Marketing ‘Moneyball’

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.

"We’ll just fix it in post."

In the process of reviewing the footage and making notes, it’s readily apparent that aside from the standard hard work of sound design, editing, mixing and three static CGI plate shots (no animation), our post-production requirements on Lilith are actually very, very small.

This is in large part due to our budget - we have no money for fancy CGI effects - but also to our commitment to doing as much as possible in-camera and with practical effects. We could very well do things like add CGI blood and wounds, but then nothing can ever replicate the real thing. We relied on old-school camera tricks to create effects, which are still remarkably effective and make my editing life that much easier and cost-effective. I can’t imagine doing this particularly grisly scene from Lilith with CGI blood:

Now I’m not eschewing the use of CGI, as it has become a staple and extremely valuable tool of filmmakers. But I do think that there is a growing trend of turning over more and more of physical filmmaking to the computers in post-production, a trend which personally irks me.

I was recently watching the amazing extra features on the Criterion edition of David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and was incredible to see that despite the CGI-intensive work on the film, the overriding philosophy was to physically capture as much veracity as possible during photography. Fincher’s commitment to physical authenticity rings true in all of his films, and the key to this is in his planning. Fincher knows exactly what the computer must do, and what the camera must capture. He doesn’t rely upon post-production to provide things that he can’t readily capture with his camera.

I feel this is a dying mindset, as I’ve been privy to film shoots where the director so-readily declares “we’ll fix it in post.” No. You don’t fix it in post, you fix it right then and there, by re-doing it. It takes valuable time and physical resources, but it’s all about maintaining the truth of the material and the moment.

This unfortunate idea of correcting flubs in post before even reaching post-production doesn’t limit itself to photography, it’s extending to performance as well. I was on a film shoot where an actor continuously flubbed a line, and the producer of the film made the executive decision that instead of doing re-takes to get the scene right, that the actor would just ADR (re-record) the line in post-production. My jaw dropped.

Our reliance upon the technological gifts of post-production has now extended far beyond the normal boundaries, and the skills of directing, cinematography and acting are being handed over to the tech wizards in a disparate number of post houses. This is not a slam on the artists of post-production, but rather an observation of a growing complacency in physical filmmaking.

We should only utter the term “fix it in post” after all other options have been exhausted, or when we are actually in post-production and we notice a flaw that went under the radar. We cannot think of post-production as a universal fix-it solution; it’s cold and distant, takes a lot of time, and costs a hell of a lot of money. It’s a band-aid on a bullet hole.

Are there things on Lilith that I wish I could fix in post? Honestly, no.(EDIT: at least not yet!) As I go through the footage, my crew did an admirable job in covering our bases. Are there things I wish I could re-shoot or gather more footage of? Absolutely. But that’s not about fixing in post. That’s just being able to capture so much in a given amount of time.

But with filmmaking becoming increasingly post-production oriented, our responsibilities and descriptions as filmmakers are evolving. Can we call the camera work in Avatar true cinematography? Of course we can. But now we have to include CGI artists along with the traditional gaffers and grips in the lighting team. It’s all becoming very gray.

I don’t know. I’m a bit old-school in that I like to keep it as real as possible whenever I can, and if I need a character to jump flat-footed into the Earth’s atmosphere then I know I’ll need to do that in post-production. I love that filmmakers like David Fincher, Spike Jonez, Kathryn Bigelow, Jonathan Glazer, Neil Blomkamp and Darren Aronofsky, all of whom fully embrace post-production, use it only as a tool to amplify what they physically shot. It boils down to these filmmakers knowing exactly what they want and not compromising the truth when it comes to telling their stories.

But we also have to acknowledge that less than two decades ago, some of the most amazing and eye-popping sequences in cinema were created without the benefit of high-tech computerized post production, and the budgets of those films were significantly less. CGI has its place in movie magic, but it has to serve the film, and not the other way around. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button uses cutting-edge technology as a narrative tool - the aging of a single character and actor - and not as a gimmick or a patch. The original Star Wars trilogy was not a slave to post-production, unlike their dismal prequels. Compare Ray Harryhausen’s work on the original Clash of the Titans and compare it to the 2010 remake, and the ‘updated’ version lacks heart, it’s only bells and whistles, in my opinion. It’s the classic case of post-production effects driving the principles of classic filmmaking, and it is a consistent result that these films lack the depth and heart of the epics of yesteryear.

Again, I’m not poo-pooing the use of CGI, but unless it is used for an entire film (i.e. what Pixar has accomplished) it is only a tool to bolster the original captured image. As is consistently stated throughout this blog, it is my opinion that the technology works for us, and not vice-versa. This applies at every stage of filmmaking, and for that matter for our lives in general. When I see the ad for the new iPhone that states “I don’t know what I would do without my iPhone” it makes me cringe. We could, and did, do a LOT of things before there were iPhones. Some might argue that we were actually more productive before apps like “Paper Toss” and “Pocket God” were created. Just a thought. :)

P.S. I highly, HIGHLY recommend watching the DVD extras for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Many times we hear the term ‘DVD film school’ and this is one of those discs that embodies it. I might just make a list of DVDs with amazing extra features in a future blog post. These are invaluable tools for filmmakers, as it’s the next-best alternative to sitting with David Fincher in person or being on a major film set.