Only a couple of weeks are left in this season of Fantasy Movie League, and I hate everything. I’m desperately trying to claw my way up the leaderboard. But as I learned last season, I can’t for the life of me predict kids movies. And in a game that’s all about box office predictions, this is a problem.
So naturally, in my capacity as a tech writer, I reached out to Fantasy Movie League creators Larry Tobin and Eric LaVanchy to beg them for insider advice in the hopes of avoiding another week of being on the wrong end of Twitter smack talk. They remained frustratingly tight-lipped on the inner workings of their game, but they were eager to share the story of how Fantasy Movie League came to be.
“Nobody has taken the fantasy gaming platform and tried to expand it into the entertainment space. Not like this. Not sort of salary cap style fantasy, traditional fantasy sports style gaming,” says Tobin.
Fantasy Movie League (or, to use the all-too-relatable abbreviation, FML) is just like other fantasy sports you might’ve played. Every week, you get a budget to set your lineup. Then things go down in the real world, and you wait for the results to roll in. Only, your lineup is eight screens in a cinema instead of a team, and rather than following a round of sports, the results are based on the weekend’s US box office results.
Movies predicted to bring in a higher gross cost more to screen, so FML is all about how best to spend your weekly 1,000 film bux. The objective is to make the most money, but to do that you need to weigh the value of everything on offer. You’ll get additional bonuses if you pick the movie that has the best cost-to-performance ratio and the best overall cinema possible.
I didn’t think it sounded too complex either. Bt that’s before you start in on tracking similar movies released in previous years, theatre counts, week-to-week drop offs, or any other number of statistical minutiae that you really think should be helping you more than it does. Not that I’m bitter.
It all started when co-founder Matthew Berry — current ESPN fantasy sports guru and one-time Hollywood screenwriter — approached Tobin about a fantasy league not built around sport. Tobin’s own background was in building the first fantasy sports platforms for Yahoo, and together with LaVanchy they brought that know-how to a different kind of fantasy league.
“In the North American market there are 210 million people who self-identify as movie fans. It’s actually bigger than NFL football,” says Tobin.
The playerbase has also grown exponentially in the 18-ish months since FML launched. LaVanchy and Tobin say that the cinema theme gives them a huge leg-up with younger players and a more even gender split. And that’s about the ease of play.
“Pick your movies. Pick them by doing a bunch of research and figuring out where we’ve messed up in pricing. Or because you just happen to like Tom Hanks. And you want it on three of your eight screens, right? People play at all kinds of levels,” says Tobin.
I’ve obviously erred on the side of spreadsheets, prediction models and frantic pre-deadline research. Not that it’s helped the performance of the Top Rope Superplex. But the fact remains that the pro-level prediction chatter is all community driven. The forums are one of the best sources of information for players, and the young game even has its own folklore.
“One is about the third week bounce for horror movies,” says Tobin. (That is, horror movies will do better than expected the third week after release.) “Some people believe firmly in never betting against animation, that you always wanna go with the animated release on its new weekend, on its release weekend.” (I took “Ice Age” last season. It didn’t go well.)
“We were a little surprised by how much the community has grown and developed,” says LaVanchy. “Message boards, and leagues that people have fostered, and the kind of connections that have been made there. It’s the sort of intensity of that passionate fandom, was something that we weren’t necessarily certain was going to translate from sports.”
I had to have one more crack at asking for advice. While they wouldn’t give me too much information about how they manually set the prices of every movie on offer, they did let on that it’s no mean feat to keep it competitive.
“We have a process that starts at about 10:00 on Sunday morning here and ends at about 3:59 on Monday afternoon so, we can input the prices by 4:00. We’re figuring out expected values and we’ve become through our process and with the people who we’ve got working on this. We become pretty good,” says LaVanchy.
With only two weeks to make $12 million on the current leader, it doesn’t look good for me. And yes, I blame “Trolls” for this. The next season of Fantasy Movie League is due to kick off in two weeks. After all, there is one thing it has in common with sports. There’s always next season.