‘Moneyball’ gets a reprieve
Aaron Sorkin is best known in Hollywood as a screenwriter and TV producer supreme, having put his high-style signature on everything from “The West Wing” and “Sports Night” to “Charlie Wilson’s War.” But now, as Variety first reported Thursday, Sorkin has a new role -- he’s the closer on “Moneyball,” the much-ballyhooed baseball movie at Sony Pictures that the studio shut down just days before shooting was scheduled to begin late last month.
The movie, which had Brad Pitt slated to star as Billy Beane, the maverick general manager of the Oakland A’s who was the focus of Michael Lewis’ bestselling “Moneyball” book, had its plug pulled after director Steven Soderbergh turned in a last-minute script revision that the studio felt took the film in a radically different, not to mention wildly uncommercial, new direction. But the news that Sorkin has appeared in the bullpen -- get used to it; we’re going to employ a lot of baseball lingo here -- sends a clear message that Sony is determined to keep the movie alive. The studio has also brought in producer Scott Rudin, who will serve as an executive producer on the project, which already has two producers, Michael De Luca and Rachael Horovitz.
Although I managed to get Amy Pascal to explain her decision to stop production earlier this month, no one at Sony is talking about this new wrinkle, since the studio clearly believes the troubled project has already received far too much media attention. The same goes for Rudin and Sorkin, though Sorkin did acknowledge, via e-mail, that he is “the pinch hitter who’s been called in to start the late-inning rally.”
So why would Sony hire Sorkin when the studio already had a perfectly good shooting script, penned by Oscar-winning writer Steven Zaillian? The most likely reason: The studio wanted to send a message to Pitt that it was still absolutely, incontestably behind the picture. If Pitt were to walk away from the project, it could deal a fatal blow to the picture, which is already considered something of a commercial risk, since baseball movies have zero appeal outside of the U.S., meaning that the movie would have to make its investment back solely on the strength of its domestic box-office performance. Pitt is considered indispensable, since the studio has always known it had an extremely short list of A-list stars who could be both believable and bankable as the real-life Beane, a charismatic, fortysomething ballplayer turned crafty but cerebral baseball theoretician. When it comes to potential stars, the drop-off after Pitt is steep.
The best way to keep a movie star on the hook with a project is to surround him with enviable, top-flight talent that exudes an aura of class and respectability. Hence the arrival of Sorkin, who isn’t just a gifted writer, but, having worked in theater and TV as well as film, also brings along an aura of writerly glamour and sophistication to any project. Ditto for Rudin, who has been the producer of a string of classy films, most notably “No Country for Old Men,” the 2007 Coen brothers film that won a best picture Oscar. As executive producer, Rudin brings a level of gravitas to the project, allowing everyone involved -- starting with Pitt -- to feel that this film could be a player at award season as well as with the masses at the multiplexes.
While Rudin is a canny judge of material, having stockpiled many of the best new novels available, his strength in recent years has also been as a marketing maven, being especially adept at positioning films and helping sculpt their images as critical successes. So it’s expected that he would assume the role of the film’s godfather, acting as a troubleshooter, advisor and hand-holder whenever needed, especially during the post-production process.
The true test of the film’s viability will be what happens after Sorkin turns in his new draft sometime in August. His script will have to satisfy three key parties: the Sony production brass, Pitt and any potential A-list filmmaker who would be stepping in as Soderbergh’s replacement. Sony already believes in the material, and it’s easy to imagine a host of top filmmakers who’d be eager to work with a major movie star.
The real closer will ultimately be Pitt, who has director approval on all his films but, even more important, will be judging the script not just on its intrinsic value but also by how many top filmmakers it brings to the table.
Studio chiefs greenlight movies, deciding which ones end up in the starting lineup and which ones are relegated to the bench. But when it comes to the complicated process of keeping “Moneyball” alive, the umpire will be Pitt, who will make the biggest call about whether this film, having made it around third base, ends up being safe at home.