Brad Pitt, who stars as Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane, arrives… (Robert Galbraith, Reuters )
In "Moneyball," the sad-sack Oakland A's defy conventional wisdom by setting records and making the playoffs despite one of the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball.
As the adaptation of Michael Lewis' bestselling book hits theaters this weekend, Sony Pictures is hoping to buck the Hollywood wisdom that star-driven sports dramas have limited appeal in this country and do virtually no business overseas.
Only a handful of movies about baseball have been hits in the U.S. — including "A League of Their Own," "The Rookie," "Field of Dreams" and "Bull Durham" — and none have generated more than a pittance of ticket sales abroad.
But Sony isn't selling a baseball movie. It's selling Brad Pitt.
It's an unusual move in an age when movie stars no longer guarantee huge box-office returns and are often upstaged by such brand names as "Transformers" and "Harry Potter." But Pitt remains one of the few actors who is a brand unto himself. The 47-year-old actor continues to have broad appeal around the world, particularly among women who might not otherwise be too interested in a sports film that features no romance or prominent female characters.
It's no wonder that the superstar's face and name are as prominent as the film's title on the posters and billboards. The trailers and most of the commercials promoting the movie focus almost entirely on the emotional journey of Pitt's character, Oakland A's General Manager Billy Beane, and the romance of baseball. Plot points about Beane's use of statistical analysis to field a team by focusing on players' ability to get on base are intentionally minimized in the marketing campaign.
"Successful baseball movies have found audiences by selling themselves as being about much more than the sport," said Vincent Bruzzese, motion picture group president for research firm Ipsos OTX. "There have to be characters whose personal journeys you want to follow."
A Sony spokesman declined to discuss the "Moneyball" marketing campaign, but the movie's materials make clear that the studio believes audiences will connect with Pitt's Beane, a single father and charming underdog who triumphs over adversity.
But in promoting the picture, Sony is making sure to cover all its bases. It is running ads on ESPN during sports games that lean more heavily on the film's baseball elements, and is sponsoring fantasy baseball websites. In addition, before "Moneyball's" premiere Monday night in Oakland, the cast did interviews at the A's stadium. To help draw in women, the studio is also running TV spots on the Lifetime Network and Fox's "Glee."
Sony is taking a page from its own marketing playbook, hoping that "Moneyball" will mimic the performance of a drama it opened this time last year about a seemingly obscure topic that wound up catching on with audiences.
"What Sony is doing with 'Moneyball' reminds me of what it did for 'The Social Network,'" said Jim Gallagher, a consultant and former Walt Disney Studios marketing president, referring to the Oscar-winning drama about the origins of Facebook. "They're taking a subject matter few would care about and making it all about the people involved."
Two years ago, "Moneyball" was almost benched just days before Brad Pitt was set to board a plane to Phoenix to begin filming his passion project. Then-director Steven Soderbergh had just submitted a new script to Sony co-Chairman Amy Pascal, who balked at the filmmaker's nearly $60-million budget and his interest in peppering the movie with documentary-style interviews with actual baseball players.
Rather than torpedo the project completely, Sony rejiggered it with a new screenplay draft from "Social Network" writer Aaron Sorkin and a lower budget (closer to $50 million). The studio hired "Capote" director Bennett Miller in April 2010 and began production that July.
"Moneyball" is expected to open with a box-office take between $15 million and slightly more than $20 million, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys. That means the film will have to generate strong word of mouth to keep it in theaters for many weeks to come to be a sizable hit.
"The Social Network," which had a similar production budget, went from a $22-million opening to a $97-million final domestic take.
It is unclear at this point whether "Moneyball" will follow in "The Social Network's" footsteps and become a top contender in Hollywood's upcoming awards season. Many in the industry are convinced that Sony will mount an aggressive Oscar campaign for Pitt, whose performance is being buzzed about by those who have seen the picture.