'Access' Denied

Studios seethe over HSX predictions

NBC's entertainment newsmagazine Access Hollywood thought it was being hip when it first aired its new Internet-derived segment "Battle @ the Box Office" on November 5, but it ended up with controversy instead. The segment featured Max Keiser, cofounder and creator of the Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX), where for the past three years entertainment junkies have been buying and selling shares in films, music, and celebrities using ersatz "Hollywood Dollars." Predicting the opening weekend box-office performance of various films based on their market activity among HSX's 350,000 registered traders, Keiser dubbed The Bone Collector "the odds-on favorite to win." He then prophesied that The Insider would underperform because "America's tired of this movie-of-the-week stuff."

The segment drew immediate fire from Hollywood studios, who threatened to pull film footage and talent interviews from the entirely studio-dependent newsmagazine. The real battle, however, was between old and new media, as unregulated Internet content slowly but surely makes its way into the more regimented precincts of network television.

The studios claim to be afraid of self-fulfilling prophesies: that a poor forecast for a film might dampen audience turnout, even though HSX prognoses are based entirely on market factors and not qualitative judgments as to whether a film is worth seeing. Keiser, for his part, feels that studios are fighting a rear-guard action against the Internet's freer circulation of information about entertainment commodities. "People are saying, 'Why declare a winner in the race before the weekend box office tally is even in?'-but the race started the second you began production on your movie," says Keiser. "When a film goes into production it automatically begins trading on HSX, so all we're doing is giving long-lead marketing awareness to movies in a way that didn't exist before."

In fact, gauging films and celebrities like commodities-in-play has been standard studio practice since time immemorial, and some Hollywood honchos are still hoping to preserve it as their own private game. But predicting opening-weekend grosses has now become a national sport, and the astonishing growth of HSX reveals that more consumers are approaching entertainment commodities with the cold, calculating gaze of a financial analyst, asking questions like, "What is Meg Ryan's long-term gross potential?" rather than "Didn't Meg Ryan look cute on Leno last night?" "People want to be involved in entertainment in a more interactive way, and I think that the studios may be underestimating the sophistication of the audience a little bit," says Keiser, who cites the Internet-enabled success of Blair Witch Project as a much-needed wake-up call for old-school media. "Blair Witch changed the rules overnight, and now studios have to wake up and smell the Net."

The revolution, however, may take more than a few cell-phone calls. Evidence of lingering old-media resistance came on last Friday's "Battle @ the Box Office" segment, which aired after studios had threatened to boycott Access Hollywood. Acting like he had been force-fed some of the Soma routinely dispensed to cohosts Nancy O'Dell and Pat O'Brien, Keiser dished out nothing but upbeat, cheery assessments of celebrity and film stocks "on the rise," while repeatedly exhorting viewers to "buy Leelee Sobieski." Access Hollywood is, after all, just an industry promotional vehicle masquerading as a news show, so it looks like Keiser-at least for the time being-will have to wake up and smell the censorship of studio-dependent network television.

 
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