Footage That Can Go To Your Head

NFL Films, a family-run business, is a house organ that has made sweet music, reeling in 33 Emmy Awards
September 04, 1984

It's time for the NFL to start romancing itself as no other league can. So, ready on the set? Lights! Camera! Action! Ladies and gentlemen, we give you NFL Films, the celebrated cinematic arm of the NFL that has become an institution on television.

See Marcus Allen sliding off tackle in super-slow motion and in utter silence. Now hear him fall to earth amid sudden sound and fury. Watch how the camera zooms in on the kickoff and follows the ball end over end until it reaches the return man's arms. Not enough realism? Then hear Dexter Manley ("Unnh! Arrrgh!") get off the line, pound a few helmets and rush the passer. Now listen to the announcers. They always sound like the voices of doom. As has been said, they can make a coin toss sound like Armageddon. And the music! No John Philip Sousa marching bands for this bunch. Long before each season, executive producer Steve Sabol commissions a Munich orchestra to come up with new scores.

Steve, 41, and his father, Ed, 68, who founded the forerunner to NFL Films as a small, family-run business in Philadelphia 22 years ago, have won 33 Emmy Awards for everything from writing, directing and cinematography to music and editing. NFL Films has affected the way TV now covers sports. The Sabols were the first to put a microphone on a coach, the first to put pop music to sports footage, the first to diagram plays on the screen, the first to stay with the quarterback after he threw the ball and the first to use the reverse-angle replay. Says Don Ohlmeyer, former executive producer of NBC Sports, "NFL Films started looking at football through a different pair of glasses, and the networks very quickly tried to get the same pair of glasses."

The only knock on NFL Films is a hoary and fairly obvious one: Although it operates autonomously under the Sabols' direction, it functions as an NFL house organ. "If it's a criticism that you always look on the positive side of things," Steve says, "then I accept it. I like to make films that interest me. Let Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner do the exposés." The apple is always polished at NFL Films. For 20 of its 22 years, the operation has been a wholly owned subsidiary of the NFL, with each of the league's 28 teams sharing equally in profits. You'll never see an NFL Films production refer to drug use or labor disputes. It all amounts to an NFL monopoly on TV images.

The Sabols and their staff of 105 turn out 150 separate pieces a year. For CBS they prepare shorts for the Sunday pre-game shows. For ABC's Monday Night Football they supply the halftime highlights. They syndicate two weekly shows—NFL Pro! Magazine and NFL Week in Review—to over-the-air stations, and they furnish ESPN with the NFL Game of the Week and, starting this season, The Men Who Played the Game. To HBO goes Inside the NFL, another weekly series. Beyond all this, the Sabols each year produce a 30-minute highlights film for each NFL team. (Finding something upbeat to say about the Saints, say, is one of the Sabols' great achievements.) And let's not forget the annual Super Bowl film. The best estimates are that NFL Films grosses about $10 million a year and shows a profit of some $400,000.

The Sabols' entry into pro football reads like, well, a romanticized movie script: Ed Sabol gets 16-mm Bell & Howell camera in 1940 as wedding present. Starts shooting schoolboy football games of only son from roof of chemistry building at Haverford School near Philly. Retires from family overcoat business at age 40. Buys film rights to 1962 NFL championship game for $5,000. Listens to Pete Rozelle describe his movie as "greatest I've ever seen." In 1964 sells his fledgling company, Blair Motion Pictures, to the 14 NFL teams for $20,000 apiece—$280,000 total.

How the Sabols gained their polish as filmmakers would have made Darryl F. Zanuck blush. Interestingly, neither has ever taken a formal camera, writing or filmmaking course. Sabol père always exhibited a show-biz bent. In the late '30s he appeared as an extra with the Ritz Brothers, the vaudeville comedy team. He became a fanatical home-movie hobbyist who flew a single-engine plane over the Bahamas to shoot a film that the Bahamas Tourist Bureau later used for promotion. Ed was the man who knew what he wanted to do with color and slow motion and music, but it was Sabol fils who had the eye, who knew instinctively how to do it. By 1960, when he went away to Colorado College, Steve estimates he had spent 95% of his life watching sports and old movies. "Then all I did in six years of college was go to the movies," he says. "That, and attend a few art classes and play checkers with an assistant [football] coach, and watch them unload melons down at the Safeway." He also was the starting fullback on the football team. By the mid-'60s, Steve had become a talented editor, writer and cameraman. Such lines as "Milt Plum pegs a peach of a pass to become the apple of coach George Wilson's eye" had become standard highlights fare, but suddenly Steve was writing copy such as: "Rage was part of [Mike] Curtis's anatomy. Like a muscle, he flexed it and built it up."

Ed says, "I wanted closeups. I wanted pictures of faces and hands. I wanted better music. I wanted to copy Hollywood. I wanted to be enterprising and exciting. Although the people saw the game on television, I wanted them to have a reason to watch it again on film." The '62 championship, in which the Packers beat the Giants 16-7 at frozen Yankee Stadium, set the pattern for every game the Sabols have shot since then. They always plant a stationary cameraman (a Tree in Sabolese) high in the stadium to cover game action. They always assign another man (a Mole) to work from the sidelines. And they always have a mobile cameraman darting all about the stadium to ferret out small details (you guessed it, a Weasel). The result: a profusion of images that are the signatures of NFL Films. The pass spiraling through the air in slow motion. The mood shot of a hooded lineman sitting on the bench in the snow ("They've made heroes out of guys who wear 73," notes Beano Cook, the ABC football pundit). The shots of eyes, bandaged fingers, cleats.

One saying Steve Sabol savors is from Cezanne: "All art is selected detail." Another, which tells you why the Sabols spice their films with madcap segments called Football Follies, is from Walt Disney: "There's a little lowbrow in every highbrow, but there's no highbrow in a lowbrow." As Steve explains, "You have to appeal to the Madison Avenue people and also to the truck drivers."

In recent years NFL Films has branched out beyond football. In 1980 it made The Greatest Adventure: Man's Journey to the Moon, a fine PBS documentary done in conjunction with NASA. (Astronaut Buzz Aldrin once said that if NASA had had NFL Films working for it full-time, the government wouldn't have cut NASA's budget.) NFL Films makes music videos for MTV, and is the official cinematographer for the current Michael Jackson tour.

But NFL football is their No. 1 business. Every play of every NFL game since 1948 is preserved on a reel in one of the 45,000 cans of film in the Sabols' Mount Laurel, N.J. warehouse. "Monet painted the same lily pad 300 times," Steve says, "and people ask if I get tired doing football. Now if Monet could paint the same lily pad 300 times...."

PHOTOEd launched the business but has given his son, Steve, a free hand on the creative side.
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