Faces are real, money made up on film Web site

Deals: On the Hollywood Stock Exchange, pretend investors are the stars and the numbers are fictional.

June 21, 1999|By Patti Hartigan | Patti Hartigan,Boston Globe

They buy fake stocks with fake money. They deal in a fake economy based on the movie industry -- which, in itself, is the ultimate in illusion. This is the Hollywood Stock Exchange, where rising stars and and blockbuster films trade like the commodities they are.

On one typical day, Ben Affleck's value soared 6.6 points to $1,307 per share. Jason Alexander crashed, dropping 23 points to a mere $133 per share. "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" was up; "Notting Hill" was down.

Virtual reality has never been this much fun.

The just-for-fun exchange, at www.hsx.com, seemed like a novelty when it was founded by two Wall Street expatriates 2 1/2 years ago, but unlike other "cool" Web sites that vanish over time, HSX has grown exponentially. Some 250,000 users, er, investors, trade 300 million shares a day on the site.

What's the attraction? Power, money, glamour, sex appeal, to start. It's the ultimate expression of the seductive, vapid commercialism that fuels popular culture. It's invest-tainment. It's Wall Street intersecting with Hollywood and Vine. It's People and Fortune rolled into one. It is "the apotheosis of the American dream," claims co-founder Max Keiser.

"It's a template for the economy of the future," he says seriously. "More and more, the economy is celebrity-driven or star-driven or hit-driven." The currency is attention itself; quality is irrelevant. The market, Keiser says, is a facsimile of the real thing, so it's subject to collusion and manipulation.

There's something inherently depressing about that notion, although it does contain a degree of truth. So why not try to beat the system? Why not try to manipulate the market and support literate movies? It's only fake money, after all. There's nothing to lose, right?

I set up a free portfolio on the exchange, investing only in film adaptations of compelling novels and memoirs. No doe-eyed starlets or Hollywood hunks for this investor -- someone has to trade with ideals in mind. You get $2 million in play money upon signing up, and I quickly snapped up 50,000 shares of Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes." I also bought 10,000 shares of Mona Simpson's "Anywhere But Here," which stars Susan Sarandon and Natalie Portman, hardly a foolish investment. Ditto for "The Shipping News," "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "Snow Falling on Cedars."

My portfolio includes 1,000 shares each of "Breakfast of Champions," "Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant" and "Cider House Rules."

Big surprise: There was no run on these stocks. "Angela's Ashes" went up a fraction of a point, but it was hardly a killing. A losing strategy, no doubt. I called in the experts.

"You have to play the players," advises Deanna Scoggins, a Chicago-based marketing consultant and regular on the exchange. (She also writes for one of the many Hollywood Stock Exchange fan sites.) "It's just like the real market. Anyone who says they buy Internet stocks because they expect the companies to make money is a liar or a fool. We buy them because everyone else is buying them."

And no one is buying film adaptations of novels. The real money is in glamour and glitz. "The exchange mirrors Hollywood," she explains. "It's hype and glitz and not much substance, but it's fun."

Scoggins and other traders spend hours researching the "market," scouring the trade papers and the fan zines to determine which films and stars are solid investments. For some, the exchange has become a form of entertainment unto itself, just the way day trading on the real stock market has become a popular pastime. Keiser, who uses the screen name Max Broker, says that some folks spend so much time researching a film that they don't even have to see the movie: They've already been entertained.

Keiser, who never breaks out of the lingo of the game and acts as if the market is real, says Hollywood honchos monitor the trading closely. He says he receives anonymous calls from agents who are disappointed with their clients' market value. A fake market influencing an industry based on make-believe? "This is the Internet," says Keiser. "Once you cross over the cyber frontier, you enter the realm of oddness."

Successful traders know that you can't bet your money on artistry; blockbuster films, after all, are just advertisements for the toy companies. The smart money trades in hype.

So, what are you going to do? Lose your virtual shirt or play with the players? I traded 40,000 shares of "Angela's Ashes" to buy stock in "Toy Story 2," which went up more than six points. (Sorry, author Frank McCourt.) I also invested in "Get Smart," an adaptation of the '60s television comedy that is simply an idea in some studio exec's mind. A few shares of Leonardo DiCaprio, anyone?

The more superficial you get, the more virtual money you make. That's the ticket. That's the appeal. So what if I'm ranked 209,633 in the Hollywood Stock Exchange "community" -- a few thousand shares of the next Jim Carrey project might raise my standing. Forget the substance; read the hype.

"I'm a big fan of [playwright and novelist Luigi] Pirandello," says Keiser, who majored in theater at New York University before jumping into the bull market on Wall Street in the '80s. "It's just absurdist theater."

Call it "Six Characters in Search of a Virtual Fortune." Dump the literary adaptations. Put the money on, say, "Independence Day 2" or "Under Siege 3."

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