The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Brad Pitt Alert: Is Sony's lengthy 'Moneyball' ad really on the money?

July 28, 2011 |  6:00 pm

Brad+pitt This is the time of year, with the major league trading deadline looming, when baseball fans like me are usually noisily debating the merits of the latest potential big deal. How much will the Phillies give to the Astros for Hunter Pence? Will the Braves swap a boatload of prospects for B.J. Upton? And will the Dodgers unload half their infield in return for a decent young minor league pitcher?

Sports talk radio fans everywhere are still having plenty of those discussions. But they've also turned into amateur film critics, arguing about the merits of Sony's new "Moneyball" TV spot that has been playing incessantly on the MLB Channel. If one thing stands out about the ad, besides the fact that Brad Pitt seems to effortlessly capture the cockiness and charm of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, the real-life character Pitt plays in the film, it's the ad's sheer length. In today's attention-deficit culture, most TV ads for an upcoming film range in length from 10 to 30 seconds. That was the length of the "Moneyball" spot that debuted during the major league home run derby contest earlier this month.

But the "Moneyball" spots that have been airing virtually every night on MLB are a whopping 120 seconds long, nearly the length of a regular theatrical trailer. What is Sony up to? Marc Weinstock, the studio's marketing chief, isn't talking, preferring to let the spots speak for themselves. But after talking to a few rival marketers, I got a pretty good idea of what's going on.

As it turns out, MLB, being a modestly rated cable channel, doesn't charge a lot for its ad time. Since the price is right, Sony can afford to buy a lot of relatively cheap media time on the channel and, by running two-minute spots, make its ads look like a big event for baseball fans.

"They're going for the early adopters," says a rival studio marketer familiar with the campaign. "If 'Moneyball' has a core audience, it's older male baseball fans, which is exactly what you get on MLB. So you get the core audience excited first, then go after women who like Brad Pitt and people that might sample the film once it starts getting good early reviews."

The MLB network is like ground zero for an older male audience--the only ads that you see more often than the "Moneyball" spots are commercials for Viagra. That's one reason why Sony is starting the campaign earlier than usual; "Moneyball" won't arrive in theaters until Sept. 23, more than two months after the first ad aired.

It turns out that "Moneyball's" core audience of older men is notoriously difficult to lure away from their couches and big-screen TVs and catapult into a movie theater. "They take a really long time to make decisions," says one marketer, "So you have to start reeling them in early. At least with older women, they're willing to call up their girlfriends and make plans. But men can sit on the couch forever. So the two-minute spots are like a cattle prod. It's Sony's way of saying, 'Come on, you dolt--this movie is for    you!' "

The spot itself is clearly aimed at its core audience, focusing on the behind-the-scenes baseball chatter that made the original Michael Lewis "Moneyball" book, which chronicled Beane's unlikely mission to reinvent the rules of baseball talent evaluation, such a hot conversation piece. The ad shows off some crackling dialogue, courtesy of the film's two A-list screenwriters, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin.

At one point, you hear Beane's baseball scouts complaining about a potential draft pick. He has an ugly girlfriend, one of them says, "which means [he has] no confidence." Beane waves them off, saying, "You guys are talking the same old nonsense, like we're looking for Fabio." The spot cuts to a clueless, white-haired scout in aviator glasses, who says, on cue: "Who's Fabio?"

There is still considerable skepticism about the odds of "Moneyball" hitting box-office paydirt. Baseball movies have little international appeal, so a studio has to maximize its ability to reach American audiences. However, the track record is daunting. Sony marketers are well aware that in terms of opening weekend benchmarks, no bona fide baseball movie has topped "The Rookie," which earned $16 million in its opening weekend in 2002.

If you read into the current TV spot, you can imagine Sony trying to broaden the film's appeal by selling it as a buddy comedy, with Pitt opposite Jonah Hill, who plays a stats geek based on Beane protege Paul DePodesta. The studio is also hoping that the film will get the kind of money reviews that could establish it as a legitimate Oscar contender. Good reviews don't just set up an Oscar run; they are what could provide the film with wider audience appeal, since older female moviegoers, in particular, are largely driven to theaters by good reviews.

For now, "Moneyball" is simply giving baseball fans like me a new topic of conversation. Could a Hollywood movie actually explain to the masses, not to mention my wife, why Beane's embrace of the arcane science of on-base percentage is just as important as Freud's theory of dreams or Newton's second law of motion? If "Moneyball" can capture the hidden pleasures of baseball statistics, then it could really turn out to be a home run of a movie.




--Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: Brad Pitt, left, with Jonah Hill, in a scene from the upcoming film "Moneyball."

Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia TriStar