Even if “Moneyball’’ proves to be a hit at the box office, as a mainstream entertainment concept it’s one that would seem to have had a couple of strikes against it from the start. First, it’s a movie about baseball - the national pastime, yes, but not a story subject that can count everyone as a fan. What’s more, it’s a movie about baseball’s front-office inner workings, one that hews fairly closely to the 2003 Michael Lewis business tome on which it’s based.
Specifically, the film examines the way that driven, cash-strapped Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) revolutionized the game a decade ago by drawing heavily on arcane statistical analysis to field a playoff team on a budget. (Insiders call this area of obsessive data crunching “sabermetrics,’’ after the Society for American Baseball Research.) Baseball guys debating trade strategy? Former Red Sox workaday catcher Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt, of TV’s “Parks and Recreation’’) as the film’s spotlighted big-league name? Statistics? Just as Beane’s success seemed so unlikely at a glance, so, too, might “Moneyball’’ seem like pretty unlikely material for studio tastes, at least not without significant Hollywoodizing.
“I really didn’t think it was an obvious choice for a movie,’’ admits Lewis, calling from his office in Berkeley, Calif. “The book had scenes, it had characters, it had interesting ideas, but it was all a jumble. There wasn’t a clear movie structure.’’
In the end, Lewis adds, “it was a really pleasurable experience to see what this turned into. I stayed out of the development process, but I’d see script drafts that were great, and I’d see others that sucked, and I just trusted that the studio would recognize that as well. You don’t have to make up a sex life for Billy Beane [as one draft did], and have him sleeping with stewardesses. There were plenty of good, true story lines to dig into.’’
“On paper, it sounds like the most boring movie ever,’’ “Moneyball’’ cast member Jonah Hill (“Superbad’’) says during a Boston publicity stop. Hill plays Peter Brand, a young, Yale-educated numbers wonk recruited by Beane for his keen, unconventional insight. (The character is the movie’s fictionalized version of former A’s assistant GM Paul DePodesta.) “But in the same way that ‘The Social Network’ isn’t about Facebook, ‘Moneyball’ is not about sabermetrics, or baseball. [Writers] Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian and [director] Bennett Miller used baseball as a beautiful aesthetic backdrop to a really moving story about being undervalued and being an underdog.’’
Witness Beane’s characterization as a hypercompetitively tormented pro ball washout condescendingly regarded by richer execs and even by his own scouts. Brand, meanwhile, is a meek brainiac almost completely disregarded by everyone except Beane. And the A’s cast of cut-rate castoffs is a team dubbed by Brand, in a line borrowed from the book, as the Island of Misfit Toys.
Then there are the various tricks for rigging the game to maximize audience appeal: streamlining the book’s discussion of stats guru Bill James and his theories into montage material. Amping up the drama surrounding the A’s record 20-game winning streak in 2002, and conflict between Beane and old-school manager Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman). And jazzing up front-office conversation with an A-list screenwriter’s crackle and zip.
All of which undoubtedly helped make the adaptation viable, but perhaps weren’t even the sort of prospects that initially drew Hollywood. “With ‘Moneyball,’ you’re dealing with a best-selling book, and that becomes a hook,’’ says film studies professor and baseball historian Rob Edelman, author of the genre survey “Great Baseball Films.’’ “It doesn’t matter if it’s about baseball, football, soccer, or the economy, although baseball has often served onscreen as a reflection of our culture. No, baseball films traditionally aren’t hundred-million-dollar box office hits. But this is a book that people have heard of, and the studio can market that.’’ (Another current project validating the visibility-trumps-translatability argument: Cameron Diaz and pals’ “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,’’ due at a multiplex near you next spring. Really.)
The “Moneyball’’ development execs also had some precedents, if they needed any to lean on, for projects that successfully approached baseball (and more broadly, domestic sports in general) from some atypical angle. And these were relatively handy cases in point, not releases that dated back to the dead-ball era. “The Blind Side,’’ adapted from another Lewis book, put its Sandra Bullock-anchored family drama so far ahead of football that the film nearly left its title-clarifying NFL prologue on the cutting-room floor.
Recall, too, the run of popular baseball movies with offbeat themes from the late ’80s and early ’90s. “Bull Durham’’ winked right in its tagline about how “romance is a lot like baseball,’’ and had minor leaguer-turned-filmmaker Ron Shelton throwing in heaps of wacky A-ball verisimilitude to boot. “Field of Dreams’’ was built on magical realism and life’s emotional yearnings as much as on sport. John Sayles’s “Eight Men Out,’’ while modestly received, compellingly focused on the 1919 Black Sox scandal - ballplayers as cheats. “A League of Their Own’’ offered the novelty of girls - Madonna, no less! - swatting the ball. Even the most traditionally rah-rah of the bunch, “Major League,’’ dealt with Cleveland Indians management deliberately assembling a lousy team - a premise that, according to Lewis’s book, Beane once humorously analogized to his own business plan.
Shelton, whose filmography runs heavy on sports films, including the Tommy Lee Jones baseball biopic “Cobb,’’ has his own, very simple explanation for what ultimately got “Moneyball’’ made: ironically enough, star power. “Anything that doesn’t have a built-in foreign market is a difficult proposition now, unless you come in with a megastar, like ‘Moneyball’ and ‘The Blind Side’ did,’’ says Shelton, speaking by phone from Los Angeles. “That’s the only thing, really, that can overcome the rather conservative nature of film financing at the moment. ‘Bull Durham’ never would have gotten made at a studio these days.’’
Illustrating the point, Shelton recaps some of the travails he’s recently experienced developing “Hound Dogs,’’ a scuttled TBS series mashing up Triple-A ball and the Nashville music scene, and “Our Lady of the Ballpark,’’ a project about an ex- Yankees pitcher trying to revive his career in a Latin American league. (Sorry to disappoint, Sox fans, but when our gringo hero gets a chance to come back with Boston, he ultimately realizes he might prefer life south of the border.) “I’ve been trying to get the movie made for five years, and you’d think I could,’’ Shelton says wryly. “But even with our setting, the foreign market just isn’t big enough.’’ Laughing, he adds, “I know one thing: Brad Pitt makes anything easier. And it still took ‘Moneyball’ seven or eight years.’’Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.