Sunday, October 09, 2011

Musing Pictures: Moneyball

"Moneyball" is a movie about a statistics revolution in Baseball that reflects a similar seismic shift that has been occurring (albeit a little less suddenly) in the film industry itself.

The idea that statistics plays a role in baseball isn't new, but the idea that statistics have the power to define a winning season was shocking (as per the film) when it was first implemented a decade ago.

The prevailing idea was that certain types of players -- players who could individually strike gold in the ballpark -- were the catalysts for victory on a team. Teams with more money paid more for big names with flashy statistics, and somehow, that was thought to be the ticket to success for the franchise.

In Hollywood, that has been a dominant trend as well, starting with the studios' "star system" back in the silent era, a system that relied on the "star power" of an individual to draw audiences to see a factory product. Star Power eventually destroyed the old studio system, replacing it with the structure we see today, where stars negotiate individual contracts based on their public allure. Today, studios don't create stars. Stars (and their agents, managers, publicists, attorneys, etc.) create themselves.

Like Baseball, Hollywood has attempted to define success by individual numbers. Big stars are ranked by their "Q Score", a number that reflects an actor's previous box office success, and the market's trending relationship with that actor's work. On a broader scale, the Internet Movie Database's "Star Meter" has become a rough measure by means of which some actors and directors are measured.

Behind all this number crunching, though, there's an underlying anxiety: With playors, like movie stars, demanding bigger and bigger paychecks -- paychecks that the biggest franchises or studios are still willing to pay -- how is anyone else to compete?

That is the dilemma faced by the Oakland As in "Moneyball", and it's something I've wondered about quite a bit as an indie filmmaker.

The question becomes not what makes a good movie, but what makes a "winning" movie -- a movie that can recoup its investment, that can make a profit, that can compete with its larger, more thoroughly financed cousins.

"Moneyball", as a film, reflects this anxiety. It's a wordy, intellectual excursion through a very narrow, dry world of spreadsheets and statistics. It's the sort of film that an indie filmmaker might approach: few locations, no major special effects or stunts or action sequences, easy stuff. Of course, this film has clout behind it, too, so it doesn't look or feel like an indie film. Big stars populate the lead roles, after all (and they do a good job of it, too). So, is this an indie film, betting on story rather than flash to make its sales? Or is this a "Hollywood" film, banking on the Q-Scores of its stars to draw its audience? Is it the little baseball team with the roster of solid-hitting nobodies, or is it the flush-with-money franchise with the superstar athletes and promotional deals? Or is it both?

I see "Moneyball" as an interesting attempt to bridge the scaled-back sensibilities of indie filmmaking (keep it simple, keep it real, tell a dazzling story without dazzling effects, etc.) with the tried-and-true (and expensive) methods of the Hollywood system. Will it work? As far as I can tell, Hollywood is still going to churn out flashy, big-budget, big-effects, big-star blockbusters. But what about smaller films? Will they still try to mimic the big guns out there, or will the stories get smaller, simpler, more streamlined? A lot depends on how "Moneyball" plays these next few weeks and months. We'll see how their experiment works.