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Numbers don’t tell the whole story

Report proves there's no sure bet in Hollywood

The numbers always tell the story.

That, at least, is what the typical financial whiz believes — until he finds his way into the movie business. The frustrating thing about Hollywood is that decisions are all but impossible to quantify. And if you don’t believe it, talk to those Wall Street bankers who are pumping billions into the filmmaking factories.

I was thinking about this the other day as I reviewed the latest Forbes.com report that tries to rate top stars in terms of an esoteric “ultimate payback” formula. If the moneymen decide to follow the Forbes formula, the star they’ll most avidly pursue will be Matt Damon, while carefully avoiding the likes of Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. Of course, these conclusions are built on a set of data and assumptions that may or may not be valid, as we shall shortly see.

Statisticians have long tried to get Hollywood’s number. Several studies have purported to predict worldwide film grosses based on the previous returns of star vehicles (“Sweeney Todd” should thus become history’s first billion-dollar musical based on Johnny Depp’s success in “Pirates of the Caribbean”).

Forbes itself has long dished out fascinating (but not necessarily accurate) estimates of superstar income — lists that always manage to confound as much as inform. According to this year’s accounting, Oprah Winfrey (at $260 million) and Tiger Woods ($100 million) are the leading celebrity wage-earners, which is no surprise. But hovering in the lower reaches of the Forbes list are such players as hip-hopper Jay-Z ($83 million), Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho ($31 million), flatulent Bushie Rush Limbaugh ($33 million), Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen ($40 million), model Giselle Bundchen ($33 million), self-help guru Tony Robbins ($30 million), Judge Judy Sheindlin ($30 million), Hilary Duff ($12 million), Larry the Cable Guy ($20 million) and appropriately named TV chef Emeril Lagasse ($9 million).

Surveying the Forbes list, I wonder how they managed to sift through Steven Spielberg’s various revenue streams to conclude that he earned $110 million last year, or whether Simon Cowell’s myriad TV and music schemes wouldn’t really surpass the mere $45 million quoted by Forbes.

The attention accorded the Forbes list, however, has clearly whetted that company’s appetite to try for more complex formulations — hence the “Ultimate Star Payback.” To arrive at their new formulae, the Forbes team constructed the following model: They determined net revenues of a star’s last three films by adding up worldwide box office results and tossing in domestic DVD rentals (no TV dollars included), then subtracting the production budgets, including up-front compensation. The star’s gross income from his last three movies was averaged to calculate the ultimate payback.

I don’t claim to understand these calculations, but the end result was that Matt Damon earned the top spot — for every dollar Damon got paid on his last three films, the return amounted to $29 in gross income. By contrast, Adam Sandler’s payback totaled only $9 per film and Jim Carrey only $8. The biggest clunker, according to the Forbes team, was Russell Crowe, whose last three films earned just $5 in gross income for every dollar paid to the star.

These numbers are both perplexing and transparent. Damon came across as the king of all superstars because of the “Bourne” franchise, while the comedic actors did not produce a steady succession of blockbusters (the overseas grosses of comedies don’t compare with those of action films). As for Crowe, he doubtless enjoyed a sybaritic shoot in the south of France on “A Good Year” and didn’t fret about its impact on Forbes’ listmakers.

So should the numbers dictate a studio’s decisions in casting its slate of pictures? Clearly it’s instructive to know who’s hot and who’s not, but Leonardo DiCaprio wasn’t high on the Forbes’ charts before “Titanic,” Seth Rogen wasn’t on anyone’s radar before “Knocked Up” and Jonah Hill couldn’t even get cast in a school play before “Superbad” (nor could anyone named Christopher Mintz-Plasse).

That’s why movies are so terrifying to the moneymen: Numbers don’t tell you anything about the future; they just remind you about things you already should know, but conveniently manage to forget.

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