Film Fund-amentals: Moneyball Madness

Life is full of ironies. After all, it is pretty ironic that a book detailing how an underfunded professional baseball team was transformed into a budget-friendly powerhouse would actually be a primer on statistics and the need to radically revamp how the statistics are determined and used to evaluate performance. More ironic, the book became a bestseller. Then a major motion picture. Now, it is a major fiasco. Eventually, it may end up being a George Clooney movie (joining Leatherheads somewhere in the back bins at Blockbuster).

Not too long ago, Steven Soderbergh was brought in to save production of The Moneyball. He was going to bring to the Sony production his innovative, Academy Award-winning fresh new take to the project. Or at least he was going to do that until Sony got a look at his highly rewritten script, collectively gasped and pulled the plug just three days before shooting was to begin. Of course, this is old news but still lively, especially since Sony had already invested $10 million in the film, had Brad Pitt lined up on the basis that Soderbergh (and only Soderbergh) was directing, and have absolutely no Plan B to this mess.

Thanks to some excellent reporting from Michael Cieply of The New York Times (July 2 edition) and Patrick Goldstein (Los Angeles Times June 30 edition), two things are clear: 1) Sony thought they were pumping $60 million into a funny baseball movie; 2) Soderbergh was planning to do a neo-documentary piece on statistical analysis (with a strong hint that he was heading toward a Hollywood variation on Dogma 95 aesthetics). Not since Casey Jones got behind the throttle has a project been on such a pre-determined crash path.

So why should anyone care? In some respects, we shouldn’t. Sure, it’s very unusual for a major studio to pull the plug on a movie just as the cast and crew are about to order lunch. But with economic panic going into overdrive in Hollywood, I suspect we’ll soon see many such unusual events. We’ve gone past the old adage that “Nobody knows anything.” They now know that they know nothing and that they need to know a bunch of stuff that they don’t know a thing about, and it’s scaring the bejeus out of them.

If we had any illusion about Hollywood, we could naively think that they might have been attracted to the Michael Lewis book Moneyball because its presentation of statistical analysis as a means of successfully restructuring recruitment in baseball could have a rational application to film production. (Note: I ‘m not looking to do an ad for ourselves, but we’ve been working on such a process and these approaches are extremely applicable). Despite the early controversies and debates concerning Sabermetrics in professional baseball, the approach has gained enormous favor and largely positive results (and this is in a game where spitting is more common than innovation). Filmmaking could easily benefit from various applications of such an approach.

But Hollywood does not fund statistics (even if Lewis’ book was a major best seller). They finance stories. Preferably fun stories about underdogs who beat the odds (with maybe some hanky-panky along the way). I doubt if anyone at Sony actually read the book. They just assumed that the thing would play as a Rocky-like variation on Major League (the original, not the sequels). All they had to do was sign up a big star (Brad Pitt) and get that funny director who did the Ocean’s 11 to 13 films.

Unfortunately Soderbergh is also the guy who did Kafka, King of the Hill, and Schizopolis. Soderbergh is an extremely innovative director who is quite capable of doing high-profile, entertaining romps as well as smaller, ambitious experiments in form and structure. With movies like Traffic and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, he carved out a powerful critical reputation. But not all of his innovations have exactly panned out. In 2005, when he released his movie Bubble simultaneously to theaters, DVD, and cable TV, he became the second man in history to be attacked by NATO (OK, it was the National Association of Theater Owners, not the other NATO – but the attack was just as savage). His bold experiment in distribution bombed and has momentarily derailed any further major moves in this direction (even though the distribution system needs to be extensively overhauled).

It’s extremely likely that Soderbergh (unlike Sony) had actually read the book. But from what I can piece together about his intentions, I’m not sure he truly understood the concept. The precise logic of this process would not lead you to think that you should do a star-studded, $60 million-plus semi-documentary (with an emphasis on everything being exactly as it happened). So I don’t know if Soderbergh was suffering from a fit of hubris or if he simply misplaced his notes on the material. But he was steering off a cliff, in total defiance of the very system he was looking to present.

This is the real issue raised by the collapse of the production of The Moneyball. Eventually, Hollywood is going to have to adopt this type of analytical methodology. They actually need to move in that direction now. But first, they have to learn how it works. Or at the very least, they have to start talking to the people who are actually involved in developing this approach.

We’re out here, and we don’t bite.