Endangered Species

Has the perceived need to appeal to women—and overseas markets—doomed the sports flick?
December 17, 2007

WILL FERRELL! In spandex! On figure skates! For better or worse, that is how sports movies in the year 2007 will be remembered. Ferrell's Blades of Glory made $118.2 million and was one of only two sports flicks to finish in the top 50 at the box office. (The other was Disney's family comedy The Game Plan, which made $88.4 million.) Just how bereft of traditional sports films was 2007? Perhaps the most noteworthy entry was Who's Your Caddy?, which made Caddyshack II look brilliant by comparison and was voted by the users of Internet Movie Database as the second-worst movie ever made.

Where are the Hoosiers and the Raging Bulls? Where have all the Crash Davises gone? The reality is that it's not nearly as easy to make a sports movie as it used to be. With movie attendance in the U.S. dropping, the new Hollywood business model relies more heavily on foreign receipts. (Last year, for example, The Da Vinci Code made $217.5 million Stateside but pulled in $540.7 million overseas.) "But there's no foreign [earning] on sports movies," says Mark Ciardi, who has produced four of them. Baseball movies are a tough sell in Europe, but football movies are the least attractive abroad, where there are no pro leagues. Invincible, Ciardi's acclaimed 2006 movie about a real-life bartender who makes it to the NFL, took in $57.8 million. Only $670,000 of that came from abroad.

Then there's the prevailing notion in Hollywood that women choose which movies couples see together but that only men are drawn to sports films. "The first thing a studio decides when it's making a sports movie now is that it doesn't want to make a sports movie," says Jeff Freedman, who has marketed sports movies for 14 years. "They want to say it's a love story, or a father-son story."

Historically, the best sports movies have been the ones that have an edge, but to many producers now, edgy means risky. "If somebody wanted to make Raging Bull today, I don't know that it could happen," says one Hollywood marketer. "It's too dark." Nick Santora, a writer for Fox's Prison Break, has shopped two sports film projects in the past five years: one an uplifting tale of a young African-American girl who takes her Pop Warner team to the national tournament (Ice Cube is attached) and another about the beer-swilling, cocaine-snorting 1986 Mets. Guess which one is being made. As for the Mets movie, Santora says, "It doesn't have a chance."

And so Hollywood keeps plugging away with the same old sports comedy-drama-romance hybrids. In 2008 there will be another Ferrell effort, an ABA comedy called Semi-Pro, and a period football comedy titled Leatherheads, which will benefit from having George Clooney as its driving force. An Ernie Davis biopic is slated for October, and Universal Pictures just announced that it's doing the Joe Namath story, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

Meanwhile, independent sports movies that are worth seeing—such as 2007's Deep Water, about the first around-the-world boat race—get buried despite glowing reviews. One Salt Lake Tribune critic called it "the most fascinating story of self-deception you've never heard of," which raises the question of how someone in Utah managed to see a movie that was released on only 17 screens. And more, like the touching soccer documentary Sons of Sakhnin United, which was a hit with critics at the Tribeca Film Festival, are still looking for distribution. "We are still afloat and punching above our weight," Sakhnin producer Roger Bennett said by e-mail, "but it's a nightmare out there."

The Brow Beat

HIGH
In The Rocket, Roy Dupuis plays Maurice Richard with a stoicism that might bore the TMZ set. But the film has scored where they know the subject best—it won nine Genies (Canadian Oscars).

LOW
Air Guitar Nation ain't sophisticated—it's a lot of guys in mullets pretending to play the ax. Still, it's loads of fun, mostly because the competitors don't take themselves too seriously. (How could they?) Rock on.

An XL-sized Treat

Forty Super Bowls at your fingertips

THE 40-DISC
America's Game Super Bowl I--XL, a collection of one-hour NFL Films documentaries, retails for $199.98, but it's worth the investment. "What made this work is that we captured the epic and the intimate,'' says NFL Films president Steve Sabol. I asked Sabol, a 45-year veteran of the company, for his favorite under-the-radar Super Bowl moments.

1. After the 55--10 rout of Denver in XXIV (1990), San Francisco coach George Seifert kept looking around for players to carry him off the field, a ride that never came. The DVD features footage from the 10-year reunion of this team, with the players carrying Seifert off the dais. "I finally got my ride!'' he says.

2. The disc commemorating Green Bay's 33--14 win over Oakland in the second Super Bowl shows linebacker Dave Robinson violating coach Vince Lombardi's no-gloves edict in the Ice Bowl, the NFC title-game win over Dallas in Green Bay—by wearing brown gloves to blend in with his skin. Robinson is black.

3. Former Baltimore Colts Bubba Smith (above) and Mike Curtis, in discussing the 16--13 win over Dallas in Super Bowl V, both said that it was hard to look at their Super Bowl rings because it reminded them of the one they don't have—from the Jets' shocking upset of Baltimore two years earlier.

Coming Soon

HAVING ALREADY tackled the story of a beloved fictional minor leaguer, Ron Shelton is setting his sights on a reviled real-life big leaguer—Barry Bonds (below). The Bull Durham director has signed on to make an HBO movie based on Game of Shadows, the 2006 book by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. (Shelton is writing the screenplay with John Norville, his cowriter on Tin Cup.) The book chronicled a journalistic investigation, but don't expect the film to be a sports version of All the President's Men. The movie will be less about Fainaru-Wada and Williams, and more about what they uncovered. Says Williams, "It'll be about the rise of drugs. I don't expect [our characters] to appear in much more than a walk-on."

The Most...

HEART-WRENCHING DAVID AND GOLIATH STORY
Steve Wiebe is a hard-luck science teacher who got laid off from his previous job the same day he closes on a house. Billy Mitchell is cocky and runs a successful hot sauce company with his busty wife. It's clear from the outset of the documentary The King of Kong—about the two men and their quest to set the world record for Donkey Kong—that Mitchell is better than Wiebe at just about everything, including the video game. But director Seth Gordon is still able to turn their one-sided rivalry into the year's best sports flick.

CELEB-FILLED SPORTS BAR
In the 1940s and '50s, Toots Shor's place on West 51st Street was New York City's hottest nightclub, a place where Mantle, Monroe, Gifford and Gleason hobnobbed with local cops and reporters. The joint jumps again in the documentary Toots, a loving but honest ode to Shor directed by his granddaughter. His trademark was a well-poured cocktail, but Shor's expert mingling of sports and Hollywood is what really made his club shine.

OVERDUE DVD RELEASE
Fifty-six years after it hit theaters, Jim Thorpe: All-American finally got DVD treatment. The entertaining biopic is carried by Burt Lancaster, who was early in his transition from beefcake (his early nickname was the Grin) to serious thespian (he got his first Oscar nomination two years later).

WELCOME TREND FOR HISTORY BUFFS
Highlight films are soooo 2006 thanks to NCAA on Demand. Four years ago the NCAA began digitizing the 20,000 hours of videotapes in its archives—and now it's started selling DVDs of individual postseason games. Only NCAA championship events are available, which means no Division I-A football. But there are plenty of gems in the vault, including March Madness contests from as far back as the 1939 title game and Mia Hamm (right) winning the women's soccer championship at North Carolina.

ENGROSSING STRAINED CHITCHAT
The between-innings small talk on the 1959 show Home Run Derby, released on DVD in 2007, wasn't exactly enthralling. (Sample—host Mark Scott: "It must be tempting to swing at some of those pitches." Mickey Mantle: "It is.") But it offered a look at what some of baseball's biggest stars were really like; something that banal had to have been genuine.

PHOTOSUZANNE HANOVER/©DREAMWORKS LLC (BLADES of GLORY)WILL TO WIN Ferrell (with Jon Heder and Scott Hamilton) will follow up Blades with Semi-Pro (right). PHOTOFRANK MASI/©2008 NEW LINE CINEMA (SEMI-PRO)[See caption above] PHOTOCOURTESY DOCURAMA FILMS (AIR GUITAR NATION) PHOTO PHOTOPICTUREHOUSE/EVERETT COLLECTION (KING OF KONG) PHOTOSPORTING NEWS ARCHIVES/ICON SMI (TOOTS) PHOTOBOB DONNAN (HAMM) PHOTOROBERT BECK (BONDS) PHOTOJAMES DRAKE (SMITH)

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