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Studios Get Tough; Sony Puts Moneyball in Play

Studios Get Tough; Sony Puts Moneyball in Play

In the overall scheme of things, a $57-million budget is pocket change to a studio, especially a big-spender like Sony. So why would Sony chairman Amy Pascal risk alienating a star like Brad Pitt and a director like Steven Soderbergh by pulling the plug on baseball movie Moneyball hours before it was to start shooting? She’s sending a message to Hollywood, loud and clear. She’s asserting her power to just say no. Finally, in this economy, the studios are spending less on fewer available slots. That’s also what Brad Grey is signalling at Paramount by ditching production execs John Lesher and Brad Weston: he’s saying, “There’s no room for error.”

Pascal can afford to let this movie go because it was always a risky play, and she clearly isn’t willing to take a gamble right now unless she believes in it. (That might not have been true a year ago.) According to sources close to the movie, last week Soderbergh turned in a shooting script that was different from the earlier Zaillian draft that the studio had green lit. (Sony producer Michael DeLuca is on the movie.) Pascal felt the honorable thing to do was to allow Soderbergh to take the film to other studios, where he could presumably make the film he wanted to make.

If Soderbergh can’t get the movie financed–which includes coming up with some $10 million already charged against the movie, including Zaillian’s scripts and pre-production costs; the movie was slated to shoot Monday–it will return to Sony, who will go back to their Zaillian draft and presumably seek another director. (David Frankel, director of Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me was circling the project at one point.) The studio may choose to take a write-off.

The question is, does Pitt stay on board? What does he think? He is loyal to Soderbergh, who has done well by him through three Oceans movies. Pitt can be notoriously indecisive about choosing projects–he dropped out of The Fountain, State of Play, and The Bourne Identity. For all major movie stars, there’s a great deal at stake every time they step up to bat. They cannot afford to miss. Pitt is coming off a strong Oscar-nominated role in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button , which was expensive and barely scraped into profitability. He and CAA will wield some clout here.

Sony will meet in the next day or so to determine what happens next. Pascal and her production chief Matt Tolmach are fans of the Michael Lewis bestseller and Zaillian’s script. What did Soderbergh do to change their tune? While he knows how to make popular Oceans movies, his track record on other studio mainstream fare is less consistent. (See: The Good German and Solaris, both starring one-time partner George Clooney.) Besides, Soderbergh’s primary affiliation is with Warner Bros., not Sony.

What’s so risky about this movie?

Baseball movies are hit and miss. Hits like Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and Major League are exceptions. For Love of the Game starring Kevin Costner is more typical, grossing $35 million domestically. Also, baseball doesn’t translate overseas.

No star is a sure thing anymore. Even Pitt. (See: The Assassination of Jesse James by that Coward Robert Ford, The Mexican, Snatch.) His next, Quentin Tarantino’s Cannes entry Inglourious Basterds, is far from a guaranteed hit.

Soderbergh isn’t a tentpole director, outside the Oceans franchise. And he’s coming off micro-budget The Girlfriend Experience and Che, both strictly high-end audience plays. But Soderbergh’s a good match for this material. He used to play serious baseball in Baton Rouge; he had a great arm but lost his mojo at age 12. “I woke up one morning and I didn’t have it,” Soderbergh told Jess Cagle in 2001. “And I knew that I wasn’t gonna be able to get it back. Whatever the thing was, it was just gone.”

Soderbergh told ESPN what he wanted to do with this movie, including shooting this summer at baseball games, interviewing real athletes, and rebuilding parts of the Oakland As coliseum on a soundstage:

“We have the dramatic building blocks, so the question is how real can we make the world? My clearly stated goal is to set a new standard for realism in that [sports] world.”

I really want to see him make Moneyball. I hope this contretemps gets worked out in his favor.

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