“We don’t look for low-budget movies and then see if we like them. We look for movies that we like and see if they then can be done on a lower budget.”
— Jason Blum, “The Business Genius Behind Get Out,” Planet Money
In my Labyrinthian on A/B testing, I talk about how I “listen to as many ‘smart’ (non-sports) podcast as I can” during the NFL offseason. Naturally, because people are soooo fascinated by me — and by “people” I mean “Mama Lynn” — some ‘people’ have asked me what non-sports podcasts I like.
I can’t claim to be a true podcast connoisseur — or even someone who can spell the word “connoisseur” without spellcheck — in fact, I’m not even sure if it’s “spellcheck” or “spell check” — but I’ll list here some of my favorite non-sports podcasts (in no particular order):
- Freakonomics Radio, hosted by Stephen J. Dubner: Awesome
- Revisionist History, hosted by Malcolm Gladwell: Hasn’t released an episode in over seven months, but still awesome
- The Time Ferriss Show, hosted by Tim Ferriss: Too long, but still awesome
- The Knowledge Project, hosted by Shane Parrish: The Farnam Street pod
- Noah Kagan Presents, hosted by Noah Kagan: The OkDork.com pod
- Happier, hosted by Gretchen Rubin & Elizabeth Craft: Makes me happier
- Think Again, hosted by Jason Gots: Makes me think again
- Planet Money, hosted by some dudes at NPR: Maybe a rotating group of hosts?
- Surprisingly Awesome, hosted by ???: Used to be hosted by the Adams Davidson & McKay and then Rachel Ward, although she has recently left the show, so . . .
- The Daily Fantasy Edge, hosted by Adam Levitan: A lifestyle pod cleverly pretending to be about daily fantasy sports
That’s probably a chalky and disappointing list. Sorry, I’m a chalky and disappointing bloke. Also, the inspiration for that last sentence was definitely Ron Weasley’s “It’s a creepy shop, he’s a creepy bloke.” Oh, Ronald, she’s way out of your league.
By the way, those aren’t all of my favorite non-sports pods, but some of them are just too embarrassing and/or provocative to admit I like. I mean, if FantasyLabs Co-Founder Jonathan Bales knew that I listen to The Drunken Taoist Podcast he would want to talk with me for hours about the nothingness of everything and the fluidity of existence, and I’d have to be like, “Dude, um, I’m pretty sure we both have work to do. I have to write an article, and don’t you have a breakfast sandwich to eat?”
In this article I explore some DFS-related thoughts I had while listening to this week’s episode of Planet Money.
Contrarianism in the World
At Labs we talk a lot about contrarianism and what it means to be a DFS contrarian, but I sometimes think the idea of contrarianism that exists in our DFS bubble is too idiosyncratic. It’s unique to DFS and perhaps not good for much else. When we look at the DFS Ownership Dashboard and surmise that a certain player was a contrarian option because the high-stakes players were on him but the low-stakes players weren’t, it’s possible that what we think we see isn’t actually contrarianism at all. It could be just a game-based attenuated version of the practice as it’s seen in the ‘real world,’ where Black Swans omen widespread disaster as opposed to mere slate-wide chaos.
What does non-DFS contrarianism look like? How does contrarianism in the world actually function?
These questions are important, because we might get a better sense of what successful contrarianism looks like in DFS when we see it practiced by people who have much more to lose than just some buy-ins to a guaranteed prize pool.
This week’s episode of Planet Money — “#650: The Business Genius Behind Get Out” — provides us with an excellent opportunity to see contrarianism in action when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake in an industry that, passingly, resonates with ours.
“#650: The Business Genius Behind Get Out“
This episode is about Hollywood producer Jason Blum and his production company, Blumhouse Productions.
Is the movie industry really similar to the DFS industry? Meh, it’s not entirely dissimilar. The movie industry consists of a small community of power players supplemented by a much larger group of people trying to climb their way to the top. The movie industry seems to define success as having not a string of marginal wins but instead a big hit that makes an outsized amount of money all at once. The movie industry values actionable creativity and the ability to make something unique. And the movie industry creates strategies based on its interpretation of what the public wants and how the market will act. At a minimum, there are similarities between making movies and playing DFS.
But let’s get back to Blum: In less than a decade he has transformed himself from an unknown executive lucky to make one movie per year to the CEO of one of the most profitable production houses in Hollywood.
How did he do it?
Let’s explore these points one at a time.
Blumhouse Productions specializes in horror and thriller movies. Although Blum makes the occasional sh*tty comedy, romance, musical, and drama flicks, for the most part he dances with the knife-yielding girl who brung him.
While I think that most horror and thriller movies suck — don’t you dare tweet at me — and also don’t you show up at my house one night wearing a Scream mask — Blum isn’t a purveyor of trash. In 2014, Blumhouse produced Whiplash, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and in just the last three months the production company has released the megahits Split and Get Out.
Basically, Blum has become so good at his job because over the last 10 years his production company has created 48 horror and thriller movies. They’ve perfected their genre. They’ve specialized and practiced. They’ve put in their 10,000 hours. And they’ve dedicated themselves to a type of film that has a ready audience — people who will always watch horror movies regardless of whether they’re actually deemed to be critically good.
In DFS, some people tend to specialize in cash games. Labs Co-Founder Peter Jennings (CSURAM88) is such a player. (I guess that last sentence can be read in a couple of ways. Either way, it’s true.) Other people, like Bales, tend to specialize in GPPs. And some people specialize in particular sports, or particular buy-in levels, or contests of particular sizes.
It’s good to be versatile — but often the path to success is paved with specialization.
It’s not uncommon for Blum to make 10 movies over the period of a year for a total cost of $50 million. That’s an unbelievably low sum of money. Basically, Blum is a shrewd value investor: He knows that the less he puts in his cinematic assets, the harder it will be for him to lose money and the easier it will be for him to increase his return on investment on a percentage basis.
For instance, if a film is made for $4 million and makes $25 million in revenue, then Blumhouse will see a return of 525 percent. If, though, the film costs $5 million to make and it earns $25 million in revenue, then the return will be only 400 percent — and, in a worst-case scenario, the movie will need to earn 25 percent more (than the $4 million dollar version of the movie) to break even — and that extra $1 million will not have been used to make another film that could’ve become a big hit.
In 2009, Blumhouse Productions released its first hit movie, Paranormal Activity. It cost literally $15,000 to make. It has brought in a reported $193.4 million worldwide, making it the most profitable film of all time (per ROI). For Blum, being cheap isn’t just a risk-reducing measure. It’s a massive profit-generating edge.
This idea can be applied to DFS in a variety of ways: For instance, it’s really important to pay attention to the cheap options in any given slate. Perhaps more than the expensive players, the low-cost options provide the most upside, especially in volatile sports. One way to quantify ‘cheapness’ is with our Bargain Rating, which measures how cheap a player is on DraftKings vs. FanDuel (or vice versa). Per our Trends tool, players across a variety of sports tend to outperform their salary-based expectations when they have high Bargain Ratings — and of course the lower a player’s salary is the higher his Plus/Minus will be when he performs well.
In DFS, being appropriately cheap is optimal.
With the Lineup Builder in our Player Models, it’s easy for Pro subscribers to shotgun DFS lineups. There is I admit an artistry to creating tournament lineups . . . but I think that artistry can manifest itself through adjusting the settings and approaching the slate intelligently. It doesn’t need to manifest itself through the making of 20-plus GPP lineups one at a time by hand or in an excel spreadsheet.
What’s brilliant about Blum is that he shotguns movies. Since 2014, Blumhouse has produced an average of just over one film per month. He doesn’t invest too much time and energy (and money) in any one film. He doesn’t try to figure out in advance which movies will be hits and which ones won’t. He just seeks to make as many movies as possible that are above a certain threshold in quality and below a certain threshold in expense — which is probably the way that most DFS players should approach slate selection and GPP lineup creation.
Did Blum know that Get Out would be a massive hit, grossing (to date) over $155 million? Maybe — but the movie was filmed in less than a month on a budget of $4.5 million. To Blum, Get Out was just another movie. If Get Out hadn’t been a hit, it wouldn’t have mattered: One of his other movies would’ve been the hit.
Blum is essentially a cinematic venture capitalist. About 40 percent of the movies he makes lose money. In 2016, Blumhouse released In a Valley of Violence, a Western starring Ethan Hawke and John Travolta — actors who are actually known — and the movie (filmed in only 25 days) grossed literally $61,797 at the box office. That’s horrible, but it doesn’t matter, because for Blum the goal is not to make money off of any one movie but to make a ton of movies cheaply and then profit in the aggregate off of the portfolio. Some movies suck, but the movies that do well more than make up for the losers.
To people who shotgun, losing and winning are identical steps in the process of making money.
Whereas many production companies attempt to make money by spending money, Blum enjoys an unbelievable ROI each year because of his parsimony. In effect, he’s a contrarian because he focuses on value.
The DFS resonance seems apparent. Whereas many DFS players focus on the players for whom they will pay up — deciding between this high-priced pitcher or that high-priced pitcher (for instance) — Blum gains a contrarian edge by paying down when possible. Per Planet Money, he wants to make the great movies that everyone else is overlooking. For him being cheap isn’t only about being cheap. It’s also about being different.
Blum has four rules for how to make a cheap movie — rules that (I think) contribute to his contrarianism and also apply to DFS:
- Not too many speaking parts: The fewer actors and actresses with speaking parts in a movie, the less the production studio needs to pay. DFS application: Don’t focus on crowding stars into a lineup. Too many ‘speaking parts’ will likely make a lineup too similar to other lineups.
- Not too many locations: The more locations in a film, the more expensive it is too make. DFS application: Narrow down the field of your exposure. Don’t invest in too many players or across too many teams. Use our Vegas Dashboard to find a few ‘locations’ you like, and then focus on those.
- Pay the stars as little as legally possible: Blum pays his stars and directors almost nothing. In exchange, they get equity in the film. They became partners. If it makes money, they make a lot of money. If it doesn’t, they don’t. DFS application: Whenever you can ‘partner’ with elite talent at a discounted price, do it.
- Never break the budget: This is Blum’s absolute rule. If a movie has problems, he won’t attempt to fix those problems by going over budget. He just leaves the film as it is. DFS Application: Clearly DFS players can’t go over the salary cap — but often DFS players spend more money than they need to because they feel deficient if they’re not using almost all of their salary space in their lineups. In spending more than they need, DFS players lose their contrarian edge.
Blum’s dedication to these rules is why he not infrequently makes movies that utterly fail. It’s also why he makes hundreds of millions of dollars each year while risking relatively little.
It pays to be a contrarian.
I listen to non-sports podcasts the way Blum makes movies. Sometimes, it’s (intellectually and/or ultimately monetarily) profitable. Sometimes, it’s not. But when the non-sports podcasts pay off, they tend to pay off big.
I never know which episode or show will provide inspiration. What’s important is that I listen to enough of them to ensure I’ll get inspiration at some point — especially if I always have DFS in the back of my mind.
Also . . .
. . . it probably doesn’t make sense for me to embed the Planet Money episode at the bottom of the show — but I’m contrarian like that.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.31, 126
This is the 126th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation. Previous installments of The Labyrinthian can be accessed via my author page.