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Sunday, July 14, 2013

Disruptions: Hollywood, or Silicon Valley: Where’s the Money?

Last year, “The Dark Knight Rises” was one of the top-grossing films of 2012, racking up $1 billion in worldwide box-office sales. That same year, Instagram, the photo-sharing site based in Silicon Valley, was also one of the top-grossing commercial tech deals of the year; Facebook bought it for $1 billion. So which was a better return on investment, the Hollywood hit or the Silicon Valley wonder?

If you really want a sure bet, the answer is neither, said Ilya A. Strebulaev, a professor of finance at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, who advised caution before whipping out your checkbook to finance either the next movie or start-up. Both industries, he pointed out, are unpredictable and unstable, and not the ideal way to make money.

“Hollywood and Silicon Valley really exist because of a few big successes,” Mr. Strebulaev said. “If you take a random movie, it loses money. Hollywood makes money from its big hits. The exact same is true with Silicon Valley; the average investment loses money.” He said both were considered “alternative investments.”

Still, in some ways, the movie industry â€" in the midst of the summer blockbuster season â€" may be a better bet, in that its returns are often more consistent. And when it comes to failure, the Valley seems to have even more spectacular flops. The common refrain I hear from venture capitalists is that nine out of 10 start-ups fail within the first two years. In Hollywood, only seven of 10 movies fail at the box office â€" meaning they do not make back their original investment, according to producers and executives.

But that one tech company in 10 that does not fail can reap huge returns. Far larger than Hollywood.

“A good tech investment firm returns three times the fund it uses for investments,” said Bijan Sabet, a general partner at Spark Capital, one of the first companies to invest in Tumblr. Mr. Sabet noted that this meant that a $100 million fund should return $300 million to investors. “In most venture capital firms, one third of the investments in start-ups don’t work out, one third are flat and one third are the winners.”

Doing the math, that means the winning start-ups must return nine times the original investment. In a rare few instances, that number can be considerably larger, and often outperforms most other investments.

For example, James W. Breyer, of the venture capital firm Accel Partners, said his investment in Facebook returned 100 times its original cost. And anyone who invested in Twitter in the early days would have a 50-fold return on that bet today at the company’s current $10 billion valuation. “The Twitter and Facebook returns come along once every 10 years,” Mr. Sabet said.

Hollywood has those once-every-10-years wins, too. “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” which was released by the Independent Film Channel in 2002, had a production budget of nearly $6 million and made $369 million at the box office. Not including DVD, on-demand and other rights, that’s 60 times the return on investment. “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” which opened in theaters in 1982 with a $10 million budget, made just under $800 million, 80 times its investment.

Although the math might look the same here, the difference is that the return on the Valley can be in billions of dollars, while Hollywood still talks in millions of dollars. Additionally, Hollywood has to split the box office costs with the theaters, though the industry makes still more on residuals from television, on-demand, DVDs and licensing.

While venture capitalists are often looking for the companies with the biggest returns, film executives seem equally enticed by the prospect of a good narrative. “You can’t make a film in a garage, you need a great story and that’s where it all starts,” said Michael Burns, a film executive and vice chairman of Lionsgate.

“The real financial opportunity to catch lighting in a bottle in the film industry is with the franchise hits,” Mr. Burns said. “’Harry Potter,’ ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘Twilight’ are all examples of this.”

Those movies make consistent huge profits for studios, which could be in the billions. Tech start-ups, in comparison, don’t have anything close to a franchise opportunity. Even when there is a seasoned entrepreneur at the helm, investors are always betting on a company for the first time.

Tech investors are by and large richer than movie moguls. According to Forbes, Jerry Bruckheimer, creator of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and the television series CSI is considered one of the most successful film and television producers in the world, with a net worth of $850 million. John Doerr, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who invested in Google and Twitter, has an estimated net worth of $2.8 billion, according to Forbes. That’s three times the size of Mr. Bruckheimer’s bank account.

Silicon Valley can even claim to be home to those with more fame. Mark Zuckerberg, a co-founder of Facebook, has 18.5 million followers on the site. Leonardo DiCaprio has a comparatively modest 5.5 million followers there.

Though let’s not dismiss the power of Hollywood. Mr. Zuckerberg is in part so famous because of the global reach of the film “The Social Network,” about the founding of his company. It no doubt also helped bring people to Facebook, which had 500 million users when the movie opened and has since blown past a billion.

So which is a better investment â€" Hollywood or Silicon Valley? Here’s Mr. Strebulaev’s bottom line: If you want bigger wins, go with Silicon Valley, if you want more consistent, but smaller returns, pick Hollywood. But if you want to reliably make money, go with neither. “If you look at other markets, if you invest oil or steel, you will have a more consistent return on your investment.”

E-mail: bilton@nytimes.com