ESPN’s sports doc O.J., Made in America is making waves with audiences and critics alike, with news coming Tuesday (Jan. 23) morning the documentary is officially in the running for an Academy Award.
The film is perhaps the best-known example of what documentary filmmakers, and networks, are doing in the sports doc genre – pushing the boundaries of sports storytelling by going beyond what fans see on the field or court and delivering powerful and intimate portraits of the person behind the fame.
“It sums up what we are trying to accomplish – that is to show other sides of athletes. For us, the sports and the fact that they are athletes is the hook, but its more about their backstory, passion and background,” Scott Langerman, CEO of NFL Players Association-owned production company Ace Media, told delegates at Realscreen Summit’s Scoring with Sports Docs panel.
To that end, Ross Bernard, SVP, live programming, special events and original programming at Epix, said his company is on course to deliver a documentary exploring the life of tennis phenom Serena Williams. The film, Serena, tracks the court star after she lost the U.S. Open to her return to triumph.
He said the public knows all about her formidable prowess on the courts. But fans don’t often see how much effort she, as a top athlete, must put in every day to keep her at the top. The documentary format is the perfect vehicle to show viewers what is happening behind the scenes.
“Shedding some light on their family and their personal interests and all that other stuff, it completes them as a person. That you can relate to them as a mass audience,” he said.
For the crop of athletes who choose to participate in the docs, often they are part of the social media generation who are used to their lives being portrayed online, and are accustomed to having a lens focused on their lives, said Tom Farrell, CEO, and EP of The WorkShop, the production company behind the upcoming Novak (working title) series for Amazon, exploring the life and achievements of tennis star Novak Djokovic.
“In the past, often you’d see a Michael Jordan put his hand up in front of the camera. We are finding these younger athletes are inviting these cameras into their world,” he said.
Athletes have become more comfortable putting themselves out there to build on their own brand, on their own terms.
“I think they are really embracing the idea ‘I can control my message, my brand, I can engage with my audience and my fans differently than I would have otherwise’,” said Langerman.
Panel moderator Courtny Catzel, alternative television packaging agent with ICM Partners, asked if the networks were trying to reach a more diverse demographic to include women and minorities.
The short answer? Yes, said John Dahl, VP, original content and executive producer for ESPN. Dahl said ESPN’s documentary banner 30 for 30 has transcended the traditional male-dominated sports demographic to include those who are not sports fans.
“They’ll tell me I’m not much of a sports fan, but I love the stories you tell,” he said.
The series has also brought in younger viewers who some might think have less interest in the documentary space.
Dahl also noted there are more sports docs now than in the past, and their quality is top notch. In fact, the diverse approaches taken on the projects have made them more appealing than some Hollywood sport-themed movies.
“We’ve even seen people showing interest in our 30 by 30 docs and turning them into a scripted project, whether that’s Catching Hell [inside the Bartman debacle] doc to most recently Playing for the Mob.”
When asked by an audience member if global content is something networks are interested in, the majority of the panel said yes.
According to Farrell, the reason why Amazon went after the Novak doc is because its featured star has such widespread, international appeal, a strategy that fits with the company after recently expanding its streaming offering into countries worldwide.