Y’know, I think we learned something today: Derivatives were maybe not the best choice for the third-ever scene challenge.[Scene Challenge]

I deliberately picked something tough because in real life, screenwriters are often faced with challenging topics to explain. For example, last night I spoke with Ron Bass about the Einstein project he’s working on. Quick: Show special relativity.

But this wasn’t much easier. Readers tried hard to find a way to make these abstract financial instruments cinematically explicable, but it proved tougher than expected. First, you had to find a scenario in which derivatives would make sense. Then you needed to craft an explanation that didn’t read like a Wikipedia summary.

That’s assuming you really understood what derivatives were, and after reading 84 entries, I think I understand them less. In the end, I was happy to accept any of the sub-categories (options, futures, forwards), but kept hoping for more entries where the concept of a derivative was really key to the story, and not a throwaway bit of dialogue. That’s why I threw in my own piece of Angel fan-fic.

That said, I was happy to see that most of the entries didn’t take place on Wall Street, but rather ranged from fantasy (Alan Scott) to bachelorhood (Andy).

“John August” was introduced as an element in a surprising number of scenarios, a meta-quality that helped break up the sameness, but didn’t win any ribbons.

Jonathan, however, brought up an interesting and obvious analogy I’d overlooked:

ACCOUNTANT

Why don’t you just ask your blog readers to explain it for you?

JOHN

I’ve already tried that. You should have seen the dreck they wrote back. Besides, what do I pay you for?

ACCOUNTANT

(sighing)

When a studio wants to buy your script, but doesn’t want to risk all their money, what do they do?

JOHN

They option the script, so they can buy it at a future date. Crafty devils.

(Jonathan also put me in a jacuzzi with grape-feeding starlets, which suggests he might not know my biography that well.)

Juicy Lucy found a good example of a character whose entire existence seems to be a pitiful derivative:

A COUGH from across the table causes Popeye and Olive Oyl both to look up, but their companion’s face hides behind his open newspaper, whose headline reads:

PRICE OF BEEF EXPECTED TO PLUMMET BY THE END OF THIS WEEKEND

The newspaper lowers to reveal WIMPY, his yellow top-hat perched precariously on his fat head, his already thin mustache stretching even further when he shoots a sh*t-eating grin at the approaching WAITRESS...

WIMPY

I’ll gladly pay you Tuesday, for a hamburger today.

I liked how Unkatrazz made the distinction between a stock and derivative:

PAPERWEALTH

Why buy an investment...when you can make a bet on an investment?

Having a character explain his job was a natural choice for many readers. The best of these was Jacob’s:

Next date: Girish is animated. He holds a coffee cup and moves it around the table as he speaks.

GIRISH

Say there is a farmer growing coffee beans in Karala. It’s late July and harvest is still six months away. The problem is that market prices for coffee go up and down for reasons out of his control. In six months, prices could be higher than they are now, which would be lovely. But if prices are lower, he stands to lose his farm. In order to protect himself, he gets together with other farmers in the same position and signs a contract to sell tomorrow’s beans for today’s prices. He gets a little money now, and then when the contract comes due, he sells the beans to the buyer for the agreed-upon price.

Girish pauses, then speaks with emphasis.

GIRISH

Betting that prices will rise, I am that buyer.

Many entries took a glancing shot at derivatives, without really trying to explain them. Of these, Andy’s was a favorite:

Scrawny BILL GATES (19) signs a contract in black ink.

BILL GATES

We’re in the 70s. Nobody signs in blood anymore.

He smirks at SATAN (∞), who fidgets nervously.

SATAN

I don’t get it.

BILL GATES

It’s basic finance. Derivatives. By the time you get my soul, it could be worth a lot more.

SATAN

Or a lot less.

BILL GATES

But you’re getting it cheap now. Look, either way you get it. You’re covered.

SATAN

Erm... I don’t know...

BILL GATES

Tell you what. I’ll throw in some stocks to sweeten the deal.

BILL GATES offers him the pen. Satan hesitates.

SATAN

Ah, fuck it.

He signs, and at that very moment, a new Circle is carved into Hell.

Crimeland figures played a role in many entries. Mike Lavoie gets credit for working the most financial terms into a threat:

BURGER

There are four kinds of derivatives, Frank. Forwards, which is the direction we can move in now. Options, which you’re running out of. Futures, a couple of which you can decide now. And finally: swaps. As in: You give me my money and, in exchange, you get the rest of your wife.

The two top finishers come from the other side of the crime equation, with police-types investigating derivative wrongdoing. David Nemesis:

INT. BRANT BUILDING LOBBY – DAY

Eckes and Rosenfeld are walk-and-talking to Rosenfeld’s office.

ECKES

Stop, you lost me. What was Laszlo dabbling in?

ROSENFELD

Weather derivatives. Let’s say you’re Gruber Foods. Your bottom line depends on a good wheat harvest, there are any number of things that can mess that up, and you want to hedge your bets. So you buy up some weather futures.

ECKES

Okay. Wait, what?

ROSENFELD

Weather futures. They’re like an insurance policy on the weather, only no insurer would be crazy enough to put money on the weather. So you go to an options exchange and find someone who’ll sell you a contract that guarantees you a payout if certain things that aren’t likely to happen do happen.

ECKES

Like a snowstorm in the middle of Kansas in July?

ROSENFELD

Well...I’m sure they were thinking more along the lines of a few days of extra rainfall over a 60-day period. But yeah, pretty much. It’s all about variations from the norm. The seller’s taking a calculated risk that their forecasts will be close enough to accurate that they’ll get to keep all the money from the sale.

ECKES

So Laszlo was buying insurance policies which paid out if the weather did something unexpected?

ROSENFELD

Precisely. It’s a great investment opportunity if you just happen to be able to control the weather.

ECKES

Yeah, well, something tells me the folks in the derivatives market don’t know about super powers yet.

And this from Anthony:

AGENT

Your husband was leading something of a double life. Did you realize he was into derivatives?

WOMAN

(shocked)

You mean ... like transvestites or something?

(a beat)

AGENT

No ma’am. Derivatives. They’re financial instruments – futures, forwards, options.

(beat)

Sort of like stocks, but you’re buying the right or the obligation to make a transaction in the future. Your husband was trading derivatives online. Mostly options.

The woman stares blankly.

The Agent picks up a book from the couch – “Taste of the Town 2008”. It’s one of those coupon books school kids sell for fundraisers.

AGENT

Like the coupons in this book.

(shows her a page in the book)

This Burger Bonanza coupon here – “Any sandwich for 99 cents during the month of December”. That’s like a derivative. When you bought this coupon book you purchased the option to buy an item for a set price at a set time in the future.

WOMAN

I think I liked it better when he was just surfing the Internet for porn. At least my furniture didn’t disappear then.

In the end, I’m giving the imaginary award to Anthony for the coupon book metaphor. Well done. He can claim his bragging rights in the comments section.

Thanks to everyone who entered. I promise next time, it will be something a little more fun.