Last week I saw Bennett Miller’s Moneyball starring Brad Pitt. But of course you already knew that it was starring Brad Pitt because if you saw the trailers or commercials, then he’s all you’d see. Him and maybe a smattering of pre-weight loss Jonah Hill.
If you’ve already seen the movie, then the trailer makes absolute sense and is extremely compelling. But if you don’t follow baseball, then the trailer is an enigma - it’s not easy to ascertain what the film is actually about. Having seen the film, I can say with utmost confidence that Moneyball is not really about baseball, it’s a compelling story of risk and belief that is set against the backdrop of major league baseball.
It’s classic Aaron Sorkin, who uses monumental, iconic locales, businesses and events (The White House, Facebook) and writes stories of men who are reluctant to be true to themselves and their core beliefs, because those beliefs are so contrary to convention that those men risk losing everything that is dear to them. Moneyball is no different, with maverick Major League Baseball manager Billy Beane staking his professional career and personal stability on a tradition-bucking system of player evaluation. The script is taut with classing Sorkin dialogue and machine-gun exchanges of wit.
Sorkin is in fine form, coming fresh off the Academy Award for The Social Network, along with his Oscar-winning co-writer Steven Zallian. Also remarkable is the work of cinematographer Wally Pfister, he too earning Oscar gold last year for Inception. In fact the cast and crew for Moneyball is so rife with Oscar winners and nominees, it comes as no surprise that the quality of the film is impeccable. Made on a $50 million budget, the film bleeds film craft, every shot meticulously composed and performed. It’s an outstanding film, one of the year’s best, and is a shoo-in Oscar nominee for Best Picture and Best Actor.
In three weeks of release, the film, despite the star power of Pitt, Hill and a wildly underused Phillip Seymour Hoffman, has earned a paltry $49 million, a far cry from Pitt’s last bona-fide Oscar vehicle The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which in three weeks earned $91 million and went on to make $328 million worldwide.
I have to think that it is indeed the state of the economy that is playing a major role in the film’s performance, as the entire box-office is down historically. The film has an incredible aggregate score of 95% on the Tomatometer, and by most accounts it should do just as well as any other Brad Pitt vehicle.
But if we look at the differences between Benjamin Button and Moneyball, we see that Benjamin Button had a very clear, high-concept hook. A man ages backwards and grows younger as the world and people he loves grow older. It’s easy to digest and is extremely compelling. I try to think of a single sentence encapsulation for Moneyball and it’s far more challenging. A man ditches the traditions of baseball to reinvent his team, his life, and the game of baseball. That’s fine, but it’s still general - I don’t have that “hook” of a high-concept, which the film definitely has. If I add in the concept, it is A man ditches the traditions of baseball to reinvent his team, his life, and the game of baseball by using unconventional statistical models to evaluate talent. That’s fascinating to me because I’m a junkie for economic statistical models and seeking replicable patterns in chaos, but even I think that one sentence summation is pretty uninspiring to the ear.
Moneyball has elements of faith in oneself, love of family and community, and the desire to rise above and contribute to the fields that we are so passionate about. Those are amazing concepts but they are ridiculously difficult to summarize in a trailer or a commercial because these are internalized emotions, and there aren’t quick, catchy lines of dialogue that capture these elements fully for the purpose of marketing. The sentiments are spread out masterfully by director Bennett Miller, and they weave in and out of the film which culminates to a beautiful, final epiphany. It’s magnificent for the storytelling, but absolute murder for the marketing department.
Hence the true challenge of marketing Moneyball. When you see the ad campaigns, you can ascertain that the marketing teams at Columbia Pictures have covered their bases, but their strategy is clear. Let the fans of Brad Pitt come see this film, and then hope that those fans spread the word of mouth of how truly great Moneyball is.
There’s one last challenge to this, which is that if the studios are willing to ride the star power of Brad Pitt, then they must acknowledge that Brad Pitt is in a stage of transformation that may not be friendly to his star power. Pitt, who is one of the most gutsy and astute of Hollywood’s A-list, is reinventing himself from being an all-American heartthrob man’s man to becoming a true cinema artist. His work as both an actor and a producer have demonstrated his commitment to high-concept filmmaking, and he has used his star power to make some of the most definitive, artistically bold films made in the past twenty years. From the beginnings with David Fincher’s Se7en, Fight Club and Benjamin Button, to the insanity of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, to the true arthouse of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Pitt, along with George Clooney, has become one of the strongest voices of classic American filmmaking.
But both Clooney and Pitt have struggled mightily in making their A-list values translate into runaway box-office success. One can argue that this is the economy, or conversely the sobering reality that our A-list stars which our industry leaned so heavily upon are just plain getting older. In any which way, we can no longer truly depend on a name to carry a film. The stars are fading, and because of our reliance upon these stars way past their peak expiration date (Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Julia Roberts, Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Harrison Ford, etc.) the industry has given little room for new stars to flourish and develop. Even a bona-fide star in the making, Ryan Gosling, is no guarantee for success. Drive and The Ides of March are under performing despite their excellence.
So Moneyball is depending on strong word-of-mouth from the fans of an aging star who is actively redefining himself. It’s a risky proposition, and I applaud the studios for taking that risk, because Moneyball is a film worth taking a risk on. And now the responsibility falls upon us, the consumer. We have to support risky films like Moneyball and Drive by going to the theater and seeing them. That’s the only way we’ll guarantee that we’ll see more high quality films like them. Ultimately, it is we the audience who determines the quality of films that we receive. If we show love and money to well-made, high-concept movies, then that is what the industry will give us. If we give money to mindless, poorly made action films, then that is what the industry will give us, because they’re in the business to make money. It’s our consumer rights advocacy that determines the quality of product we have to choose from, and it empowers filmmakers to take bolder risks. It’s a win-win situation.