Last week there was a terse announcement by Sony that they had stopped production on a film called Moneyball, just days before it was due to start shooting. This was not an easy decision: the film, from Michael Lewis’s bestseller, was to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, and starred Brad Pitt in the lead role of legendary baseball manager Billy Beane. And in a very unusual move, Sony boss Amy Pascal spoke out to explain her decision:
I’ve wanted to work with Steven forever, because he’s simply a great filmmaker … But the draft he turned in wasn’t at all what we’d signed up for. He wanted to make a dramatic reenactment of events with real people playing themselves. I’d still work with Steven in a minute, but in terms of this project, he wanted to do the film in a different way than we did.
You can see why this might make a studio boss nervous. Rather than what is, by all accounts, a tense, witty script by Schindler’s List writer Steve Zaillian, Soderbergh wanted to make something closer to a reconstruction: if it didn’t happen in reality, it wouldn’t happen in the movie. And this, I think we can assume, had serious implications for the commercial potential of the film.
Why? Because Steve Zaillian writes better than most people talk. Because real life doesn’t always fit a perfect three act structure. And because real people don’t always learn from their mistakes. The truth is, most audiences like fiction. We like simple heroes and villains, we like characters who change, and we want to emerge from the cinema feeling that that story has come to a satisfying conclusion. None of which is true of real life. but that’s why we go to the movies.
And that’s what makes this story interesting. The simplistic response paints Soderbergh as the hero, Pascal as the villain: the artist vs. the money. But it’s fair to say that Pascal has a point. There’s certainly an audience for films that tell the truth. But let’s look at the numbers. The last few years have seen a resurgence of documentary feature films, acclaimed by critics and audiences worldwide. Here, according to Box Office Mojo, are their worldwide grosses to date:
Grizzly Man: $4,061,305
Man On Wire: $5,180,066
Waltz With Bashir: $10, 956,861
These are pretty good numbers: all of them will have made a profit, as well as being some of the most exciting and innovative movies of the past decade. But the projected budget for Moneyball was $58 million. Even with Brad Pitt to pull in the audience, this was a commercially ambitious film. And Soderbergh’s commercial record is patchy: for every Ocean’s Eleven (production budget $85m: worldwide gross $450m) there’s a Solaris ($47m: £30m), Che ($58m: $30m) or The Good German ($32m: $6m).
I’m a huge fan of Soderbergh. He’s a hugely talented, innovative film-maker. But right now every director, however renowned, is having to work movie to movie: however successful you’ve been in the past, and however much money you may have made in total, every project has to punch its weight. I suspect there’ll be more stories like this over the coming months: for now you can read the full story of Moneyball here. In the meantime, I’m hugely looking forward to Soderbergh’s next film, The Informant! — here’s the trailer: