Two years ago, a new Fox (NWS) executive walked into The Simpsons’ writers’ room, looked at the huge whiteboard sitting in front, and complimented the staff on having so many great episode ideas. They thanked the exec, waited until he left, and then cracked up. The whiteboard had nothing on it about Homer or Bart, or anything else related to what Fox pays them hundreds of thousands of dollars to do all day. Instead, it was a list of summer movies and how much the staff thought each was likely to gross. They call this invention the Summer Box Office Fantasy League, and it’s a very serious business.
Although they’re proud of their show, their movie, and their Universal Studios (CMCSA) ride, The Simpsons’ writers are far more interested in being known for creating this complicated gambling game, their addition to a fantasy-obsessed culture that already offers pretend baseball, football, basketball, Nascar, Ultimate Fighting Championship, golf, tennis, cricket, poker, and bass fishing leagues. Unlike in those competitions, which require an interest in sports, The Simpsons’ writers have found a way to obsess over the movie business. “It’s entertainment nerds betting on what they know best—entertainment. I assume paper companies do it with new brands of paper coming out,” says writer Joel Cohen, the 2010 champion.
For the past five years, The Simpsons’ writers have stayed late one night in April, ordered some pizza, opened some beers, and put a bunch of numbers in a bingo hopper. A ball is picked, and then Eliza Hooper, a former production assistant who now writes for comedian Whitney Cummings, yells out the name of the corresponding summer movie. Each writer—there are more than 20, and almost all play—uses 100 fake “B.O. bucks” to bid on the films. At the end of the auction, each bidder has a roster of between two and eight movies; the list that brings in the most money in the U.S. box office by Labor Day wins $400 and, far more important, its owner’s name on a championship banner. The felt flags hang from the room’s A-frame wooden ceiling, lit perfectly from above, like they’re in the Staples Center. “We got to pick our colors. I love it. Whenever the show eventually ends, I’ll hang it on the wall of my house,” says 2011 winner Michael Price. “My banner was my Twitter avatar.”
When the league’s not in session, The Simpsons’ writers’ room is remarkably calm, drained of all the nervous energy of most shows. That’s because most shows don’t last 24 years. The room is guarded by a huge sculpture of Homer’s hand holding a doughnut, and no one argues about where to order lunch. There’s almost no turnover—all but one of the writers have been on the job at least eight years, and most of the original writers keep a consulting gig for one or two days a week. “The Box Office fantasy auction does seem like the kind of game you would come up with in a place where everyone has been trapped together for a long time, like the army or prison,” says Matt Selman, who has been writing for the show for 16 years and is also an executive producer.
In the spring, as they prepare for the draft, the pop-culture-obsessed Simpsons staff becomes even more pop-culture-obsessed. As soon as that year’s list of eligible movies is chosen by Commissioner Brian Kelley, who invented the game, the writers watch trailers on the room’s screens, normally used to look at Simpsons scripts. They base bidding prices on 3D-ticket costs, marketing budgets, and release dates. “People do their research and also use inside information,” says Marc Wilmore, currently in seventh place out of 18 players. “What are studio execs saying? Is the star bad-mouthing the film? Did the script go through a lot of writers? It’s kind of like a stock—what do you really know about the company?” The writers even bundle each month’s small indies into one bid, as if they’re bad mortgage securities. This April, Iron Man 3 was divided into thirds, since it was believed to be worth around 200 BOBs (it went for 155 BOBs altogether and has made about $400 million).
The most undervalued movies so far have been the same ones that surprised the studios and entertainment reporters: The Great Gatsby (43 BOBs for a $136 million return), This Is the End (15 BOBs, for $75 million), and The Purge (12 BOBs, for $36 million). The biggest bombs were also unexpected—Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn in The Internship (25 BOBs, for $18 million), Will Smith’s After Earth (28 BOBs, for $46 million), and Peeples (11 BOBs, for $9 million), which the bidder mistakenly thought was directed by Tyler Perry, who only produced it. “You understand why studios make the movies they make,” Kelley says. “You get excited about these small movies, and they make no money. And Superhero Movie 10 makes all the money.” Just as fantasy football players have to deal with freak injuries, random events can wreak havoc on a player’s team. “When GI Joe: Retaliation was moved out of summer 2012, it was as if [Vikings’ running back] Adrian Peterson shattered his spine in half,” says Selman.
It’s important to understand that The Simpsons’ writers, even in the world of comedy, are giant nerds. Four have graduate degrees in math or computer science; head writer Al Jean majored in math at Harvard. Jeff Westbrook, who got a Ph.D. in computer science at Princeton, wrote a program that delivers box office results to everyone’s e-mail on Sunday nights. It also calculates standings for the side bets the writers make. “It’s probably the most personal satisfaction I’ve gotten out of writing a computer program,” he says. Two side bets involve a second round of 100 BOBs used to put together new slates based on the price they sold for during the draft. In one, players with the highest gross and lowest gross win. A third rewards the person whose original slate overperforms by the highest percentage.
In addition to using Westbrook’s Sunday night program, the writers obsessively check Box Office Mojo, a website that tracks movie grosses, throughout the weekend. Their spouses, they say, don’t care too much, since the game doesn’t require them to watch sports all day. “But my wife doesn’t like it when I won’t see a movie because I don’t want to help someone else,” Kelley says. Players have been known to pay for their own movie and then sneak into the film they want to see. Although league members have worked on Epic, Despicable Me 2, and We’re the Millers, they show no favoritism to their own projects or ones their friends work on. They trust Internet gossip more than their own experience.
The level of trash talk is surprisingly low, considering it’s a fantasy league and these are comedy writers. “There’s less taunting than you’d expect, because we take it so seriously,” Kelley says. “This is the one thing in our lives we don’t joke about.” Two people have dropped out of the league because they didn’t like the tension of draft day; when previous winners refer to the “League of Champions,” the others earnestly object to the use of the phrase. Former writers, such as Mike Scully and Matt Warburton, come back for the draft, and the widow of 2009 winner Don Payne, who died earlier this year, came to spin the bingo ball cage.
Thanks to improved rules, under which many films were split into two or three parts, this year’s is the closest contest yet, and the whiteboard is still filled with draft results. “It does take the board out of commission for a while,” says Kelley. “There are a couple of months when, even if we need the board, we’ll use pencil and paper.”