Film Fund-amentals: Moneyball: Theory and Practice

A couple of years ago, when Moneyball was about to start filming and Sony pulled the plug on the production, I predicted that it would end up as a George Clooney flick like Leatherheads. OK, the smart-aleck who wrote that was wrong, and I will be sure to take it up with myself at my next “staff” meeting.

Certainly the past effort at adapting a book by Michael Lewis would give many of us a pause for thought. The Blind Side was an extraordinarily successful movie loved by many (I liked it) and loathed by few (my attorney spent nearly thirty billable minutes telling me why he hated the film). But it wasn’t exactly the financial and business issues in football that Lewis was writing about.

Moneyball is much closer to the material. Sure, the book has been condensed like crazy, and the screenwriters are heavily focused on the most dramatic aspects of the material while skipping past Lewis’s own unique wry humor that makes the book a smooth and fun read. The movie does not take the more radical semi-documentary approach that director Steven Soderbergh got fired over (though some documentary footage — both real and recreated — is used). Incredibly strong performances are delivered by both Brad Pitt as a semi-irresistible force and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a nearly immovable object. In many regards, Moneyball is an outstanding movie and will no doubt be on the roster at next year’s Academy Awards.

But how well does it handle the subject of the book? Lewis’s main concern was with the experimental application of statistical methodology into the tradition-bound world of professional baseball. As the general manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane found himself faced with rebuilding the team on a $39 million budget against other teams with $150 million-plus bank accounts. Since he couldn’t afford the normal approach to recruitment (which is largely based on waving a blank check in front of a guy’s face), he turned to statistical science.

Moneyball does present a half-way reasonable introduction of this issue to the general public. Despite the repeated (but fleeting) appearance of spreadsheets, printouts from databases, and quick glimpses of numerical formulas, the movie tries not to tax the audience on mathematical understanding. Dramatically, this was a smart move. Most people do not stay awake long during math lectures. So it makes sense that a lot of this subject has been shifted into the personal confrontations between the old guard and the new ideas that Beane is trying to introduce.

Of course, some of this gets muddied up in the process. It provides a quick reference to Bill James and the early development of sabermetrics. In reality, Beane and his assistant general manager, Paul DePodesta, adapted and combined several methods in their approach. It might also be noted that one of the movie’s major false steps is the converting of the rather lanky DePodesta into Peter Brand, a chubby nerd who looks like he just wandered out of Comic-Con. DePodesta actually played baseball in college and had some understanding of the traditional elements of the game before he went to work revamping it.

Likewise, various aspects of this new approach were not really new to the Oakland A’s. Their longstanding status as an underfunded ball team had already sent them in various “creative” directions. The team’s owner was already steering them in the direction of sabermetrics (contrary to the movie’s presentation), and while some members of the old guard in the scouting camp were not happy about this, others were willing to give it a try.

The use and application of a statistical based cybernetics model for business and economic analysis is the rapidly emerging norm in many areas of finance and business planning. But certain professions, such as baseball and filmmaking, have remained largely resistant to the process. In both cases, the reasons are pretty much the same. Many people in the film industry insist that it is all based on gut instincts, blind luck and a profound sense of show business intuition. They also claim that they do it for the art and are not running a business.

In reality, the film industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise run in an incoherent manner based on a strange combination of magical thinking and half-baked, extremely subjective impulses. Though the catch phrases and slang terms are different, the chatter in Moneyball from the baseball scouts can also be heard in every major studio office. Access to large sums of cash is the only thing that keeps the system afloat.

In that sense, the film industry is not a business. It is a catastrophe in the process of happening. But the business is strongly opposed to any moves to change, and has largely resisted any efforts to adapt to modern systems of analysis. The few systems the industry has tried have mainly been focused on the misguided attempt to predict success. They miss the point made by DePodesta in the book: “It’s looking at process rather than outcomes… Too many people make decisions based on outcomes rather than process.” This is the key point to cybernetic methodology.

The movie almost conveys that point. It doesn’t quite pull it off and inadvertently reduces the debate to the bogus issue of human instinct versus mathematical figures. Actually, there is no conflict. Cybernetic analysis is a process, not an end result in and of itself. In the film, the nerdy guy stares at his laptop and produces answers like a magician pulling rabbits out of his hat. It doesn’t work that way. A major drawback to the movie version of Moneyball is that it accidentally reduces the process to another (more technical) form of magical thinking.

But at least it introduces the concept. Hopefully, some folks in Hollywood will actually read the book. Then, just maybe, a couple of them will actually give it an honest-to-goodness serious try.