One of the biggest misconceptions about the book “Moneyball,” the Michael Lewis bestseller about the low-budget Oakland A’s’ pathway to baseball success, is that it was about the triumph of statistical analysis. Now that the book has been turned into a film, with Brad Pitt starring as the A’s iconoclastic General Manager Billy Beane, many critics are making the same mistake, viewing the film as an endorsement of the idea that if you’ve run the numbers long enough at business school, you can use statistics to make smart bets.
But “Moneyball” is really about something even more fundamental: how being an outsider encourages innovation. Beane got the idea of using arcane information like a player’s on-base percentage to build a better baseball club from reading the groundbreaking writing of sabermetrician Bill James. But what Beane grasped was a truth that transcended statistics. As Lewis puts it in the book: “James had something to say to Billy, or any other general manager of a baseball team who had the guts, or the need, to listen: If you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.”
This is something people in the entertainment business discovered nearly a century ago. In fact, the history of the movie, TV and music business is crowded with characters not unlike Beane, restless mavericks whose willingness to embrace new ideas was far more crucial to success than having unlimited financial resources. In other words, if you study the most successful companies in showbiz, they started out looking a lot more like the scrappy Oakland A’s than the deep-pocketed New York Yankees.
As the film illustrates, Beane was faced with a stark choice when it came to running his business. In 2002 the A’s, with a payroll of roughly $40 million, were competing against the New York Yankees, who had a payroll of $126 million. Today in baseball, as in the rest of America, the disparities between the rich and the poor have grown even wider. At the beginning of the 2011 season, the Yankees had a payroll of $211 million while a small-market team like the Kansas City Royals had a payroll of $36 million.
To compete with the fat cats, the little guys had to be willing to take risks. In fact, if you were looking for a striking parallel to the way Beane found success with the A’s, go back to the 1920s, when a small group of companies controlled most of the movie business. One of the most aggressive outsiders was a small, underfunded operation called Warner Bros., whose biggest box-office draw was a dog, Rin Tin Tin.
Jack Warner was looking for something — the 1920s equivalent of on-base percentage — that would give him an edge over the competition. He found it via a new technology — equipment that would usher in, via Warners’ smash hit “The Jazz Singer,” the era of sound films.
The established studios — the Yankees of the time — were content to embrace the status quo, worried that experimenting with sound might lead to years of financial upheaval. But Warner viewed sound as an opportunity to break into the top echelon of the industry.
In “Moneyball,” Beane clashes with his veteran baseball scouts, who were up in arms when he decided to risk a first-round draft choice on a tubby catcher just because he had a knack for getting on base. The reaction was pretty much the same when Warner decided to roll the dice with the untried new technology of synchronized sound. As he told an interviewer: “Every worthwhile contribution to the advancement of motion pictures has been made over a howl of protest from the standpatters, whose favorite refrain has been, ‘You can't do that.’ When we hear that chorus now, we know we must be on the right track.”
Since then, small companies have been at the forefront of nearly every major every artistic breakthrough in the entertainment business. On the music side, for example, tiny Sun Records spearheaded the revolution that ushered in the rock era. After spending years promoting black blues artists, Sun founder Sam Phillips had a Beane-style revelation: To reach the huge untapped market of white teenage America, he needed a white singer — Elvis Presley, of course — who could embody the seductive sexual energy of the African American artists Phillips had been recording in his Memphis studio. Nearly every music movement since has been shepherded by outsiders who outhustled their corporate competition.
No one knows this better than “Moneyball” producer Mike De Luca, who was the longtime president of production at New Line Cinema. One of the last studios to be operated by its founder, Bob Shaye, New Line was for years the movie industry’s equivalent of the A’s, having survived by being more nimble and daring than its media conglomerate rivals.
Just as the A’s drafted ballplayers who were undervalued by other teams, New Line made deals with talent, especially young, unheralded comedians, who had little appeal for big studios. “The whole ‘Moneyball’ idea was our mandate at New Line, in the sense that we saw value in people that the studios didn’t want or had overlooked,” says De Luca. “That's how we ended up making movies with Jim Carrey, who was an unknown, or Mike Myers, who was coming off a big flop, or Adam Sandler, who Universal had dropped.”
New Line grabbed filmmakers who were undervalued as well, which is how it ended up with “Lord of the Rings” Svengali Peter Jackson, who was virtually unemployable after directing a bomb called “The Frighteners.” New Line also made profits by marketing comedies such as “Friday” and “House Party” to African American moviegoers, who were often ignored by the bigger studios.
“We’d often lose our best filmmakers and stars to big contracts at the studios, just as Beane lost Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon to the Yankees and the Red Sox,” says De Luca. “But being the little guy forced us to be more entrepreneurial.”
In fact, after being sold to Ted Turner, who then sold his company to Warners, New Line ended up being a cog in a big media conglomerate itself.
“Moneyball” is being released by Sony, yet another big media entity. Today’s studios and TV networks all look a lot more like the Yankees than the A’s, being media giants whose products are aimed at global consumption. You don't see many restless mavericks beating down the doors of the movie business anymore. Many of the people running today’s studios are Ivy League grads and MBAs — in other words, managerial types, not shoot-from-the-hip Beane-style dreamers. For now, the mavericks have gravitated to places like Apple, Google and Facebook, which are more open to imagination and innovation.
Nonetheless, “Moneyball” is a fascinating example of a movie that while on one level is about our national pastime is also a story that illustrates something equally American — the embrace of an unconventional new idea.
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Photo: Brad Pitt, right, posing with current Oakland A's designated hitter Hideki Matsui, at the premiere of "Moneyball" in Oakland earlier this month. Credit: Robert Galbraith/Reuters