We loved Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, and, of course, The Natural. But as intriguing a read as we found Michael Lewis’s 2003 bestseller about General Manager Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s , and using sabermetrics to building a winning team on a shoestring budget, until we see it, we’re not convinced Moneyball will translate to the big screen, to a mass audience—even with Brad Pitt in the lead role.
Moneyball, released by Sony Pictures, goes into nationwide distribution on Friday night, two weeks after its well-received world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. In an early review of the film, Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter wrote that Moneyball looks “good perhaps not for a home run but certainly a long double or even an exciting scoot around the bases for a head-first triple.” Adds Variety: “Moneyball should appeal well beyond—if not always to—the game’s fans.”
Based on early reviews, one aspect of Moneyball looks particularly promising to hard-core baseball followers, and is a marked departure from other baseball movies: They got the baseball right. Baseball insiders from Oakland to Boston who have screened the film are praising its authenticity. “Even in the best baseball movies, the baseball is terrible. … It all looks fake,” says SB Nation’s Rob Neyer in a Grantland podcast interview with Jonah Keri. “In this movie, they’re all baseball players. … That part of it is really good, the baseball stuff, they really made the effort.”
Another plus for Moneyball: Major League Baseball is getting behind this film in a bigger way than it has for any other baseball movie to date. The league is partnering with Sony Pictures on the film’s launch and marketing, and worked hand in glove with MLB Productions for more than two years to provide archival footage and aid reenactments so that the result, as one MLB staffer working with the studio put it in a recent interview, “is a new standard for realism within the baseball film genre.”
“Because of that insistence on authenticity by the studio and on our part, we really think everyone will agree that this raises the bar to a new level of credibility and accuracy,” Nick Trotta, senior library and licensing manager at MLB Productions, who worked with the studio over the past two years, told SportsBusiness Journal.
Marketing Moneyball is a joint effort between Sony Pictures and the league. Sony has purchased advertising inventory with all of MLB’s TV rights holders, including behind-the-plate electronic signage at ballparks nationwide. The Oakland A’s, specifically, offered movie tickets as a gift to anyone who bought a field-level ticket to their home game against the Detroit Tigers last Sunday, at which the first 10,000 fans received a Pepsi Max Moneyball T-shirt. Select other MLB clubs are promoting the movie at their ballparks, with in-stadium ads and “lucky row” promotions. And outside the U.S., in the longer term, Sony (SNE) execs and MLB officials hope that the film will gain traction in baseball-playing nations such as Japan, the Dominican Republic, and other Latin American countries.
Put those peanuts away—it’s time to grab the popcorn.
Sports at the Movies
Baseball movies, however, have traditionally not performed as well at the box office as other sports films—especially those starring Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler. And consider that Michael Lewis’s football feel-good The Blind Side, which was turned into a hit movie in 2009, grossed more than $300 million worldwide. Based on data from Box Office Mojo, here’s a look at the biggest opening weekend takes for sports movies in general and baseball movies in particular:
• Biggest Opening Weekends for Sports Movies
The Longest Yard
The Blind Side
Blades of Glory
The Game Plan
Remember the Titans
Friday Night Lights
Kicking and Screaming
• Biggest Opening Weekends for Baseball Movies
A League of Their Own
For the Love of the Game
• And the “classics,” in 1980s dollars:
Field of Dreams
Moneyball Behind the Scenes
Whether Moneyball succeeds at the box office or even appeals to Oscar voters obviously remains to be seen. But the roller-coaster ride leading up to its rollout this weekend is its own Academy Award-worthy drama. As Brad Pitt, who has Moneyball’s lead role as Oakland GM Beane, remarked during a recent press junket, “I think the making of the movie is just as interesting as the movie itself.”
For filmmakers, Hollywood is notoriously more difficult to conquer than the Yankee-led American League East, and the Moneyball back story is a prime example. Moneyball went through three distinct rings of Hollywood development hell, as over a seven-year period it was tackled by no fewer than three different directors (David Frankel, Steven Soderbergh, and Bennett Miller) and their corresponding screenwriters (Steven Zaillian, Stan Chervin, and Aaron Sorkin). Their challenge? Translating the book’s sophisticated concepts—sabermetrics, baseball franchise budgets and payroll limitations, player contract minutiae, and traditional vs. progressive business models (also known as “the scouts vs. the stats”)—into a story that is appealing even to moviegoers who know nothing about baseball.
To ad-lib the film’s trailer (and summarize the book), after not cutting it as a ballplayer, Billy Beane joined the Oakland A’s, the last team for which he’d played, as an advance scout in 1990, and worked his way up to general manager in eight years. With nearly the lowest payroll in baseball at the time, Beane persuaded the rest of the franchise to implement sabermetrics—or, on-base percentage-driven statistics championed by influential baseball analyst Bill James, Harvard-educated baseball guru Paul DePodesta (portrayed in the movie by Jonah Hill under the pseudonym Peter Brand after DePodesta refused to allow his name to be used), and members of SABR, the Society for American Baseball Research. As Beane realized, players who excelled at just getting on base were often overlooked by scouts and managers, and thus could be acquired at bargain prices.
After implementing sabermetrics in 2002, the A’s won 103 games despite having lost all their major stars to free agency. They were eliminated in the first round of the 2002 playoffs but changed baseball in the process.
During the time covered by Moneyball, the A’s pitching coach was Rick Peterson, who subsequently was the pitching coach for the New York Mets and Milwaukee Brewers, and is now a principal of coaching and pitching analytics concern 3P Sports (www.3psports.com). There, and at Bloomberg Sports, where he serves as a consultant, Peterson focuses on pitching analytics and biomechanical analysis—key components left out of Moneyball as author Lewis homed in on the A’s use of on-base percentage stats as the centerpiece of his story.
A baseball “lifer” whose father served as the Pittsburgh Pirates’ GM, Peterson was the technical adviser for Moneyball during the Soderbergh iteration (and was even set to play himself in the movie). He recently shared his feelings about the A’s, baseball, and the upcoming film.
“When you look back at the whole cast of characters, go through the A’s coaching staff and then through the players,” Peterson says, “we were just MLB employees. No one had heard of us.
“Together, we got something extraordinary done. It was all about a process, and having vertical systems in place. All the analysis is really the centerpiece of what the whole story is all about. I think Moneyball will bring more awareness of what’s out there to baseball’s consumers, the fans, and especially to MLB teams. Many teams have utilized these tools, but some, like the A’s, have used them more effectively. It’s not just about being smart, but being bright—people who are bright see things differently. Bill, Art Howe [portrayed in the film by Philip Seymour Hoffman], and the rest of the A’s staff cultivated a truly creative environment.”
The Real Oakland A’s
Current Oakland A’s officials, including owner Lew Wolff, reportedly gave the film a thumbs-up after a private screening last week. But the A’s GM Beane, the central figure in Lewis’s bestseller, has made few public comments about Moneyball the movie.
Beane’s silence, according to the San Jose Mercury News, “has led to speculation that he is uncomfortable being cast as a genius at a time when the standings tell such a different story.”
But, the Mercury News went on to say, Beane countered that his “source of unease is something else entirely.”
“The hard thing for me has been figuring out how to walk this fine line,” Oakland’s GM said. “If I embrace all this movie stuff, it looks like I’m really digging it. But if I put my hand up and say, ‘No,’ I look like I’m distancing myself from it. There’s no playbook for this.”
Wolff added: “Billy is not the kind of guy who is looking for fame, at least the Hollywood kind. But I think he’s handled this beautifully by not making too much of it. I know he likes the movie a lot, but he hasn’t gone Hollywood by a long shot.”
Perhaps the standings do tell the real tale: As of Thursday, the A’s were in third place in the American League West, trailing division leader the Texas Rangers by 21 games and clearly out of the 2011 MLB playoff picture.
A final note: Whether you’re looking for Moneyball-related sabermetric stats, the latest on the NBA lockout, or a snapshot of the sports industry in today’s marketplace, check out our new Inside Sports Business app, just added to iTunes: