NEW YORK – Fans may not be able to get close to Renee Zellweger (search) or Johnny Depp (search) on the red carpet, but there's a way that they can own shares of their favorite stars — at least virtually.
Several Web sites, including The Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX.com) and NewsFutures.com, allow users to invest in virtual stocks of Tinseltown stars and box-office bonanzas — and busts. The sites are aimed at helping lay people learn about real stock trading, but many users are just plain movie buffs.
"Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler (search) sound better than some stock on Wall Street," said Michael O'Rorke, vice president of content and programming at HSX.com.
The sites let people "buy shares" of movies, albums and actors that go up or down in value depending on a series of factors, such as box-office sales, award nominations and media coverage. Users can monitor their portfolio, trade "stocks" such as "The Passion of the Christ" stock and reference materials such as reviews and industry buzz to make wise investments.
"It feels real because it virtually is real the way it works," O'Rorke said.
Last spring, Will Hayes, 52, discovered the fun of wagering imaginary money and learning "how studios position their films for Oscar nominations."
This year, the NewsFutures.com buff has seen three times as many films as last year and is more in tune with Hollywood as an industry — but he still doesn't agree with all the buzz surrounding certain flicks.
"The worst film I've seen that has multiple nominations is '21 Grams,'" he said of the film that earned a Best Actress Oscar nod for Naomi Watts and a Supporting Actor nod for Benicio Del Toro.
The Los Angeles-based HSX.com, which has about 25,000 people trading each day, has been predicting Oscar winners since 1997 — and correctly named every winner that year and in 1999.
The current predictions on the site are:
Best Picture: "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King"
Best Actor: Sean Penn ("Mystic River"), but Johnny Depp ("Pirates of the Caribbean") is close behind
Best Actress: Charlize Theron ("Monster")
Best Director: Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King")
Tom Horan, 28, of Texas, is a site regular and has one of its highest-earning portfolios, except for when the value of his investment plummeted when "Pearl Harbor" bombed in 2001.
But even with his online success, Horan is not ready to invest actual cash: "I'm not sure I have the nerve to do the real stock market," he said. "I'm not sure I could gamble real money."
Horan's Oscar predictions are consistent with the site for Best Picture and Actress, but he's still shaky on his Best Actor picks.
"I'm not sure whether it will be Sean Penn or Bill Murray ['Lost in Translation']. And Johnny Depp threw us a wrench when he won the SAG award," Horan said.
Greg Goldstein, 31, was a stockbroker when he joined HSX and began investing in flicks. But he said as a former professional in the money biz, he knows that trading on Hollywood's stars isn't like the real thing.
"I knew what all of the terms were, how profits work, but this is a completely different set of rules," he said. "The stock market is news driven. HSX is driven by release dates and how much a movie will make."
For some devotees, the thrill of keeping in step with Hollywood's movers and shakers is only part of the draw. The community of other users is just as enticing to Horan.
"There is a common interest that sucks people in and gets them hooked."
Two regular HSX.com users were even recently married in Las Vegas, and 20 of their friends from the Web site joined the celebration.
NewsFutures.com, which focuses on hard news as well as entertainment, has users basing their virtual portfolios on predictions of how major news events will unfold. For instance, visitors can invest in whether they think George W. Bush will be elected president in 2004.
But the site's entertainment section also is a big draw.
"I expect heavy trading during the Oscar ceremony itself," NewsFutures Chief Executive Emile Servan-Schreiber said. "People just love to trade while watching the events happening on TV."
"Sixerjman," a 45-year-old former software engineer from Connecticut, who has been a subscriber for two years, says he's hooked by the online community and sense of camaraderie on the site. But ultimately, it's all the buzz of investing in the stars.
"It's a remarkable game, intoxicating and very addictive," he said.