Baseball pic has the right players; will formula pay off?

Who cares about the 2002 Oakland Athletics — even if Brad Pitt is their general manager?

It’s a question Sony is no doubt aiming to answer as the studio preps its fall release of baseball tale “Moneyball.”

In addition to Pitt, who plays A’s g.m. Billy Beane, the pic boasts a lineup that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman as manager Art Howe, Jonah Hill as a composite of front-office execs, a prestige director in Bennett Miller (“Capote”) and roots in Michael Lewis’ critically lauded 2003 tome “Moneyball.”

Its creative bench also reteams a trio of heavy hitters — producers Scott Rudin and Michael De Luca, and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin — behind last year’s “The Social Network,” which won three Oscars and earned $225 million worldwide.

But “Moneyball’s” path to the plexes has taken some challenging hops as its scope has evolved under two previously attached directors, David Frankel and Steven Soderbergh, and a first draft by another Oscar-winning scribe, Steven Zaillian. It’s taken seven years for “Moneyball” to make it to the bigscreen. “The Social Network” — with a similar pedigree, tone and attempt to capture a zeitgeist moment — took two.

Sony recently debuted “Moneyball’s” first trailer, and the stars are making some early promotional forays on behalf of the film, but with a release date less than two and a half months away, the studio is keeping a low profile, declining multiple requests from Variety to provide comment on “Moneyball.” It’s hired a specialist, Freedman Sports Public Relations, to help handle media inquiries.

One key hurdle for Sony and its marketing team heading into the pic’s Sept. 23 rollout: The film’s core story — centering on how baseball player value is analyzed — might be too “inside baseball” for some auds.

For the uninitiated, “moneyball” refers to the rise of new statistical metrics that allowed the As and other teams to maximize the value of their talent spending. In short, owners could get more bang for their buck with cheaper players who delivered on key stats rather than paying for pricier stars.

The drama is a classic underdogs-vs.-establishment tale, rooted in the fact that the 2002 Athletics spent $41 million on salaries and were competitive with larger-market teams that spent three times that figure, such as the New York Yankees. As Pitt intones at the top of the trailer, “There are rich teams, then there are poor teams, then there’s 50 feet of crap, then there’s us.”

Sony will be looking to attract fans beyond those in fantasy baseball leagues who don’t know OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage — the key “Moneyball” stat) from the USPS.

The tale is seen through the actions of g.m. Beane, who became convinced the team could win because it was cheaper to obtain players such as Scott Hatte-berg (portrayed by Chris Pratt), notable for his ability to get on base and hit for power, instead of pursuing players valued for more traditional qualities such as batting average. The book’s central premise is that the collective wisdom of baseball insiders was seriously flawed.

For baseball fans, that notion is compelling: “Moneyball” became a bestseller, its title entered the sports lexicon and other teams began copying Oakland’s approach, so much so that the team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2006. But it’s an open question as to whether Sony and the filmmakers can duplicate the success of “The Social Network.”

Sports movies are historically a tough sell — particularly overseas, even if they succeed domestically.

And baseball’s hold on its fan base is often tenuous — witness the current attendance implosion of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the wake of the team’s bankruptcy filing amid an ownership dispute.

No doubt energizing Sony’s hopes for the pic finding broader appeal, a couple of recent sports pics earned critical acclaim, kudos and strong box office: The David O. Russell-helmed “The Fighter” took in $130 million and two Oscars, and John Lee Hancock’s “The Blind Side” topped $300 million and won a best actress Oscar for Sandra Bullock.

“We who have dipped our toes in the water of sports dramas can’t thank John Lee Hancock enough,” says Mike Tollin, who has produced other sports-related pics, including “Varsity Blues,” “Coach Carter,” “Hardball” and “Radio.” “I devoured the book, so I can’t wait to see how ‘Moneyball’ comes out on the screen.”

But where the book was able to dive into the numbers behind “Moneyball,” the filmmakers have to deliver more story than stats.

“When people go a sports movie, they know how it’s going to come out,” said “Fighter” producer David Hoberman. “So you have to focus the film on something other than sports so there’s not the feeling that the story’s been pre-determined.”

Tollin was willing to bank on “Moneyball” early in its Hollywood evolution. He and former partner Brian Robbins attempted to obtain the feature rights in 2003 when Lewis’ “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” was becoming a bestseller.

“We took a run at it with ESPN back when they were doing scripted drama and the rights were available,” Tollin recalled. “I thought that it was compelling because of the huge upheaval it created in baseball analytics.”

Many in baseball, such as Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, demonized the book for taking aim at hallowed baseball traditions. But over time, the “moneyball” approach to valuing talent became more and more popular.

Producer Rachael Horovitz, who discovered the book in 2003, has always maintained that “Moneyball” would work as a movie because of its larger stories of workplace drama and challenges to the collective wisdom. When Sony optioned the feature rights in 2004, it paired Horovitz with De Luca producing, to be joined later by Rudin.

The studio attached Frankel to direct, then Soderbergh, who wanted to incorporate a documentary feel, with interviews of former players who were teammates of Beane, including Darryl Strawberry and Mookie Wilson.

In June 2009, Sony pulled the plug a few days before the start of shooting due to concerns about Soderbergh’s revisions to the script by Stan Chervin and Zaillian, viewed by the studio as being too costly and too focused on the vignettes with actual players interspersed in the film.

The studio enlisted Sorkin for a fresh script, and Miller came on board to helm his second movie, after 2005′s “Capote.” Lensing took place between June and September last year.

Sorkin created and wrote TV’s “Sports Night,” so his sports cred is solid. And “The Social Network” and TV’s “West Wing” firmed his rep for depicting the dynamics of complex relationships within a workplace.

Miller, however, may have seemed an out-of-left-field choice. But studio brass wanted a director with a track record of handling a complex personal story. “I think the idea of getting someone in there who’s not necessarily a sports guy, so you’re getting a macro look rather than a micro look” was a good one, Tollin said.

“What you’re trying to do is not make a sports movie, but something that has emotional truth to it,” said Todd Lieberman, producer on “The Fighter.” “That’s first and foremost.”

“What made ‘The Fighter’ unique is its slavish devotion to the emotional truth of the story of brothers Micky Ward and Dickie Eklund,” said Ross Johnson, who worked on strategic public relations for Mandeville Films during the campaign for the pic. “The producers of the film, star Mark Wahlberg, director David Russell and the screenwriters made a film in which the chronological order of true events were greatly altered, but the events portrayed actually did happen.”

Similarly, getting the action right is crucial.

“We’ve always been painstaking about the action sequences because fans are rigorous about that,” said Brian Robbins, who worked with Tollin on “Varsity Blues” and other pics. “We spent so much time on making it real in ‘Varsity Blues’ that the players really did become a team.”

Auds are starting to get glimpses of how the film and Major League Baseball are aiming to drive interest in one another.

Pitt lent his voice to narrate an opening bit of Tuesday’s 82nd All-Star Game that honored baseball greats of the past and present. And Pratt appeared in a celebrity softball game Sunday as a run-up to the All-Star matchup.

(Horovitz and De Luca will discuss the origins of “Moneyball” at Variety’s Sports Entertainment Summit on Thursday.)

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