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  • When Hollywood needs help peddling a new sports movie, a studio will almost always call upon one of two PR guys who share a rivalry more fierce than any of the ones portrayed in the movies they're flogging.
By Jon Wertheim
November 20, 2017

This story starts, inevitably, at the Palm Beverly Hills, a see-and-be-seen steak house favored by Hollywood aristocracy. It was 2005, and Jeff Freedman had agreed—grudgingly, he says—to take lunch with an up-and-comer in the insular world of movie p.r. A longtime studio publicist himself, Freedman had recently excavated a niche promoting sports-themed movies. When he says, with characteristic bluntness, "to be totally honest about it, I invented this business," it draws no argument.

As Freedman recalls it, he'd been tasked with handling the pub for a remake of The Longest Yard. Midway through the project, the studio called. Here on out, Freedman was told, he would be platooning—sharing snaps, as it were—with a new prospect. "Paramount had this publicist," Freedman recalls, "and her boyfriend was Chip [Namias]. She said to Paramount, 'Hire my boyfriend!' And Hollywood, being the totally ethical place it is, tried to hire him, even though I was already under contract."

The two men met at the Palm to discuss splitting their duties and—

CUT!

"Jeff said we went to the Palm? It was a diner in Culver City," Namias insists. "And [my girlfriend] had nothing to do with this. Paramount hired me for The Longest Yard. Then Jeff tried to get me fired!"

This, it turns out, is the least of their disagreements—their perspectives don't so much diverge as run screaming from each other. (On the alleged attempt to get Namias fired, Freedman says, "I find it both ridiculous and flattering.") A rare consensus comes on this fundamental point: When Hollywood pumps out a sports-themed movie, Chip and Jeff are the go-to guys for publicity. Name a big-ticket sports flick from the past 15-odd years, and you can be almost assured that one or the other has been responsible for spreading the good word. In recent months alone, Namias worked on the Emma Stone-as-Billie Jean King movie Battle of the Sexes, while Freedman handled the Chuck Wepner biopic Chuck, starring Liev Schreiber.

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What's more, both men agree that, to traffic in understatement, little warmth passes between them. Straying a bit from conventional p.r. strategy, they make no secret of this friction. "I don't consider it a rivalry," says Freedman. "I consider it a joke. He's his person and I'm my person—let's leave it at that." Namias picks his words with deliberation before ending up here: "I don't know if it's really a rivalry. Some of the spoiled-sport shenanigans he's been involved with on jobs he didn't get weren't exactly endearing, but you try not to pay attention to that and just do your job."

Let's make the observation now and dispose of it so we can keep the plot moving: Yes, this makes for a damn good movie premise. Tin Men meets The Player. Gore Vidal-Norman Mailer meets Ali-Frazier. Two Hollywood p.r. flacks in their 60s, sharing a rivalry more fierce than any of the ones portrayed in the movies they're flogging. Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard may have held each other in sneering contempt, but neither ever tried to get his NASCAR nemesis fired.

Freedman was the first to mine the rich vein of sports movie p.r. He'd spent 14 years at studios—Warner Brothers and United Artists—when in 1993 he launched his own agency, now called FSPR. Per the promotional material, his aim was "to enhance and expand, in an aggressively positive way, the crossover between sports and entertainment product." Five years later he was summoned by Paramount to help promote Varsity Blues. He accepted the job and eagerly told the studio he had a connection to sportscaster Robin Roberts. "They clearly had no idea who she was," Freedman says, "but suddenly she's talking about Varsity Blues on ESPN, and they were impressed."

Until that point, Hollywood's game plan for marketing sports movies had been simple: deny you're peddling a sports movie. Bull Durham is a love story that just so happens to involve baseball. Hoosiers is notionally about basketball—but it's really a meditation on the heartland underdog pitted against the forces of urbanization.

Freedman's philosophy? If it's a sports movie, position it as a sports movie. "Get the base," he says. "If football fans don't like the football movie, no one will like it."

Made for barely $16 million, Varsity Blues grossed more than three times that. Word of Freedman's savvy spread quickly. And so, in turn, did his workload.

Freedman's job mostly entails getting traditional sports media outlets interested in a movie. The studios can serve up the stars for fluffy promotional interviews; Freedman specializes in integrating the movie onto platforms. As the publicist for the 2006 baseball comedy The Benchwarmers, he arranged for the star, Rob Schneider, to visit Giants spring training, which got packaged as a one-hour special on ESPN. In advance of The Fighter, he helped get co-stars Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale on the cover of Sports Illustrated. For Concussion, he arranged for the trailer to debut on TheMMQB.com.

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If Freedman's creativity and media contacts serve him well, so do the connections under his roof. His wife, Jennifer Allen, is a prominent Hollywood publicist whose clients include Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones and ... The Fighter's Christian Bale. "He gets jobs because of his wife," Namias charges. Freedman fires back, "I get the job whether she has the star or not."

While Freedman is a Hollywood publicist who pivoted to sports, Namias is a sports publicist who turned to Hollywood. In 1982, when he was 26, he became the youngest p.r. director in the NFL, with the Dolphins, then the Oilers and the Bucs. He left the NFL, moved to L.A. and started Athlete & Event Sports Public Relations, where one of his first jobs was heading p.r. for Bob McNair's (successful) effort to bring an NFL team back to Houston. Lately, on top of his movie duties both sports-related and otherwise (which is how two grown men ended up in a spat over Paul Blart: Mall Cop), Namias is employed by the makers of all manner of sports-related products, and he brokers broadcasting deals for retired players and coaches. He has also, for the last 18 years, spent Sundays as an NFL replay official.

Namias recalls that he noticed Freedman's cottage industry in the early 2000s and said to himself, I can do that. At first, he says, he would hear of a forthcoming sports movie, call up the studio and "they would always say, 'Oh, we already have a guy we use, Jeff Freedman.'"

Namias finally broke through when Paramount hired him for The Longest Yard. (He admits here to being "totally green.") A week later his joy evaporated when the studio called to say the job was being rescinded.

Namias: "I went, 'What?!' And they told me Jeff Freedman went to [producer] Jack Giarraputo and said, 'Why are you hiring a guy who's never been on a movie set before?'" (Responds Freedman, "I have no comment on something so ridiculous.")

Namias wrote to Giarraputo: You're firing me because Jeff Freedman tells you I don't know people in Hollywood? I don't think I want to know people in Hollywood if they're like you. "Giarraputo liked my chutzpah, I think," Namias says. "He rehired me and had us share the film."

Namias handled the print media; Freedman handled broadcast, which included arranging an 18-minute ESPN piece wherein actor Adam Sandler learned how to throw a football correctly. ("To establish his football credibility," says Freedman.) The movie took in nearly $200 million at the box office.

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The Namias-Freedman fault lines were thus established, but Chip had jammed his foot in the proverbial door. Giarraputo hired the newbie for additional projects and introduced him to major league pitcher turned Hollywood producer Mark Ciardi. Soon Ciardi was hiring Namias for films like Invincible and The Game Plan—"and then," Freedman concedes wistfully, "I knew the monopoly was over."

On at least one other occasion—the actual number is, not surprisingly, in dispute—Freedman and Namias worked together, each cursing the other under his breath. But they've split the bulk of the work. Freedman worked on Moneyball, 42 and Creed. Namias was summoned for Glory Road, The Blind Side and Secretariat.

Namias noticed over the years that cynical as the sports media can be, its members often share a deep interest in Hollywood. With that in mind, he perfected what he's nicknamed the Hack Pack. That is, Namias has seen to it that cinematic press boxes and press conferences are filled with actual sportswriters. Jay Glazer, Adam Schefter and The MMQB's Peter King, for instance, all appear in the credits for The Longest Yard.

Namias's pitch: "You're going to have a trailer, a director's chair with your name on it; you'll have an IMDB page. In exchange, you'll write a first-person piece about the film ... or you'll tell all your sports media buddies [about it].'" It's to the point, he says, where "sportswriters see me and ask, 'When are you going to cast me?'"

Freedman, of course, isn't impressed. "Chip's thing is that they cast real-life people? [These guys] stand around all day. They end up writing about themselves. They don't write anything that helps the movie.... That's just a bunch of crap."

Namias once explained the basics of sports-media relations to a studio head, who listened, dumbfounded. "So, you mean to tell me," the studio honcho said, "that if a columnist did a rip job on the quarterback, and the columnist wants to come back in the locker room the next day and interview other players, you have to let him?"

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Freedman sees the biggest difference between sports and entertainment stemming from the principals themselves: "Athletes know if they made the play or not; it's very black and white. They know if they won or lost, if they fumbled or hit a home run, made or missed the shot. Actors? It's always somebody [else's fault]. It was the director, the writer, the critic who didn't understand the movie."

Hearing both men describe the job, they make the same essential point: There's plenty of overlap between sports and entertainment, but they are two manifestly different ecosystems. They use the same phrase, "respect for the studio system," to explain why they won't go too rogue with their promotional ideas. They both note, unprompted, that as much as they respect actors and actresses, they are immune to getting starstruck. "I'm there to help the movie be successful," says Namias. Says Freedman, "I'm very direct. I'm not looking to have lunch with any of the stars."

Catch that? Two bitter rivals who compete over the same corner come to realize they may have more in common than they first thought. Sure has the ring of a third act. Boom! Let's get a script in development. Cast Jeff Garlin as Freedman, Hank Azaria as Namias. We've already got a publicist or two in mind.

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