Moneyball, AI and the Future of the Old Playbook?

Writer-director Deborah Goodwin looks at what Bennett Miller's 2011 sports drama can tell us about the current WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.

Recently, as the movie and television industry falls into crisis, I’ve been thinking a lot about Moneyball. The film came out in 2011, so you’ll have to cast your mind back to when we were so much more optimistic about the movie industry (right?) and rooted for Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill as they tried to use statistical science (now known to audiences as algorithms) to reinvent the stodgy old baseball playbook!

The film’s protagonist, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the former star ballplayer who’s now GM of a team losing its best and brightest to deeper pockets, is framed as the lone maverick dissenter in a club that’s lost its “romance” with baseball to the business-as-usual guys. In a pivotal scene, Billy is pitted against the herd of baseball scouts who bray at him, “We’re trying to solve the problem here, Billy,” to which he replies, “Not like this you’re not. You’re not even looking at the problem.”

The same can be said for Hollywood at this moment. Or at least those with the controlling interest of it.

Brad Pitt as Billy Beane in Moneyball, the lone maverick dissenter in a club that’s lost its “romance” with baseball to the business-as-usual guys.

The epic failure to even look at the problem of generative AI in the industry has driven the WGA on both coasts and SAG-AFTRA to join in a concerted effort to mandate new contractual provisions in what was already a time of seismic industry shifts. So much has changed or been in flux the past few years – all decades in the making – as a result of the increasing dominance of streaming, the decline of the theatrical distribution model, the erosion of linear television, the emergence of the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, and now the advent of AI as a particular insidious threat striking at the heart of entertainment.

When Billy Beane meets young baseball analyst Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), he pounces on the latter’s seemingly visionary approach to addressing the problem of player projections and team building via mathematics and statistical probability.

Billy sees an opportunity to use a totally different mindset to put together a team: Use player evaluations and projections (the math of it) to find the undervalued who are still cheap. Genius. This becomes the recipe for an overhaul of Billy’s management style and the team’s makeup, much to the dismay of the old-school dudes who are deeply invested in the old methods.

SAG-AFTRA members picketing on the streets of New York City. (Photo by Deborah Goodwin.)

This tension can still be found at the core of one of the fundamental disagreements between movie studio suits and the unions that represent the writers and actors who are now in lockstep in their vehement opposition to the introduction of generative Artificial Intelligence as a tool to be wielded at will by the power brokers in this industry.

So, what happens when “old mindsets” get hold of “new tools”?

About halfway through the film, old-timer Grady speaks out, extolling the human aspects of baseball scouting, saying, “Billy, baseball isn’t just numbers and science. If it was, then anybody could do what we’re doing, but they can’t because they don’t know what we know. They don’t have our experience. They don’t have our intuition.”

“Adapt or die,” says Billy.

And that’s pretty much where the AMPTP, the trade organization that represents the studios and major production companies, left it and the table in negotiations. They claim they didn’t, but let’s call that truth-adjacent. In offering to address virtually none of the legitimate concerns surrounding AI contractual terms, which in reality open up myriad loopholes for their legal teams to exploit ad infinitum, AMPTP simply turned a blind eye to the problem and retaliated with the same tried and true tactics of stonewalling, press-leaking and intimidation. The studios claimed they could wait out the WGA strike, as they were well prepared for this eventuality. They quickly sewed up their new deal with the DGA as proof of how clearly “those writers” were just being “unrealistic” in their demands. This tune has changed somewhat since SAG-AFTRA entered the fray in solidarity with the WGA, but this story is no longer an industry insider squabble. It has spilled over into the fundamental ethos of the American worker, who is no longer willing to cede every right and allow corporations to abdicate every responsibility.

In Moneyball, Billy Beane Billy Beane pounces on Peter Brand’s visionary approach to building a team via mathematics and statistical probability.

There comes a point in Moneyball where Billy’s experiment with player math isn’t working and the baseball industry is quick to pounce on its perceived failure. Announcers and pundits jeer Billy: “This is not about statistics. This is a game about people.” Even Billy is asking himself, “What the hell am I doing?”

We too have reached an inflection point now, at 14 weeks and counting of an industrywide strike that has already taken its toll. Is all the human antipathy to AI warranted? In Moneyball, we are clearly on the side of the innovators, Billy and Pete, and the overlooked potential that is revealed in the baseball algorithms. We’re rooting for the math to win.

But in the current and all-too-real instance of the movie and television industry versus the creators, the genuine dangers can be obscured by invisible gatekeepers using data to make decisions. Moneyball’s protagonists weren’t trying to literally replace actual ball players with AI generated facsimiles. No one was plotting, as in AMPTP’s case, to digitize, store and repurpose actual performances and screenplays, or shred the size of writers’ rooms to ribbons to be replaced by GPT bots or AI assistants, rather than human coordinators. Moneyball was seeking to reframe the “economics” of baseball and optimize the use of players. AMPTP’s goal appears to be seeking to reframe the validity of the human contribution and experience in entertainment. Reduce it to zero and then claim the profits. Moneyball sought the “undervalued” and AMPTP is looking to devolve and devalue the entire workforce that brings us the stories that contain our very existence as a society, as communities, as a human race.

WGA and SAG-AFTRA members united in strike action in NYC. (Photo by Deborah Goodwin.)

Too dramatic? Too over the top? Not really. Think about the consequences of eliminating human hands, hearts and minds in entertainment. I mean. Just think about it for a second or two.

It almost doesn’t bear thinking about, because it is so crazy. Why would we do this? Why would anyone want that? Apparently there are those at the top of the heap who think this is the future. Long live the end of humanity as we understand it.

Given that interpretation, shouldn’t we all be fighting with our whole might to resist this outcome? At the very least, should we not be in full support of the creative unions (and all unions) fighting the good fight at this most perilous time?

Deborah Goodwin is a writer-director-producer whose work in film and television began as a development executive for Sanford-Pillsbury Productions (Desperately Seeking Susan, River’s Edge, How to Make an American Quilt). Deborah’s Urbanworld Film Festival Best Screenplay win for her darkly provocative family drama Cherrys launched her filmmaking path. She has written for Emmy-winning and Independent Spirit Award-nominated producers, and for shows like the cult favorite horror series Tales from the Cryptkeeper. She is a Film Independent and IFP lab fellow and an ABC and NBC diversity showcase director, best known for her horror fable Vampires in Venice and her action/drama The Pastor, released by Fathom Events and AMC. Her Icelandic noir Snaeland, which she co-wrote and produced, premiered at the Vail Film Festival and screens in the Brooklyn Film Festival 2020. Deborah is a Sundance Collab advisor and screenwriting professor at Brooklyn College, and a newly minted co-creator and writer of the noir-crime-thriller series Hot Freeze, with Canadian producer Nomadic Pictures (Hell on Wheels, Van Helsing, Fargo).