Regulators Express Concerns on Movie Futures

Federal regulators voiced concerns Wednesday about creation of a futures market for trading on movie box-office receipts as they face deadlines for deciding whether to approve new contracts.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has already approved establishment of two new online exchanges but must vote by next month to approve specific contracts so the exchanges can operate.

Hollywood sign
Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images
Hollywood sign

At a public hearing by the agency, CFTC Commissioner Bart Chilton said "I think it is pretty cool. ... But I'm not sure that cool means a business."

Major Hollywood studios oppose the new futures market, which would allow movie industry participants and speculators to trade on predicted movie revenues.

The agency must determine whether the proposed new futures market passes the legal test of conforming with the commodities trading law, Chilton said. It must determine whether the new commodities would be subject to manipulation, how the regulators would monitor the trading and whether it is a viable way to hedge against risk.

If not, the contracts can't be approved, Chilton said. Other commissioners also said they had concerns about the new market and that a rigorous review was needed.

The CFTC has already approved creation of the Trend Exchange and the Cantor Exchange. By law, the agency must approve the specific contracts, which would essentially act as pre-sales of ticket revenue, within 90 days of the request. That means a June 7 deadline for the Trend Exchange contracts and June 28 for the Cantor Exchange.

Hollywood has called the new exchanges "online gaming" platforms that could be easily manipulated.

Opposition has come from the Motion Picture Association of America, the National Association of Theatre Owners, the Directors Guild of America, and the Independent Film and Television Alliance.

In Congress, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., has included a provision in legislation to overhaul financial regulations that would ban futures trading based on movie receipts.

Veriana Ventures, which proposed the Trend Exchange, has argued that smaller movie studios could benefit because potential film financiers might invest more in films if they had a mechanism to offset risk. The exchange could help attract more money to an industry pinched by a struggling economy, Veriana CEO Rob Swagger has said.

Veriana stands to benefit by charging fees for trades and for managing the exchange.

The two trading forums would be similar to futures markets for commodities such as corn and pork bellies. Although goods are rarely exchanged directly through such markets, they let sellers reduce risks by locking in prices ahead of time. Buyers are hoping to benefit from a rise in prices, or in the case of movies, that receipts are better than expected.

Backers of the box-office exchanges say those markets would help Hollywood manage risk in a notoriously hit-or-miss business.

Investors would be able to hedge against potential flops by pre-selling a share of future box office receipts. The exchanges could even guard against likely hits, such as the upcoming "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" sequels, falling short of projections. If a movie doesn't do as well as expected, investors would at least be guaranteed revenue from those pre-sales, known as futures contracts.

The Motion Picture Association represents the major Hollywood studios, including those belonging to Walt Disney, News Corp ., Time Warner and others.