Applied Sabermetrics 101: The Curious Case of Moneyball

After checking out the movie version of Moneyball earlier this week, we were so inspired by Oakland A's GM Billy Beane's innovative use of "sabermetrics" in building his record-setting 2002 team, we wanted to apply the same close statistical analysis to how the film that's opening in theaters on Friday came together following a few false starts. Originally set to be directed by The Devil Wears Prada's David Frankel, Steven Soderbergh took over the director's chair in 2008 and cast Demetri Martin opposite Brad Pitt's Beane. The following year, Sony Pictures halted production just before the cameras were set to roll and shuffled the deck another time, replacing Soderbergh with Bennett Miller, Martin with Jonah Hill and bringing in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin to punch up a script credited to Steve Zaillian and Stan Chervin. How will these various moves impact the movie's box-office performance? Let's check the stats.

Director Musical Chairs
Let's start with the total career domestic gross for the three directors that have been attached to Moneyball over the years. (Note: All box-office figures are taken from Box Office Mojo.)

David Frankel
Total Career Gross: $273,115,492
Average Gross: $91,038,497

Steven Soderbergh
Total Career Gross: $844,125,486
Average Gross: $36,701,108

Bennett Miller
Total Career Gross: $28,988,964
Average Gross: $14,494,482

Okay, so based on those numbers, one would think that Sony should have stuck with Frankel all along. But let's take a closer look; Frankel's grosses are based on only three movies, the highest-grossing of which was Marley & Me ($143.1 million) where the biggest star was a dog. Soderbergh, on the other hand, has 20 films (and one entry in an anthology) to his credit, the most successful of which (Ocean's Eleven) outgrossed Marley by some $40 million. Furthermore, he's got a successful track record working with Pitt; the duo made all three Ocean's movies together, which have a combined gross of $426.1 million. (For the record, Pitt also had a cameo appearance in Soderbegh's low-budget Hollywood satire Full Frontal, which grossed an anemic $2.5 million in 2002.)

So where's the monetary value in ditching him for Miller, who only had two credits to his name, the first of which was a documentary that barely anybody saw? (That would be 1998's The Cruise, which banked $238,434 during its brief theatrical run.) Well, according to reports, Soderbergh had some offbeat artistic flourishes in mind for his version of Moneyball, most notably the inclusion of documentary-like interview segments with such real-life ballplayers as Darryl Strawberry and David Justice. And whenever Soderbergh thinks outside the box on a studio's dime, his box-office numbers take a hit. Case in point: his black-and-white World War II riff The Good German, which only earned $1.3 million in theaters on a rumored $32 million budget, despite the presence of stars George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. And how about his earlier Clooney-starring misfire, Solaris? That mood-driven sci-fi film cost $47 million to make and only earned $15 million in 2002. Miller, on the other hand, made a conventional biopic out of an unconventional subject (Truman Capote) in his sophomore feature Capote and turned that $7 million feature into a modest $28 million success that also netted an Oscar for its leading man, Philip Seymour Hoffman. When you're a studio taking a chance on a challenging subject, do you want the guy who doubled with his gross by playing it mostly safe stylistically or the guy who sees his grosses more than halved when he pursues his own unique artistic vision? Viewed in stark numbers, the answer is pretty clear. (And just to be clear, I woulda stuck with Soderbergh -- which is precisely why I'm not running a Hollywood studio.)

Jonah Hill In, Demetri Martin Out
This one is fairly straightforward; Jonah Hill has appeared in 21 features (live-action and animation) that have collectively grossed over $1 billion. Demetri Martin has had roles in five features that have collectively grossed... $60.9 million. Furthermore, more than half of that gross comes from Martin's most recent film, Contagion, in which he has maybe five minutes of screentime. Take that out and his career gross stands at a measly $14.3 million. To be fair to Martin for a minute, Hill has only been a supporting player in most of his biggest hits as well. If you look at the three movies in which he was a legitimate lead or co-lead (those would be Superbad, Get Him to the Greek and Cyrus), his lifetime gross drops to $189.9 million. Not bad at all, but it ain't -- say it with me now -- one beeelllion dollars. On the other hand, it's more than 20 times the amount that Martin's sole leading man gig, Taking Woodstock ($7.4 million), banked so it's pretty clear that Sony made the right financial decision.

Just for fun, let's look at what would have happened had Sony gone with Hill's Superbad co-star Michael Cera instead. Cera's 10 movies have collected $448.9 million altogether and he's had more lead and co-lead gigs than Hill -- 7 to Hill's 3 -- that have earned $387.8 million. But if you look solely at the money earned by their most recent studio vehicles, Hill wins. Get Him to the Greek racked up $60.9 million last summer, while Cera's Scott Pilgrim ended up with just $31.5 million. (Although Scott Pilgrim by far has the more devoted fanbase and deservedly so.) Not that Cera ever seemed to be a serious contender for this role anyway, but Hill has the career momentum right now that made him the smart business decision.

Now batting... Aaron Sorkin
For starters, we can toss out original Moneyball scribe right now -- this was his first screenwriting gig, so he's got no box-office track record that would or wouldn't guarantee success. His first replacement, Steve Zaillian, on the other hand has a list of credits as long as your arm, having written everything from Awakenings to Schindler's List to David Fincher's upcoming Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. His highest-grossing script was the first Mission: Impossible, which earned $180 million in 1996. In contrast, Aaron Sorkin's biggest scripted hit, 1992's A Few Good Men, finished $40 million behind that. But Sorkin's name has become a brand in the way Zaillian's hasn't. The Social Network powered itself to a $96.9 million gross thanks in large part to his script, which was widely praised both within and outside the industry as a gem and eventually nabbed him the Oscar. Zaillian has written some big hits in his time, but those movies generally haven't been sold on the strength of his name. By employing both writers, Sony made sure they had all their bases covered -- the Hollywood journeyman with a proven track record and his more famous counterpart whose name they can tease in all the ads.

In the final analysis
Moneyball's final budget is rumored to be in the ballpark of $47 million. Going by Soderbergh's track record with more artsy studio fare, his version of the film would have been lucky to break even. In contrast, if the movie follows the trajectory of Miller's Capote, it could easily cross the $100 million line, given added boost by Hill's average gross and the significant bump provided by Sorkin's name. From a purely financial standpoint, it seems that Sony built the better filmmaking team. Artistically? Well, that's something the numbers alone can't tell you...

Watch a video interview with Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, and check out six facts you may not have known about Moneyball.

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