Moneyball: If you film it, they will come
[Editor’s note: We are rerunning this article that Jed Rigney wrote a few weeks ago because “Moneyball” is being released this week. Also, it is one of the finest articles our site has ever had and Jed is quite clearly a writing genius and we are all so very, very, very lucky to have the opportunity to read his enlightened words.]
[Actual Editor’s note: Obviously Jed wrote that last Editor’s note.]
In a world ruled by customs, conformity and convention, one man emerges from the masses. A free thinker who breaks the bonds of tradition and goes to battle against the forces of obedience and constancy to bring his people the victory they have long sought.
Sounds like some sort of post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, right? Or Justin Bieber’s next concert film. Nope, it’s “Moneyball” – coming this week to a theater near you. It’s Hollywood’s latest baseball movie, and it’s about the statistical evolution in baseball-player analysis in the last decade or so. It stars the uber-cool and ultra-sexy Brad Pitt and the slightly less-cool and drastically less-sexy Jonah Hill. Check out the trailer here. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiAHlZVgXjk]
The concept behind the movie (and the book it was based on) is that there are ways to evaluate players’ abilities based on more advanced statistics than the same-old, same-old (batting average, home runs and RBI) – and then using these new scouting standards to get certain players cheaper because the rest of the league doesn’t agree with (or understand) their value. Many baseball “purists” (old dudes) think these advancements are “nerdy” and that it’s “unnecessary” to look at “facts” and “statistics” just because they are “impartial” and “accurate.”
How are they going to make a movie about baseball front offices and statistics work? I don’t know. But somehow they made a movie about computer nerds writing programs and suing each other in “The Social Network” and that turned out pretty good.
When it comes down to it, the most important statistic for this movie is how much money it makes at the box office. And I really hope it does well. Not because Brad Pitt needs more money – though I’m glad he gets to have some time away from Angelina Jolie. And not because I hope Ned Colletti of the Dodgers sees this movie and thinks “Oops! I’m doing it wrong! I should fire myself.” But because I love baseball movies and, in Hollywood, one successful film breeds more movies of the same genre.
Hollywood is almost entirely a culture of fear. Fear of losing your job or your status or your “power.” It’s an industry that makes “art,” but it is an industry. Studio executives see a movie do well and they want to make more like that because they think the public will want more. Have you noticed how many movies have come out recently that are kind of similar to “The Hangover”? “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “Hall Pass” and “Horrible Bosses” – and many more on the way. It’s not a coincidence.
And following that “logic” (for lack of a better word), Hollywood types really like when a new project can be described in its formative stages as being like another movie that was already successful – the next “Midnight Run” or the next “My Best Friend’s Wedding.” Or you can describe a project’s similarities and differences, like the TV show “Lost” as “Gilligan’s Island” without Gilligan. Even better yet, they love if you can describe a project as a combination of two successful movies – that way it has an apparency of some originality while at the same time possibly appealing to every single human person who saw one and/or the other of the films. So, you could describe a movie like “Inception” as “The Matrix” meets “Flatliners.” Or “Avatar” as “Dances with Wolves” meets “The Smurfs.” They love this stuff. It makes them feel safe (or safer) (or something) in going ahead with a project.
A couple years ago I was talking to a producer about an idea I had for a movie. “It’s ‘Predator’ meets ‘Major League.’” After he stopped laughing, he said, “Great idea, but there’s no way. The baseball genre is dead.”
And it’s true. They’re just not making any baseball movies these days. Part of that is because studios depend so much on foreign box office performance to “protect” their investments and baseball movies tend to appeal mostly just to Americans. But the real culprit is that baseball movies haven’t been doing well here in the U.S. because they haven’t been very good the last decade or so. In the ’80s and ’90s there were a couple baseball movies a year and most of them were pretty good.
I think filmmakers just got lazy and started turning out baseball films that didn’t have any really great back story. A sports film without a really interesting back story is just sports. And if we wanted that, we could just turn on the TV or go online or get that Sports Illustrated subscription with the free DVD and limited-edition baseball.
I generally don’t like to point fingers, so I won’t point here, but I will nod enthusiastically toward “Summer Catch” starring Freddie Prinze, Jr. This movie was the second worst thing to happen to the United States in 2001. It’s one of the most unwatchable things in the entire history of motion pictures. I’m pretty sure it gave me brain leprosy. Do not watch this movie. You don’t need to taste poop to know that poop tastes bad. Just take my word for it (the movie, not the poop – but also don’t eat poop).
In 2005 there was yet another attempt to revive the baseball movie genre with “Fever Pitch” – a movie about a die-hard Red Sox fan who, ironically, every Red Sox fan wished would die hard. (See what I did there?) Maybe having New Yorker Jimmy Fallon playing a Boston fan was a bad move. Maybe it was letting Drew Barrymore speak. I don’t know, but it failed.
I live in Los Angeles and I dabble in the entertainment industry. And sometimes, during the aforementioned dabbling, I come across really interesting projects that are working on getting rolling – like “Segal vs. Van Damme” – about Steven Segal and Jean Claude Van Damme as feuding neighbors (I still pray this will happen someday).
Another project I really like that I just came across is called “To Wally Ward” – about a Los Angeles Dodgers fan who finds an old autographed baseball with “to Wally Ward” enigmatically written on it and who then goes on a strangely serendipitous journey trying to locate this Wally Ward character.
I hate to be a name-dropper guy, but it’s written by Angelo Pizzo, the writer of “Hoosiers” and “Rudy.” So, yeah, it’s really good. It’s the next “Field of Dreams.” (See, you like it more now, don’t you? You’d fit in well in Hollywood.) It’s in development with some folks I know at Nash Entertainment – producers Bruce Nash (who came up with the original story idea) and Robert Kosberg are out there trying to make it come together, looking to partner with other producers or financiers or anyone to get the movie made.
And they will – just the existence of “Moneyball” helps. We need films like this that tell interesting stories all wrapped up in basebally goodness. People love baseball and baseball works in films. The players and coaches and other folks around the game are much more relatable to everyday people than any of the other sports. There isn’t another sport where Jonah Hill could costar as anything other than a mascot. Hopefully “Fever Pitch” and “Summer Catch” are fading in the studios’ memories and they can recall the good times of “Bull Durham” and “The Natural” – great films about America’s pastime.
As baseball fans we need to set aside our rivalries and support baseball films (except for “Summer Catch”). We need to show Hollywood that baseball movies can be viable and that there is a market for them – whether it’s my “Predator”/“Major League” madcap romp or something more broadly entertaining like “To Wally Ward.”
Let’s make it happen, people. Kevin Costner can’t do it all by himself.