for the uninitiated, was a system of picking players based on non-traditional statistics. For much of its history, Major League Baseball has aligned the value of its players according to traditional stats, like batting average, home runs, stolen bases, earned run average and so on. If one guy consistently hits .300 and 40 home runs, then he’s an all-star who should make big bucks, or so the system has gone.

Beane, however, didn’t have those big bucks to spend with the A’s, so he instead focused on what he felt were more important statistics, such as on-base average and slugging percentage. After all, it doesn’t really matter how a player gets on base – whether it’s through a hit, a walk or even hit by a pitch – because once he’s there, he has the same chance to score a run as a good hitter, which is the only thing that matters in a game that’s decided by one team outscoring the other.

As dramatized in the Brad Pitt film, Beane put together a successful team based on his stats that had no bona fide all-stars, just players who put together solid numbers but were paid modestly. The “Moneyball” strategy has of course had a big effect on baseball since, with many teams now employing statisticians that study such numbers.

The logic seems to apply to movies as well. Over the past year, Tom Cruise was again the highest paid actor, according to Forbes. The illuminating part, however, comes from looking at the magazine’s most overpaid actors list, which calculates the revenue from their last three films against salaries. Right there at ninth most overpaid is Cruise, whose movies earn $6.35 for every dollar he’s paid.

Contrast that with the most profitable actor, Kristen Stewart, whose movies (which have basically been Twilightfilms, so far) earn $55.83 for ever dollar she’s paid.

The two lists are quite obvious when compared. The overpaid list includes established, big A-listers including Cruise’s ex-wife Nicole Kidman and comedians such as Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Eddie Murphy. The most profitable list, meanwhile, is made up mostly of young actors such as Stewart’s co-star Robert Pattinson, Daniel Radcliffe and Shia Labeouf.

The major flaw with Forbes’ process is equally obvious when the types of movies the actors star in are considered. People go to see comedies based on the actor/comedian, while not many go to big event movies like Transformers to see Labeouf. Comedy actors thus probably merit higher pay while their movies earn less than blockbusters, which pay their stars relatively little. This skew explains much of the two lists.

Still, the inclusion of dramatic actors such as Cruise and Kidman on the overpaid list does lend credence to the fact that paying an actor large amounts of money to star in a movie is pretty risky, if not foolish. From a financial perspective, it would seem to make more sense to play Moneyball with actors. As long as it’s not a movie that’s completely dependent on the actor’s personality, young players consistently deliver a better bang for the buck.

From a creative perspective, this approach has advantages too. Many writers are likely to say they’d rather have people go see a movie for the story they wrote, as opposed to the actors who are in it, so no-name stars are actually preferable. Who’d have thought the financial and creative sides could find common ground?

So what does this all have to do with the internet? Well, if content production – whether it’s film or television – is going to have to adjust its budgets downward in order to adapt to various internet forces at play, which includes fragmented entertainment spending and piracy among others, creators may very well have to start playing more Moneyball.




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Why Hollywood needs a new set of stats to calculate stars’ pay

  1. On the other hand, it’s made clear the process works very well in baseball because the statistics can be reduced to individual performance more easily than almost any other team sport. In general the technique does not get as good results when transferred to different sports, let alone something that is not even a sport.

  2. While sympathetic to these arguments, I have to admit I’ll take interest in any movie starring Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Nicole Kidman and other similar dramatic actors because invariably they will be good in them and the movies will be good. Maybe by virtue of their star power and being able to pick and choose, they end up in good movies. On the flip side, I won’t see anything with Will Ferrell in it because I know there’s a very high chance I won’t like it. So I think actors do influence the attention a movie gets.

  3. A couple of notes on an interesting post. :-)

    Disney’s Touchstone “label”, when it was a semi-separate studio, worked explicitly on that model, putting out lower-risk movies with good writing and B-list actors – folks whose names you know but that aren’t considered big draws in themselves. DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS is a very good example: Nolte, Dreyfuss, and Midler were (are) well known, but not megastars. (I know I’m old: that movie is 26 years ago!)

    Second, the career of Gene Hackman as a lead might counter-indicate your emphasis on youth. In his late middle age he starred in a number of successful movies. Tho’, they were action-focused, which I guess supports your point on the importance of the actor to the comedy.

    But … A FISH CALLED WANDA and a lot of the recent R-rated comedies don’t star anyone particularly well known – but make tons of money.

    Keep well.

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