July 11, 2009

I probably mentioned at some point that my favorite book from the last ten years was Moneyball, Michael Lewis' examination of how the Oakland A's were able to compete at the highest level of baseball for awhile in spite of having the lowest payroll and one of the least favorable market situations of any team in professional sports. Evidently, someone in Hollywood has seen blockbuster potential in the philosophy of Billy Beane, according to the LA Times:
Aaron Sorkin is best known in Hollywood as a screenwriter and TV producer supreme, having put his high-style signature on everything from “The West Wing” and “Sports Night” to “Charlie Wilson’s War.” But now, as Variety first reported Thursday, Sorkin has a new role—he’s the closer on “Moneyball,” the much-ballyhooed baseball movie at Sony Pictures that the studio shut down just days before shooting was scheduled to begin late last month.

The movie, which had Brad Pitt slated to star as Billy Beane, the maverick general manager of the Oakland A’s who was the focus of Michael Lewis’ bestselling “Moneyball” book, had its plug pulled after director Steven Soderbergh turned in a last-minute script revision that the studio felt took the film in a radically different, not to mention wildly uncommercial, new direction. But the news that Sorkin has appeared in the bullpen—get used to it, we’re going to employ a lot of baseball lingo here—sends a clear message that Sony is determined to keep the movie alive.


So why would Sony hire Sorkin when the studio already had a perfectly good shooting script, penned by the Oscar-winning writer Steve Zaillian? The most likely reason: The studio wanted to send a message to Brad Pitt that it was still absolutely, incontestably behind the picture. If Pitt were to walk away from the project, it could deal a fatal blow to the picture, which is already considered something of a commercial risk, since baseball movies have zero appeal outside of the U.S., meaning that the movie would have to make its investment back solely on the strength of its domestic box-office performance. Pitt is considered indispensable, since the studio has always known it had an extremely short list of A-list stars who could be both believable and bankable as the real-life Beane, a charismatic, fortysomething ballplayer turned crafty but cerebral baseball theoretician. When it comes to potential stars, the drop-off after Pitt is steep.
No offense meant towards Mr. Sorkin or Mr. Jolie, but has anyone at Sony actually read Moneyball? I thought the whole point of Moneyball was that "stars" like Brad Pitt are never indispensable, that there was a plenty of talent out there that hadn't been recognized, that was undervalued, and that a team like the A's could exploit that without spending themselves into the poorhouse. Why spend $10 million on Brad Pitt when you can get Jon Hamm for a lot less?

But, you say, having an "A-List" star on the marquee guarantees success at the box office. Having Brad Pitt involved in your project automatically means the film will be a hit (putting aside Burn After Reading, Troy, and Meet Joe Black, of course), since the film-going audience will necessarily want to see anything he's in, right?

Well, no, actually, it doesn't, particularly for a project like this. As the Times notes, baseball films have little audience outside the United States, so keeping costs down takes on paramount importance. Billy Beane's innovative approach to baseball is equally applicable to the entertainment industry: fans pay money to see winners, not pricey stars. In a world where The Hangover can earn over $200 million starring Ed Helms, Bradley Cooper and Mike Tyson, and where Slumdog Millionaire can make a fortune and win Oscars with a cast unknown outside of Mumbay, the business model Sony is using is as outdated as the "old-school" philosophy baseball GM's used when they picked talent based on batting average and base stealing.