This Was a Movie Project?

moneyball book cover2 This Was a Movie Project?

You may have heard that Sony Pictures “dropped the ball” or “struck out” (depending on which baseball cliché jumped into a writer’s head) on a film version of Michael Lewis’ best-seller, Moneyball. The film was set to star Brad Pitt with Steven Soderbergh directing. 

The reasons behind Sony’s decision appear to be sound. According to Michael Cieply in The New York Times, Sony has already paid $10 million in script developments and costs like scouting locations. With an estimated $57 million budget, Moneyball, reports Cieply, “was not hugely expensive but not a small indie project, either.  The film was of a sophisticated type that needed the cachet of a Soderbergh, the star power of a Pitt, and perhaps Academy Award potential to overcome its somewhat cerebral quality and the difficult of attracting foreign viewers for a movie about America’s pastime.”

Nonetheless, I’m left with several unanswered questions about this debacle. First, what do they mean “costs like scouting locations”?  The book is the story of how Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane managed to compete in the American League on a small budget through adroit use of baseball statistics when recruiting players rather than just relying on scouting reports. Nothing particularly complex, just more attention to on-base percentage and slugging percentage, indicators like that, which baseball analysts have been emphasizing for about a quarter of a century. The story takes place in Oakland. Why does the location have to be scouted and why would it cost millions?  Can’t they give someone gas money to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Oakland to look around? (It isn’t like they’d have to build a new ballpark for the movie.)

And did it cost millions for someone to figure out that there are absolutely no dramatic (or even comedic) events in the book to build a story around? 

Second, what exactly is Steven Soderbergh’s “cachet”?  The man has made three profitable movies this decade—all of them “Ocean’s” flicks with a combined star power of Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Matt Damon. The rest of his films since 2001 have sunk so deep and so fast that most filmgoers never knew they were in the theaters.  Let’s review:  the twin bombs of Che Parts One and Two last year, The Good German in 2006 (which vanished quickly despite a cast that included George Clooney, Cate Blanchett and Tobey Maguire), Bubble (2005), Solaris (2002, also with Clooney), and Full Frontal (2002).  If that list confers cachet, Nia Vardalos is the queen of Greece.

Point three:  As regards the overseas potential for Moneyball, did they really need to spend $10 million and budget another $57 million before a light went on in someone’s head that said, “No one in Belgium or Kenya knows who Eric Chavez is”?  (But people in Japan, Taiwan, the Caribbean and even Australia do—isn’t there a potential box office in those countries if the movie is good?)

Fourth, forget about foreign rights—who in this country is going to shell out 10 bucks to see a movie based on a guy’s study of baseball stats? If that’s what the public wanted, Pitt would have already starred in the life story of Bill James.

According to Cieply, the swift mothballing of Moneyball “may also increase doubts that Hollywood can still deliver tricky but appealing pictures like Michael Clayton, Good Night, and Good Luck and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.”

This is nutty.

Benjamin Button wasn’t a small, tight production like Clayton or Good Night. It was a big-star vehicle of the kind Hollywood specializes in. In any case, what do these three films have to do with the cancellation of Moneyball, since all three were successful? Moneyball wasn’t dumped because it was like those three pictures, but very much unlike them. Everyone in Hollywood knows that producers love to green-light projects that look like previous successes.

Am I the only one who thinks there is something ironic in the flame-out of a film whose budget, including preproduction, could have cost $20-$25 million more than the payroll for the entire Oakland A’s team this year?  Moneyball might not have been regarded as “hugely expensive,” but it’s hard to understand how Pitt and Soderbergh, who are presumably fans of the book, could have missed its central message: Money doesn’t buy quality. 

Let’s give the punch line, though, to script doctor Christopher Wilkinson, who seems to know less about movies than he does about baseball.  “There’s a movie in there,” he said. “But it’s a very unusual movie.” Translated from Hollywoodese to English, this means, “I may get stuck working with some of these people somewhere along the road and I don’t want to offend anyone by saying this was a dumb idea.”

My own guess is that when and if Moneyball makes it to the screen it will be a small one, a cable TV project starring someone like Jeremy Piven in the Billy Beane role. And maybe Robert Wuhl as a colorful and eccentric old-style baseball manager.

For an adaptation of a book on how a successful baseball team can run on the cheap, cable TV is where everyone should have been looking in the first place. A feature film is the kind of idea the Steinbrenner boys might have gone for.

UPDATE: Cieply reports that Sony “has quietly moved to salvage its troubled movie project ‘Moneyball’ by hiring the high-profile screenwriter Aaron Sorkin for a quick rewrite, while looking to add Scott Rudin, known for his turns on the Oscar circuit, to the film’s roster of producers.”