Credit: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, photoillustration by paul john higgins

Date Night, a comedy opening April 9 at a theater near you, offers blue-chip stars Tina Fey and Steve Carell in the tale of a married couple whose dinner plans go very, very wrong. It was directed by Shawn Levy, the guy responsible for both Night at the Museum movies. So how do you think it’ll do at the box office? And would you care to make a little bet—er, investment—on that?

You can do that now, on the virtual Hollywood Stock Exchange (HSX.com), where last week traders using “H” dollars were guessing that Date Night would gross about $90 million in its first four weeks. But if the Trend Exchange—a proposed futures market for movie box-office receipts—gets off the ground, you’ll be able to do it with real money.

Last week CEO Robert Swagger and other execs at the TrendEx were eagerly awaiting approval from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. The TrendEx is a subsidiary of the Swagger-run Veriana Ventures, which is headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, but would operate the TrendEx out of an office at 190 S. LaSalle in Chicago. A decision had been scheduled for no later than April 2, but at the last minute Swagger and his team hit a bump: In a letter to the CFTC, a coalition of five major movie-industry trade associations—representing everyone from directors to theater owners—registered their opposition and asked the commission to put its decision on hold. This came on the heels of a letter from the Motion Picture Association of America that likened the proposed trading to “unbridled gambling” and worried that “the reputation and integrity” of the industry could be “tarnished.”

It’s hard to imagine how the movie industry’s cutthroat rep might get any worse, but tying it to a new set of derivative products from the sector that brought us the global economic bust might just do the job. Still, Patrick Catania, a former Chicago Board of Trade executive vice president who’s working on the TrendEx as a consultant, says not to fret: the stuff that got us into trouble was “unregulated, over-the-counter, handshake deals.” TrendEx products will be regulated and “transparent,” he says, cleared at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange and governed by the TrendEx’s own set of rules, under the jurisdiction of the CFTC.

Far from damaging the industry, Catania maintains, the TrendEx would provide a vital tool many other industries already have: the ability to limit losses by trading options and contracts that’ll pay off if the movie doesn’t. Knowing they can buy this kind of “insurance,” Catania says, will make potential movie backers more likely to invest. Swagger began work on the idea in 2007. Changes in the economy since then have only made the need for it more urgent, Catania argues. With the current credit crunch and no way to manage risk, he says, “even major producers and directors are having to go out of the country to find investors.”

Swagger and company say their products are geared to professional traders and movie industry investors looking for a hedge, and not to the unsophisticated “retail” market (translation: you and me). The plan is to start off with two products. One is an option—a complicated, all-or-nothing bet on first-weekend sales. The other is a futures contract, where gains or losses would be determined by how closely a given bet comes to matching the actual opening-weekend box-office numbers. Trading would run for the four weeks leading up to opening weekend and close before it, and each million dollars in ticket sales would be represented by an option unit costing $50. Trades would have to be placed through a broker called a futures commodity merchant. The relatively steep pricing and broker requirement are supposed to help deter amateurs.

But there’s still the fear of manipulation by insiders. What comes to mind is a Bialystock-and-Bloom-style scam, a la The Producers, with moviemakers betting against their own deliberately miserable flick. But they might also just take advantage of their insider knowledge about scheduling and marketing. The TrendEx folks say they’ll prevent manipulation by collecting box-office data directly from an independent source, Rentrak Corporation, and requiring studios to put a firewall between anyone responsible for “compiling or computing” box-office revenues and those charged with hedging investments in the film. Exactly how the firewall could be ensured is unclear.

Swagger isn’t the only one with a box-office futures proposal pending before the CFTC. The owner of HSX.com, New York-based Cantor Fitzgerald—a financial services company famous for the devastating hit it took on 9/11—wants to open a real-world equivalent called the Cantor Exchange. Like the Swagger forces, Cantor Fitzgerald claims its Movie Box Office Contract—based on gross receipts of the first four weeks of a movie’s run—will be a regulated, transparent hedging tool for the industry. But it also touts the MBOC as a “low-cost” vehicle that will “link investors of all categories with film finance.” On the Cantor Exchange, each million dollars of actual ticket sales will cost bettors just $1, and they’ll be able to get in on the action directly from their own computers.

Futures markets for commodities have been around in the United States since the 19th century, and for most of that time they’ve been used to help farmers through seasons of unpredictable weather. Now there are contracts for everything from the value of foreign currencies to the weather itself. Even so, preventing a Springtime for Hitler scenario would present special challenges. The MPAA—whose members include studios like Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Disney—is telling the CFTC that it sees a conundrum in these proposed markets: the very investors they’ve been created to aid, film industry professionals like themselves, would “be prohibited from hedging their financial risk in a particular movie because they possess material non-public information.”

A statement released last week by the MPAA, the Directors Guild of America, the Independent Film & Television Alliance, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, and the National Association of Theater Owners, says both proposals are “based on a faulty understanding of the film industry and create a risk of rampant speculation and financial irresponsibility at a time when the nation is still seeking to recover from an economic meltdown of the financial markets.”

On Friday, the CFTC put off its decision on the TrendEx until April 9.