Producer Ryan Kavanaugh Brings Moneyball Tactics To Filmmaking

Depending upon how closely you pay attention to producer credits, you may or may not know the name Ryan Kavanaugh. You've definitely seen it on a large number of films, thanks to the financing his company Relativity Media, LLC provides to many projects. Kavanaugh, only 34, won 'producer of the year' at the Hollywood Film Festival last month, and may become the new model of a Hollywood producer. With a focus on computer models of financial liabilities and returns, he wants to create a purely data-driven system for greenlighting movies.

Some of his ideas make him sound like a pure enemy of the movies I love, while others make so much sense I can't believe they're not already implemented at every studio. This approach worked for baseball, though the 'Moneyball' angle angered die-hard fans. Can it work for movies?

Portraits of Kavanaugh hit a few different places on the web over the past week; as I scanned them in series I was alternately intrigued and horrified. Esquire has a large profile, while Variety ran several articles honoring his work. (Like this and this.)

Variety paints one vision of Kavanaugh, as a forward-thinker who gets movies made and has found no small success. The trade points to his acquisition of Rogue Pictures at the beginning of this year, and the decision to expand Rogue as a brand via a web portal and clothing line. His quotes with respect to certainly sound...interesting:

We want to bring consumers into the filmmaking process. We want to give them a voice on the set. And we want to let them know they can effectuate change, because at the end of the day we're making movies for them.

My first thought, reading that, is: when a film like New Moon is the box-office killer of the season, do we really want just anyone with access to a web browser influencing the creative process? It'll be like that episode of the Simpsons where Homer designs the worst car ever.

Cross-reference the Variety pieces with Esquire's profile and things really become clear. Because that massive non-critical New Moon audience is the only one Kavanaugh wants. Nothing wrong with that, per se. He's a producer. He's supposed to want that audience. Wanting it at the expense of all else, however, is where things get sticky.

"I'm not in this for the art, you know? I don't care about awards," he tells Variety. "I want to make money. I want to own a business." Again, that's real producer talk. But not for every producer. You think that's what Scott Rudin really feels? I don't. So check this, when Kavanaugh contrasts the performance of two of his films, Paul Blart: Mall Cop and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Do you know how many people saw The Assassination of Jesse James? You and seven other people. Paul Blart grossed nearly $200 million worldwide. I'll take Paul Blart all day, every day.

That's where my hackles go up. Not as an arch defender of Jesse James, though I am certainly that. More because in my own dream world producers are more like Scott Rudin: they work to find a middle ground between a difficult story and palatable movies that everyone will like. But that's why Rudin is notable. Not everyone could have helped shepherd No Country For Old Men into becoming a film that everyone saw and talked about.

Speaking to Esquire, Kavanaugh trumpets his Moneyball data models that inform decisions about what to greenlight and what to pass, and when one movie should be given a cash infusion while another should be refused. If those models were applied to a film like Jesse James, we could get good stuff. Take a niche property, figure out how to cast it for popular appeal, and set the machine in motion to grind out a movie that might actually, ironically, have some art. Isn't that what producers are meant to be doing, anyway? If Kavanaugh can quantify the alchemical, unpredictable spark that makes one thing work and another fail, he could make money with anything.

But that's why alchemy was a fools errand. You can't turn lead into gold, and you can't feed a bunch of numbers into a spreadsheet and come up with a foolproof recipe for success with a left-field film.

So I chuckled as Kavanaugh was also in the news this week as he talked up the reboot of The Crow. Comments like "the script is great," as he told io9, take on a slightly different meaning when you think about other things the producer has recently said. (And, let it be said, I don't give a damn about The Crow; it's just a convenient current reference point.) Combine his Crow talk with this comment to Esquire: "Everything has to run on the principle of profit. We'll never let creative decisions rule our business decisions. If it doesn't fit the model, it doesn't get done." The model here, as evidenced by his comments to io9, is Batman Begins. But can you set out to hit with that formula and actually do it? Unlikely, yes?

And yet there are those aspects of Kavanaugh's business that sound so well-considered. He tells Esquire that Relativity turns more than 90% of the properties it buys into films, which is an amazing track record. But it's only amazing when you consider it in light of most studios' 'buy now, develop later' policy. It's not that he's got a particularly good idea in this case, only that he's doing things the way they should be done.

All of this would just contribute to a curiosity piece if the consensus weren't that Kavanaugh's power, already considerable, is expanding. With only a few years of work under his belt he's got many films under way right now, and in a cash-strapped town is helping out a great many more. If some of Rogue's stuff actually hits, he'll convert others to that ruthless bottom-line thinking.