This 'action' is off the set

Published July 14, 2006

Hollywood high rollers always gamble on making movies. Now the way those films perform at the box office is a game of chance for moviegoers, too.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Walt Disney Pictures wagered an estimated $250-million to create and market Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. The movie's record-shattering $135-million U.S. debut ensures an eventual profit when final domestic and international box office, home video and ancillary sales are tallied in a few months.

Some online gambling "investors" made money on Capt. Jack Sparrow's adventure much sooner. Others are kicking themselves for underestimating the film's appeal, an example of a new wave in proposition bets on entertainment chances.

Members of BetUS.com were offered an over-under line of $110-million for Dead Man's Chest's opening weekend box office total. Those who bet the over, believing the movie would earn more than $110-million, won $100 for every $120 wagered. Members who took the under lost their investment during Sunday matinees.

At Sportsbook.com, the over-under line for Dead Man's Chest was even lower at $96.5-million but with a higher buy-in $170 to win $100 for winners. That rate of return is far less than what Bruckheimer and Disney will likely reap from the pirate flick.

In recent weeks, enterprising Internet gambling sites have added box office predictions for high-profile films such as The Da Vinci Code, X-Men: The Last Stand and Superman Returns to their wager boards.

"The blockbuster (box office) numbers have become more and more popular to report on all these different entertainment shows," BetUS.com spokesman Matt Ross, 28, said in a telephone interview. "It seemed like a good idea to try predicting the figures and see if anybody was interested.

"It just sort of snowballed. Now people expect us to come out with movie propositions on a regular basis."

Betting lines are generally posted Thursday night, after oddsmakers study industry tracking figures of audience awareness, test screening surveys, advance ticket sales and any intangibles that could affect theater attendance. The process isn't very different from handicapping horse races. Ross said both frequent and casual gamblers place those entertainment bets, comprising nearly 10 percent of the site's action.

"It's a combination of both: the guy who'll bet on anything and the movie fans," he said. "Entertainment props generally bring in a few more women on average than sports or maybe the poker (tables) would. That's a big bonus for us, so we love to expand on the entertainment props for that reason alone."

Betting on show business through online sites isn't new; it's just becoming more specialized and widespread. Online gambling sites currently operate outside U.S. jurisdiction in nations such as Canada, Costa Rica and Antigua, so practically anything is fair game - at least for now. (A bill that would ban paying online gambling bets with credit cards, while blocking access to most gambling Web sites, was passed Tuesday by the U.S. House of Representatives.)

"Reality show propositions have doubled in the past three years in terms of the amount of action we receive," Ross said. "In terms of entertainment props in general, it has probably increased 30 or 40 percent compared to a few years ago."

The annual Academy Awards shows are among the most popular online betting event, along with professional football and college basketball's March Madness. Las Vegas casinos lay odds on the Oscars for fun but betting isn't allowed through an agreement with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Current entertainment proposition bets at BetUS.com include who'll win Emmy awards and whether Mary-Kate or Ashley Olsen will be married first. Bets can be placed on the name of Britney Spears' next child (Moon is the longest shot with a $4,500 payoff for a $100 bet), which celebrity will next be outed as a homosexual (Keanu Reeves is favored), and who among Oprah Winfrey, David Letterman, Jay Leno or Regis Philbin will retire first (Say it ain't so, Dave).

"We either deal with funny, crazy props about the celebrities in the movies, separate from the box office numbers, or we deal with the box office. But we're always open to suggestions from our users. It's pretty wide open."

However, Ross said BetUS.com is a bit more selective than some sites about its proposition bets.

"Other sports books go with morbid things like predicting the damage from a hurricane, or death tolls," he said. "That's something we'll stay away from. Anything that disparages or has a morbid feeling attached to it, we stay away.

"We do have a couple of death-related props that are entirely in fun and probably wouldn't offend the average American. Like which day of the week Fidel Castro will die, or if Osama bin Laden will be captured or killed and by which country. We stay away from natural disasters and most death polls."

So far, BetUS.com hasn't heard from any celebrities who inspired wagering, according to Ross. "We did get a joke in one of Jay Leno's monologues," he said, "after taking bets on whether the world would end on June 6, 2006, you know, the whole 666 thing.

"It was just a gag proposition but people could bet on it. The funny part that Jay noticed was: How could you collect if the world ended?"

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com.