Melinda Sue Gordon
It's been a long time coming for "Moneyball," the new Brad Pitt film that hits theaters Friday.
"Moneyball," based on the best-selling Michael Lewis book of the same name, is essentially the story of Billy Beane (Pitt), general manager of Major League Baseball's Oakland Athletics. Faced with the prospect of keeping his Oakland squad and its $40 million payroll competitive against teams like the New York Yankees (payroll: $125 million), Beane pioneered innovative approaches for winning baseball games while spending less money.
In 2009, Sony subsidiary Columbia Pictures had staffed "Moneyball" with box office powerhouse Pitt and a pair of Oscar winners, writer/director Steven Soderbergh ("Ocean's Eleven," "Traffic") and screenwriter Steve Zallian ("Schindler's List").
Filled with dozens of swear words, the violent destruction of office furniture in several scenes and a one-night stand with an Outback waitress, the Soderbergh/Zallian script seemed destined to earn an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America.
But three days before filming was set to start, Columbia pulled the plug on "Moneyball" — despite having sunk $10 million of pre-production costs into the project.
Fast-forward to present day. With a rewrite from another Oscar-winning screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin ("Social Network"), and the traditional styling of director Bennett Miller ("Capote"), the finished "Moneyball" product is significantly toned down in terms of objectionable content — so much so that L.A. Times film critic Nicole Sperling notes a "surprising attribute of the film is just how chaste it is."
And stripped of Soderbergh's auteur influence, "Moneyball" is actively targeting an audience that extends beyond just male baseball fans.
The decidedly tamer "Moneyball" finally seeing the light of day is worlds away from the "hard-R" niched iteration the studio planned but abruptly abandoned two years ago — making the back-story a unique glimpse into how Hollywood targets audiences in general and female filmgoers in particular.
The adapted screenplay Zallian penned in late 2008 was generally well received and got the green light from Columbia. But Soderbergh, the noted baseball enthusiast who has admitted to sleeping in his Little League uniform as a child, wasn't satisfied. So Soderbergh toyed with Zallian's script, seeking to infuse greater authenticity into the project by adding several clips of documentary-style interviews with actual baseball players such as Len Dykstra and Darryl Strawberry into the film.
After seeing Soderbegh's revised screenplay, Columbia and Sony balked. As L.A. Times writer Steve Zeitchik recently recalled, "At the time, Sony executives said that Soderbergh's version was too wonkish, and they wanted something more emotionally accessible."
"There's no way to predict for certain the motivation behind what a studio does because they do so many things that seem so off-the-wall," veteran Deseret News film critic Chris Hicks said. "They make so many strange decisions."
Lewis, who wrote "Moneyball" in 2003 and watched it soar to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, doesn't mind the myriad revisions made to the script based on his book. Asked by the Deseret News for his opinion of the adapted screenplay, Lewis emailed, "I think it's great."
With such a long and winding road to release, "Moneyball" must be making everyone at Sony doing handstands right about now given the positive early reception the film is receiving from women.
"The female-dominated crowd seemed just as engaged in the two-hour film as the men," Sperling wrote after seeing a "Moneyball" screening at the Toronto Film Festival. "So while Sony's two biggest marketing challenges remain how to appeal to women and non-baseball fans with a movie that is solely about baseball, choices and ambition, the crowd … didn't seem to have any problems with either constraint."
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