Wake-up call for movie 'sleepers'

A new market called the Trend Exchange has opened in the US, enabling investors to speculate on the prospective success of films as they are released.

Films like <i>Toy Story 3 </i>could find themselves subject to the vagaries of speculators on the Trend Exchange.

Remember the era of the good old-fashioned, sleeper hit? When a film like The Shawshank Redemption could open to complete indifference and yet slowly become one of the most highly regarded (and watched) films of all time? These days, such lack of immediate success is not tolerated. The opening weekend is the be-all and end-all, the headline news. So when Sex and the City 2 was beaten to the top spot in the US by a big green ogre called Shrek last month, it wasn't just Hollywood that took notice.

Its relative "failure" percolated into the public consciousness. Women who had imagined they would go decided perhaps they wouldn't bother - after all, it couldn't have been that good if more people went to see Prince of Persia. Why the box-office takings so quickly slumped is something of a mystery: it wasn't just the result of acerbic reviews. But two weeks later, rumours began circulating that SATC3 had been shelved. Limping home in third place on opening weekend had killed the prospect of another sequel. So it's unsurprising that trying to predict cinematic hits and misses has become increasingly important. Important enough, indeed, to become a big business all of its own.

Last week, US authorities approved trading in projected box-office takings, in the same way that financial traders speculate in the commodities market (also known as futures) on goods such as rice, cocoa or oil. It means investors can essentially speculate on the future success or failure of a film on the aptly-named "Trend Exchange". So if you invest in, say, Toy Story 3, and the market thinks it will take $200 million (Dh734 million) in its first weekend, you make money on everything it takes in over that. If it doesn't reach $200m, you lose.

Sounds like harmless fun if you have thousands of dollars to spare (it will be for professional investors only) and love the excitement of Hollywood, right? Not if you're the Motion Picture Association Of America, it doesn't. They called it "a new gambling platform that could be plagued by financial irregularities and manipulation". Some in the industry have suggested it would be remarkably easy for rival film companies to bet against a film from a competing studio.

In an industry where buzz is key, if a futures contract is lessened in value, then the negative market activity will tarnish a film before it is even released. If filmmakers thought a slew of negative reviews before the opening weekend weren't bad enough, to see a movie flatlining on the Trend Exchange would just about seal the deal. Of course, seeing as Hollywood essentially runs on gossip and rumour, there is also the potential for insider trading. The company behind Trend Exchange, Veriana Networks, says it has stringent conflict of interest rules to prevent these kinds of antics, but it is difficult to see how this could be properly policed.

Interestingly, Veriana also suggests investment in film might actually increase thanks to the Trend Exchange, as it allows for Hollywood's moneymen to hedge the risks that come with making expensive movies. Essentially, they would be betting money against a film they have backed being a success, to insure themselves against a flop. Veriana call the practice "a risk mitigation opportunity at a reasonable price".

It will be fascinating to see how the Trend Exchange works, particularly because it opens up the possibility of a (well-off) film fan making some money out of his obsession. Whether it will have any effect on the film industry - or the success or failure of a movie - will be revealed in August when the Matt Dillon film Takers, rumoured to be the first on the Trend Exchange, is released. Last week, the Internet Movie Database had it "up 44 per cent in popularity". Will that make Takers a good buy? Who knows? One thing's for sure, a Danny Dyer film is probably not a good investment. This month, his current movie grossed a pitiful £205 (Dh1,100) during its opening weekend. It's widely regarded as a rotten film, deserving of its infamy and immediate disappearance. Hardly likely to ever attain sleeper-hit status.

But if Trend Exchange, with its crushing emphasis on the first weekend takings, does confirm that immediate success is the be-all and end-all, it means that in future, slow-burn classics in the mould of The Shawshank Redemption will be lost in the mêlée. And we will all be the poorer for that.