Docs

Sports doc talk: ESPN’s ’30 for 30′

When realscreen last spoke to ESPN Films exec director Connor Schell, the '30 for 30' series, featuring 30 sports films in celebration of ESPN's 30th anniversary, was just beginning to bring directors on board. A year later, '30 for 30' is in full force, with Peter Berg's Kings Ransom, Barry Levinson's And the Band Played On and Mike Tollin's Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL having already aired. We talk to Schell about the response to the ambitious project and how directors from Albert Maysles to Ice Cube came on board.
October 26, 2009

When realscreen last spoke to ESPN Films exec director Connor Schell, the ’30 for 30′ series, featuring 30 sports films in celebration of ESPN’s 30th anniversary, was just beginning to bring directors on board. A year later, ’30 for 30′ is in full force, with Peter Berg’s Kings Ransom, Barry Levinson’s And the Band Played On and Mike Tollin’s Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL having already aired. Here, realscreen talks to Schell about the response to the ambitious project and just how directors from Albert Maysles to Ice Cube came on board.

How have the aired films in the ’30 for 30′ project been received?
They’ve gotten excellent critical response; reviews of the entire series and the two premieres have been very positive. Bill Simmons [ESPN's very popular 'Sports Guy' columnist and the creator of the '30 for 30' project] has a great direct relationship with his audience. Through viewer emails, or [what] filmmakers have passed along, we’re very pleased with the reaction to the stories and it’s attributed to the quality of the storytellers that we have involved in the series.

Who is the audience for the series?
They were made for both [sport and documentary fans]. I think we program for sports fans and we try to tell sports stories in all sorts of ways and the documentary form is just another great way to reach them and tell compelling stories. If some of these films reach a different audience and bring them to our network, that’s fantastic, but first and foremost we want to just tell great sport stories and let an audience enjoy them.

When Bill Simmons approached you with the idea, did you think it was feasible?
We always thought we could tell great stories in longer form. I think we’re pleasantly surprised by the reaction of [those in] the filmmaking community who have really embraced this, from the great working documentarians like Dan Klores and Barbara Kopple and Alex Gibney to feature film directors like Barry Levinson or Peter Berg or John Singleton. What these guys share in common is that they’re all sports fans. They all have great stories to tell and we were really happy to be able to provide an outlet for them.

Did ESPN approach all the filmmakers or did some of them come to you?
I think it was a mixture. At first we approached some filmmakers and as the series started to build and we started to get a buzz around it, more and more people in the filmmaking and creative communities started to hear about it, and we started to receive some phone calls.
One of the things we’re very proud of in this series is the mix of filmmakers. It’s a really diverse group of sports fans; some young and up-and-coming filmmakers like Adam Kurland and Lucas Jansen [directors of Silly Little Game] to very established folks like Dan Klores, Barry Levinson and Peter Berg, and some actors and athletes. I think they all share a common love of sports and they all had a story to tell that was deeply personal to them for a myriad of reasons. We saw a film that Adam and Lucas made that we loved so we thought they’d be great to talk to… Jeff Zimbalist heard about the series and came to us with a story about the 1994 World Cup that was just so compelling that we wanted to pursue it [The Two Escobars]. It was a whole mix of putting the slate together, a mix of conversations, but I think we’re really happy with both the storytellers and the stories that we ended up with.

How much involvement did ESPN have with the films? Did you approve the subjects and then the directors went off to make them?
We really tried to work with the filmmakers to pick a topic that put them on a great path for success and let them be creative. Our involvement really was to take great filmmakers and give them an outlet to tell a diverse collection of stories. We hope that in the end, viewed in totality, those 30 films create a mosaic of the period and really tell a larger story of what sports means to culture.

What determined the order of the films?
As much as possible we tried to match the topic of the film with a relevant time in the sports calendar. But the overall factor that determined when these films would air was really the schedules of the filmmakers and the production schedule overall.
With Kings Ransom, which premiered the series, we aired it the Tuesday night after the NHL season had begun and we thought it was a logical time to be telling a hockey story. We’ll be airing the Len Bias film Without Bias the first week of college basketball season and The U, about college football at the University of Miami, will air after the Heisman Trophy presentation. We were also mindful of the time of year that the actual event took place and relevant anniversaries. For instance, Steve Nash’s film on Terry Fox [Into the Wind] will likely air right around the time of Terry’s run.

Will these films have a life outside of ESPN?
I think one of the things we’re happiest about with the series is that these films will have a life in every medium that our fans want them. That means film festivals, DVDs, digital downloads and a life on our air, domestically and internationally. We’re really happy that these films will play all over the place.

For more information, see this essay about the origins of the project.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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