07.05.09

Sony Drops Pitt for Clooney?

The Daily Beast’s Kim Masters wonders why the studio canned Brad Pitt’s Moneyball when it’s bankrolling a staggeringly expensive James L. Brooks comedy—and has just inked a production deal with the money-losing George Clooney.

With her last-minute cancellation of Moneyball, a film that was to star Brad Pitt with Steven Soderbergh directing, Sony Pictures chairman Amy Pascal fired a shot heard 'round Hollywood. But then came news that Pascal had made a production deal with George Clooney. Pitt, international box-office draw, is out and Clooney, who can’t seem to open a movie, is in? What gives?

Within days, the Moneyball decision was thoroughly picked over in the press and there was lots of bloggy speculation about the real motive. On the surface, the studio’s simple explanation seemed plausible: At the last minute, Soderbergh turned in a rewrite of Steve Zaillian’s script that left Pascal cold. “The draft he turned in wasn’t at all what we’d signed up for,” Pascal told the Los Angeles Times. “He wanted to make a dramatic reenactment of events with real people playing themselves...He wanted to do the film in a different way than we did.”

Pitt, international box-office draw, is out and Clooney, who can’t seem to open a movie, is in? What gives?

Given that much of Soderbergh’s recent work has been cerebral and often chilly, it’s easy to believe that his script lacked mass appeal. (Aside from Ocean’s Eleven to Thirteen, in recent years Soderbergh has directed a pile of money losers: Solaris, The Good German, Bubble, and the two-part Che.) Why entrust him with the better part of $60 million to make an idiosyncratic film about baseball, of all things—a topic that doesn’t draw well outside the U.S.?

But looking at the broader picture, it may be that Pascal’s decision to cancel Moneyball is not quite a sign that she’s signed on to the ever-more-stringent financial discipline in Hollywood. Even as Sony has suffered through big disappointments— The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Year One—and even as Pascal yanked the leash on Soderbergh, it’s much too late to do the same to one of her favorites, James L. Brooks. He’s already at work in Philadelphia on an untitled comedy that has a staggering budget, acknowledged to be $90 million and rumored to have passed $115 million.

This is as old-fashioned a deal as one can hope to find. It has a star-packed cast: Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd, and—stepping in at the last minute for Bill Murray—the stunningly expensive Jack Nicholson. Not only is the budget enormous, but the talent is probably taking the sort of big share of the profit that seems so 2008 at this point.

And here’s a point of interest: Apparently the film is about a love triangle with Reese Witherspoon as a professional softball player and Owen Wilson as a former baseball pro. Sony Pictures wants you to know that this not—repeat, not—as baseball movie. It is a romantic comedy.

James L. Brooks is an American treasure, and if he had never done anything but bring The Simpsons to the screen, he would still deserve our worship. But here is another brilliant filmmaker who hasn’t directed a commercial film in years. (His last effort, Spanglish, was inexplicable.) And Brooks is famously slow and obsessive.

So maybe Pascal’s perspective on Moneyball was colored by the fact she is wagering a fortune on a romantic comedy that isn’t about baseball but still has some proximity to the sport. The truth is that even if it this movie works, the chances that it can earn its money back seem to be minuscule to nonexistent.

The ebullient Pascal has long been known as the talent-friendliest executive in the business. She is nurturing to talent but also indulgent—especially with high-maintenance directors. “She coddles them,” a filmmaker told me some while back. “She wants to be liked by them.”

Pascal permitted director Nancy Meyers to spend more than $100 million on The Holiday, which should have been a simple little romantic comedy. She also allowed Jim Carrey to blow an astounding $140 million budget on Fun With Dick and Jane—building sets from scratch, including the suburban development where Dick and Jane lived.

For some years, Sony has been laboring to keep costs down, and the studio can claim some success. But even as the cameras roll on the Brooks project, last week Pascal announced a new production deal with Clooney, who’s leaving Warner after nearly 20 years. This comes at a time when no one gets deals. Producers like Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, whose credits include the Bourne franchise and the Indiana Jones movies, didn't even have a deal after Universal let them go after 10 years there. Or they had no deal until Pascal gave them one in April at Sony Pictures.

Clooney is a handsome, charming guy with artistic ambitions and a social conscience, so how can you not be for him? But he’s another talent who has not been a draw at the box office. (You don’t get to count ensemble movies that also have Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in them.) Clooney is a star, but it’s arguable whether he’s a movie star, and a whole lot of money sank into the pit with Good German and Leatherheads.

Pascal acknowledged the tenor of the times as the announcement was made. “While we have been trimming production deals overall for the last few years, we see real value in opening our doors to producers with their critical and commercial track record and their artistic point of view,” she said.

Perhaps this deal isn’t really worth that much money. And perhaps Pascal has good reasons for giving Clooney a home. “She’s too smart to make an overall deal with Clooney so she can have dinner with him—and believe me, there was a time when people did that,” says a veteran producer.

As for Clooney, he seems to be a pragmatic guy. He’s doing Up in the Air for a reduced fee, pairing him with hip Juno director Jason Reitman in a movie, to be released by Paramount next January, that costs only $25 million. Clooney also appears to be looking for his next commercial opportunity now that the Ocean’s franchise seems to be played out. A source says he expressed interest in playing Jack Ryan when and if Paramount attempts to revive the Tom Clancy series. Clooney seems to recognize that at this time in the world and this time in his life (he’s pushing 50), it’s time for some commercial maintenance.

So maybe Sony has something commercial in mind for him. Still, it seems hard to understand why he’d have to be lured with an overall deal. Like so many big talents in Hollywood these days, he’s facing a buyer’s market.

Kim Masters is the host of The Business, public radio's weekly show about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.