Where Wall Street and Hollywood Collide

Are you a film buff who can't seem to find a way to put your excessive knowledge of movies to good use? Do you think: "Gosh, if I knew as much about stocks as I do about Hollywood, I'd be rich!"? Well, your time may have finally come. Investment firm Cantor Fitzgerald will be starting an online service in April that will allow users to bet on the success (or failure) of movies.

The New York Times reported on Thursday:

Cantor Futures Exchange, a subsidiary of Cantor Fitzgerald, expects to open an online futures market next month that will allow studios, institutions and moviegoers to place bets on the box-office revenue of Hollywood's biggest releases. Last week, the company learned from regulators that customers could start putting money into their accounts on March 15.

Here's how it would work:

In the real market, contracts on the Cantor exchange will trade at $1 for every $1 million a movie is expected to bring in -- a figure determined by traders -- at the domestic box office during its first few weeks in theaters. So if "Robin Hood" is expected to bring in $100 million in its opening weeks, a single contract could be bought for $100 by a trader who thinks Russell Crowe's role in the movie will drive sales far above expectations. If that trader guesses right, and the movie sells $150 million in tickets, the trader makes $50.

Anyone could use the service -- not only the film industry. Though, unlike NYU film school students, studios would have an actual legitimate business reason for using the exchange: they can hedge their investments in movies. So even though this idea might seem sort of silly to the serious stock investor, it's no more ridiculous than Exxon using oil futures to hedge energy prices.

And you don't only have to go long on a film: you can also short movies that you think will flop. For example, if they ever decide to put Dane Cook in a movie again, you can bet that it'll be a stinker. I know I would.

This does raise an interesting question about insider trading. For example, if Brad Pitt just made a movie that he now realizes was a big mistake, because it's absolutely horrendous, can he bet against it? He clearly has nonpublic information. What if he tells his friend George Clooney how bad it is, and Clooney shorts the film? Or what if I was lucky enough to see an advanced screening to come to the same conclusion? That's a little bit like hearing a company's earnings before release. I'd hope the SEC has given these considerations some thought before approving the new exchange.

Betting on films could happen before in just-for-fun exchanges and probably for real money in Vegas. But I'll be curious to see how a real exchange does -- and who uses it more. Even though it would only have legitimate appeal to studios, if my movie-loving friends' passion for film is any indication, the exchange could be wildly popular.

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