Why Did Brad Pitt, Steven Soderbergh, and Moneyball Strike Out?

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Speculation surges this morning as to why Sony would pull the plug on Moneyball, Steven Soderbergh and Brad Pitt's adaptation of the best-selling baseball tome, mere days before it was scheduled to begin principal photography. One theory suggests studio boss Amy Pascal wasn't happy with Soderbergh's latest script draft; another says she simply wanted to prove she could say "no" in the deadliest economic era in generations. (A strategy that worked out so well for John Lesher at Paramount, but I digress.) There's something to both ideas, but I can think of at least a few others that would make my own inner mogul flash the hold sign.

And all of them basically stem from one overriding objection: You can't sell a baseball movie in 2009. Especially not this movie, even with Pitt, who has his proven international draw but will still just be playing Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane in a story about how statistical analysis revolutionized Major League Baseball. I mean, come on. This isn't Field of Dreams. I love the book, love the game, love Soderbergh, but even with former Mets/Phillies great (and legendarily foul-mouthed raconteur) Lenny Dykstra showing up as himself, I don't even really want to see this movie.

Getting down to specific numbers, David Poland argued Sunday that Pitt's international box-office prowess makes Moneyball a no-brainer at the $50 million range where Sony had it (and had already spent a chunk of that on Steven Zailian's script and some early, documentary-style production work by Soderbergh on his own). Plus marketing, the studio is still in for less than $100 million, which is historically near-automatic for Pitt in foreign markets. Add domestic and DVD and you've got a tidy profit -- on paper anyway.

But in keeping with Beane's iconoclasm, look beyond the paper. The key is on-base percentage, and outside Dreams doing $20 million abroad two decades ago -- still only 25% of its total gross -- what baseball film has ever managed to work overseas? Are we to trust Pitt's ability to hit for average in foreign territories, or trust the numbers that tell us to bench Moneyball against a notoriously tough curveball pitcher? Considering that the baseball film has struck out more often than Pitt has reached base, is it really that hard a call to make in an economic climate like this?

Which isn't to say that Moneyball won't happen. In limited turnaround at Sony, Soderbergh and Pitt will likely take the project to pals at Warner Bros. and Paramount -- the latter of which you might have heard has a tight budget, some 2010 release slots to fill, and would probably be fine taking a risk like this with a flexible Pitt after finding the black on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. But with the crew, co-star Demetri Martin and its A-list tandem holding their breaths in the dugout, a "yes" would have to happen soon. Soderbergh sets, winds, delivers, and here's the pitch...

· Sony scraps Soderbergh's Moneyball [Variety]



Comments

  • Juancho says:

    STV, what is more nebulous: VORP or net points on a back-end deal?

  • Eric Walker says:

    Let me see if I've got this: traditionally done baseball movies often don't do well, so when an eminent director wants to make a baseball-based movie in a non-traditional manner, that's grounds for the ax. How obvious.
    Also, if you've read the book, how can you think it's about statistics? Billy Beane as a young amateur ballplayer is touted as the next super-superstar, but as a pro fails miserably; instead of walking away from the game, as so many would (and have done), he enters management at a lowly level and by diligence, savvy, character, and innovation works himself up to being one of the most noted and influential men in the game. That is boring stat stuff? A writer could scarcely assemble a better plot line out of whole cloth, much less reality.
    Now if only Beane could have been portrayed as a costumed, masked flying superhero who battles arch-criminals (and appeals mainly to 11-year-olds), doubtless Ms. Pascal would have been well enough pleased.

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