On paper, “Moneyball” has all the ingredients of a box-office home run.
Despite strong early buzz, the sports drama could suffer from something that trips up even the best baseball players occasionally. Bad timing.
Had the movie not been bedeviled by production delays, it might have hit theaters when its heroes — the Oakland Athletics — were still legitimate championship contenders.
Instead, the once winning Bay Area team is headed straight for its fourth losing season in five years. (See American League West standings as of August 11 below.)
It’s safe to say that their season will, for all intents and purposes, be over by the time the film hits theaters on Sept. 23.
Based on a bestselling book, starring Brad Pitt and with a script from Oscar winners Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian, "Moneyball" chronicles how A's General Manager Billy Beane and a team of also-rans beat the odds to make the American League playoffs in 2002.
Unable to afford star players, the charismatic Beane relied on elaborate statistical measurements to find inefficiencies in the market that allowed him to attract skilled athletes who were flying under richer teams’ radars.
Unfortunately, unlike “The Social Network,” another Sony release that boasted a literate script from Sorkin, “Moneyball” is coming up to bat at a time when the current reality is deviating starkly from the story playing out on film.
In this climate, making a movie about the A's is the equivalent of having “The Social Network” focus on MySpace instead of Facebook.
When “The Social Network” was released last year, Facebook was at its zenith and well on its way to racking up 700 million users across the globe. As it stands now, the A’s are flirting with last place in the American League West, touting a lowly .453 winning percentage.
“The bottom line is that a lot of Beane’s moves haven’t really worked out," Joe Stiglich, the A's beat reporter for the Bay Area News Group, told TheWrap. "The players haven’t played like they were expected to, and players that were traded are doing well for other teams.”
What's more, the kind of statistically-driven scouting that the movie treats as revolutionary has become ubiquitous among Major League clubs, many of whom have the deep payrolls to outbid the A’s for previously undervalued players.
Nearly a decade after the Michael Lewis book hit shelves, Beane has now become a victim of the success that “Moneyball” documents.
“Other teams found out what the A’s were doing, and they started doing it as well,” Dale Tafoya, author of the A's-focused book “The Bash Brothers” and host of the podcast Athletics After Dark, told TheWrap. “In a sense, his success was exposed to the entire baseball world. It’s harder for Billy Beane to win now then when this stuff was new and revolutionary.”
Add all these strikes up, and Beane looks a lot less worthy of movie-hood than he once did.
What “The Social Network" pulled off is hard, but it isn’t the only film that has benefitted from having its release date and subject matter coincide neatly with a particular historical moment. Oscar winners such as “The Hurt Locker” and “Traffic” came out at the same time the general public was feeling mounting disenchantment over, respectively, the Iraq War and the War on Drugs.
Then there was the 1979 nuclear drama “The China Syndrome.” It gained special relevance when, 13 days after it hit theaters, the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island melted down.
“If Sony had its druthers, it would have the A’s be good this year," a film marketing executive joked to TheWrap. "It would be, ‘Everybody gets a bonus if we win this year.’”
Sony declined to comment for this article, but the studio is purportedly pleased with the response the movie has received in early screenings and has Oscar hopes for the movie.
That's key, because film executives tell TheWrap that they believe “Moneyball” will rise or fall on its own merits. If it gets good reviews and awards attention, audiences will show up, regardless of how the A’s are playing.
“If the team had an extraordinary record of wins and was making headlines every day and captured the attention of this country, that would help,” David Weitzner, former worldwide marketing president at 20th Century Fox and Universal, told TheWrap. “But I don’t think the fact the team isn’t faring well will matter in terms of the ticket sales. Its success will be based on if it's a good film.”
Pegging a movie to the cultural zeitgeist is nearly impossible. It takes years to put a film into production, so if moviemakers swim too closely with cultural and political currents, they can find themselves working against the tide by the time a movie debuts.
Films that hew too closely to real life tragedies — such as the spate of critical war films like “Lions for Lambs” and “Jarhead” that hit during the Iraq War — can blow up in filmmakers faces, leaving them sans Oscars and profits.
In the case of “Moneyball,” the problem was a tortured development process.
First optioned in 2008, “Moneyball” was originally developed as a vehicle for Pitt and director Steven Soderbergh.
Production collapsed in June 2009 over script concerns. After a rewrite, the movie was reconstituted at a budget of $47 million with Bennett Miller (“Capote”) taking over directing chores from Soderbergh.
If production delays hadn’t pushed “Moneyball” back three years, the A's still would have been losing when the movie hit screens, but the franchise's early-aughts glory years would have been fresh in many minds.
Even if the current incarnation of the A’s were playing at the top of the league, the true life story of their remarkable 2002 run doesn’t comfortably fit the mold for inspirational sports movies.
Though the team went farther than anyone predicted, the A’s were eliminated by the Minnesota Twins in the first round of the playoffs.
In lieu of a “Hoosiers” style victory, it looks like the uplift will have to come via a 20-game winning streak the A’s enjoyed in the late summer of 2002. It’s an impressive feat, but one that lacks the heart-string tugging appeal of hoisting a World Series trophy aloft.
The way the A’s are playing, that Hollywood ending won’t be coming to Oakland this season.