Commentary

Wrench in the machine

No, Moneyball can't change Hollywood's sports-movie formula

Updated: August 13, 2012, 3:20 PM ET
By Chris Jones | ESPN The Magazine

Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill at Moneyball screeningEric Charbonneau/WireImageMoneyball is up for six Oscars this month, but don't expect that to change the way sports movies are made.

This story appears in the Feb. 20, 2012 "Rivalry Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

YOU PROBABLY HAVEN'T heard of Ryan Kavanaugh, but you've almost certainly given him some of your money. Kavanaugh is the 37-year-old founder and CEO of Relativity Media, which produces and finances movies. He's had a hand in more than 200 of them since 2003, sometimes accounting, at least in part, for half the movies that have come out in a given year. What separates Kavanaugh from other Hollywood moguls, apart from his ubiquity and blue Converse sneakers, is his almost complete absence of romance. "I'm not in this for the art," he once told me.

If Kavanaugh has a heart, he doesn't listen to it. Instead, he has a team of math geeks input reams of historical box office data into a giant humming machine, and the machine then predicts whether a particular genre of movie with a particular combination of stars will make money. Kavanaugh cares only about the numbers. He's the closest that movies come to Moneyball.

Not surprisingly, then, Kavanaugh did not invest in Moneyball, because his machine would have told him sports movies are almost always commercial disasters. (There are rare exceptions, of course: The Blind Side was what Kavanaugh would dismissively call an outlier. His machine, however, should have predicted that the pairing of two of Hollywood's favorite things -- Sandra Bullock and an oversize black man with mystical powers -- would make for a smash.) One of the very few sports movies Kavanaugh did help make was The Fighter, because his machine knows that a sports movie has a better chance of being successful if it's about boxing. Horses have a pretty decent track record too. Punching horses yields more mixed results, although it's hard to make projections based exclusively on Conan the Barbarian and Blazing Saddles.

Now Moneyball, a movie about challenging our preconceived notions of one game, has challenged our preconceived notions of another. First, it's made money, at least a little bit. And second, it's been nominated for six Oscars, including one for Best Picture. (You'll also now see the previously unthinkable sentence fragment Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill on movie posters near you.) That combination of commercial and critical success is the longest of statistical shots. A baseball movie not starring Kevin Costner hasn't even been nominated for Best Picture since 1942's The Pride of the Yankees, and of the three sports movies that have won Best Picture, there isn't a ball in the bunch. Two of them, Rocky and Million Dollar Baby, involve boxing; the third, Chariots of Fire, features a bunch of pasty British guys running on a beach to Vangelis. No machine would have seen that coming.

So are we on the verge of a new era of great sports movies that we'll actually go see? Or is Moneyball just another outlier? I'm pretty sure Kavanaugh's machine would still tell us that the sports movies with the best chance of becoming beloved are the funny ones: Caddyshack, Major League, Bull Durham. That stands to reason. A lot of people watch movies (and sports) because they want to be distracted from the weight of the world, not reminded of it. But comedies don't win awards. The only chance of pulling Moneyball's trick -- serious enough for an Oscar nomination, uplifting enough to find an audience -- is to follow the Rocky script: A plucky, likable underdog overcomes adversity. Like the Oakland A's, the underdog doesn't necessarily have to win; like Hilary Swank, the underdog might even be paralyzed by a stool. But walking out of the theater, we have to feel something like victory in our chests.

Because that's the other thing our little entertainments give us, apart from a few hours of diversion: They almost always tell us who finished first. It's insulting to think our wishes can be reduced to simple math, but the truth is, they often can be. The Hollywood formula exists for a reason. We aren't drawn to ambivalence; we're drawn to certainty. We like winners and losers, heroes and villains. That's why one of Kavanaugh's biggest successes was Paul Blart: Mall Cop, and one of his biggest failures was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Kavanaugh's machine let him down that time. It told him we like to watch Brad Pitt break the rules. True enough. It just turns out that there are only so many rules we're willing to see broken.

Chris Jones is the back page columnist for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.

Chris Jones is a feature writer for ESPN The Magazine. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire.