Hollywood has always fallen hard for films about scam artists and their clever schemes. Even before American Hustle and The Wolf Of Wall Street, there was Catch Me If You Can, House of Games, The Spanish Prisoner, The Grifters, The Sting, Paper Moon and seductive confidence artists stretching all the way back to The Lady Eve in 1941. The cons vary but the tricks remain much the same: victims are fooled into trusting in a stranger's good faith through greed, vanity, opportunism, desire, compassion, desperation and any other basic urge you can name. It is easy to see the greenlight appeal of such stories. Not so much because of Hollywood’s own history with charismatic charlatans, or even because their conniving tales can provide such giddy entertainment, but because filmmaking itself so often involves elaborate self-deception and blind trust. The human lust for storytelling, and the constant craving for money required to feed that, is such that some of the strangest bedfellows are thrown together in the name of cinema.
It has been ten years since the publication of Moneyball: The Art of Winning An Unfair Game and still the quest goes on to find those hidden signals and data points that might do for the film industry what Billy Beane and his bean-counters did for professional baseball – namely, unlock the secrets of success in a business distorted by old wisdoms. There is much to be gained from such a statistical treasure trove. In film entertainment, as in sports, the scouting establishment has shown a habit of undervaluing those most often responsible for winning results. A costly obsession with conventional star performers has blinded both industries to what really makes teams tick. To borrow both baseball and cinema parlance, it all comes down to finding those players who can truly “produce”.
“I lost money for the first time ever in my career over the last two years,” beamed Matthew McConaughey in his signature drawl as he picked up this year’s actor trophy at the recent Hollywood Film Awards. “But I did have a helluva lot of fun.” McConaughey’s conscious decision to"recalibrate" his shirtless rom-com persona into something edgier has since led him to a succession of eye-catching performances in director-driven, lower-budget films - MAGIC MIKE, KILLER JOE, THE PAPERBOY, MUD – and now to the brink of Oscar recognition with DALLAS BUYERS CLUB. It’s the kind of Travolta-style career revival, a McConnaissance if you will, that should give fresh hope to indie filmmakers still hitting heads against talent agents’ doors in their casting quests.
“More than 90% of directing a picture is the right casting,” suggests Martin Scorsese in the revelatory documentary CASTING BY. Producers might well reach a similar assessment for financing a picture as well since actors remain by far the most enticing lures to potential investors. But settling on just who might be “right” for that picture is another matter entirely – and a source of constant tension as filmmakers struggle to reconcile the urgent needs of the story with the erratic tastes of the global marketplace and its appointed gatekeepers.
Politicians go medieval on them, romantic couples break up over them and artistic types tend to run as far and as fast as they can from them. And yet budgets, if drawn up sensibly in a spirit of mutual trust rather than defensive hostility, can actually go a long way towards avoiding such heartaches and fistfights. Cinema is certainly no exception here. No matter whether you view filmmaking as primarily a left-brain or a right-brain undertaking, as an expression of exquisite method or inspired madness, there is still no getting round the need for a proper fiscal reckoning. Persuading people to put money behind a particular film idea is, after all, an exercise in quantifying delight. Sooner or later, even with the most munificent of patrons and the most sublime of screenplay propositions, budget numbers still have to be part of that pitch. Get those projections askew and that dream project is a brawl-in-waiting. Get them horribly wrong and it’s a complete non-starter.