January 21, 2019

How studio exec-turned-producer pitched ‘Moneyball’

Rachael Horovitz sipped decaffeinated cappuccino at the Sunset Tower Hotel recently, overlooking a panorama of Hollywood and beyond. The elegant, poised producer had flown in from New York the night before to attend the luncheon for nominees of the 2012 Academy Awards, representing “Moneyball,” a competitor in the best picture category. Just an hour later, she said, she would be changing into a dress that is “fancy-ish.” But first she swiftly orchestrated relocating to a more private table: “Not to bother my fellow guests — or let them eavesdrop,” she said, adding drolly, “I’m such a producer.”

The new table was secured, and, before the talk turned to “Moneyball,” there were other stories to tell: Horovitz’s father is the playwright Israel Horovitz, and she recalled the family’s elation at the opening of his subversive breakout play, “The Indian Wants the Bronx” — as well as the play’s star, a young Al Pacino. She mentioned her brother, Adam Horovitz, who would grow up to become Ad-Rock of the Beastie Boys, and quipped that she taught him everything he knows about music.  She reminisced about her late friend John F. Kennedy Jr., who starred in some of her early productions with Manhattan’s Naked Angels theater company, where, during intermission, Jackie O would invite her into her limousine for a glass of chilled white wine.

[For a Q&A with “Moneyball” star Jonah Hill, visit: Revisiting Jonah Hill, Oscar nominee!]

But perhaps the most remarkable story of all is how Horovitz came to produce “Moneyball” — a project she originated — and how various setbacks almost prevented the baseball saga from ever reaching the proverbial Hollywood home plate.

Back in 2003, Horovitz was a seasoned studio executive who had worked at New Line, executive produced Alexander Payne’s 2002 comedy-drama, “About Schmidt” and was, at the time, at Revolution.  She knew it was time to set out on her own when the studio nixed what she hoped would be her next project:  Payne’s “Sideways.” (Fox Searchlight eventually made the Oscar-winning film.) “It was an ‘ah-ha,’ Oprah moment in the sense that I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the kinds of films that are meaningful to me in this job,” she said. “The writing was on the wall; it was time to become a producer.”

She hung out her own shingle, Specialty Productions, while still at Revolution. “I did keep it a secret on purpose, as it wouldn’t have been allowed,” said Horovitz, who secured a first-look deal through producers Sidney Kimmel and Andrew Karsch — “a big leap,” she recalled.

But first, Horovitz took a much-needed vacation to Tahiti — which is where she observed her usually taciturn husband, the television executive Michael Jackson, marveling over a nonfiction best-seller. The book was Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” about the failed baseball player-turned-Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane, who used a revolutionary system of statistics to pick cheap, good players for his financially strapped team. A curious Horovitz started reading the book, too, and, she reported,  “I was enchanted by the story and instantly saw it as a movie.” Never mind that half the book is devoted to the practice of sabermetrics, a complex statistical analysis Beane used to evaluate players. 

Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane in “Moneyball.” Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

“What seemed cinematic about it was the character of Billy Beane and his predicament,” Horovitz explained. “He was someone stuck inside a system that was frustrating and impossible, but he struggled to convince people of his vision.” The story appealed to Horovitz — and to the other producers who eventually signed on to “Moneyball” — partly because of their own, frustrating experiences of having projects implode. “Everyone I know has a great movie that got away,” she said. “I also loved the tone of the book, which was funny and ironic and emotional all at once.”

Over a second cappuccino, Horovitz turned the conversation to the legendary producer Irwin Winkler, who first introduced her to the idea of what a producer can do. It was Winkler who had hired her father to write his first screenplay, an adaptation of the book “The Strawberry Statement” (1970), which ended up winning a prize at the Cannes Film Festival. “I remember my parents came back with glamour dripping off of them,” she said. “There were photos of my father in a tuxedo, and it was the first time I had ever seen my mother in an evening gown.  My voice is starting to crack a bit, because my parents broke up after that, and I look at those pictures and they really are so young and excited. I remember my own excitement for them, and somehow in my brain I knew the producer was responsible for their joy.”

Loss and longing — for creative fulfillment and more — defined both sides of Horovitz’s family. Her beloved Jewish grandmother, Hazel Horovitz, had brothers who were incarcerated in German camps while serving in the United States military during World War II; they never discussed their experiences. And Rachael’s Irish-Catholic mother, the painter Doris Keefe, had been shipped out as a child to live with a succession of relatives, then died at age 45 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Going to work in the familiar milieu of show business proved healing for Horovitz in the aftermath of Keefe’s death; she made her 2009 HBO film, “Grey Gardens” starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, in honor of her late mother, who had adored the quirky Albert Maysles cinéma-vérité documentary upon which the film is based. The TV movie went on to win an Emmy, a Golden Globe and the 2010 David Wolper Producer of the Year Award from the Producers Guild.

“Moneyball” proved to be a much more arduous project, even by Hollywood standards.  Horovitz said she was surprised when she was easily able to snatch up the rights to Lewis’ book, then was promptly rejected by every studio in town.  Producers are used to hearing the word “no,” so Horovitz spent months perfecting her pitch and finally got Sony Pictures interested. The project sped along, with Brad Pitt signing on, along with producer Michael De Luca, director Steven Soderbergh, screenwriter Steven Zaillian and others. But Horovitz received a devastating call just days before she was to fly to Phoenix for the shoot in June 2009. 

Jonah Hill plays math genius Peter Brand in “Moneyball.” Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon

Soderbergh was leaving the film, and Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal was pulling the plug on the project.

“We were blindsided,” Horovitz said of the news. “I personally, at that moment, felt that I would rob the bank of Dubai to get the movie made.”

Much has been written about why the project dissolved; according to Horovitz, there were several issues, including the fact that the studio was unhappy with Soderbergh’s pushing too far the use of real baseball personnel in the film.

Fortunately, Pitt stepped up to the plate and “he kind of represented the producers at that moment and worked with Aaron Sorkin to get the script that would satisfy the studio needs for the budget,” Horovitz added. In a comeback notable even in the movie business, “Moneyball” was eventually made for a reported $50 million, received good reviews and is now up for six Oscars, including a best actor nomination for Pitt and a supporting actor nod for Jonah Hill, who plays Beane’s statistics geek.

It’s a heady time for Horovitz: This is her first Academy Award nod for best picture, which she shares with De Luca and Pitt; it is also her first completed effort for the big screen. “I have a really deep connection to the moment in the movie where Jonah’s character tells Brad’s character, ‘You’ve already won’ — meaning that he had convinced others of his vision, even if he did not win the World Series,” she said.

“That was my feeling when I saw the premiere of the film at the Toronto Film Festival, and I felt the struggle that we’d gone through to make the film, and I was so pleased with the film that we did make. I did feel like we had already won. And that’s how I feel about this whole Oscar moment.”

The Academy Awards will air on Feb. 26.