ESPN slams down 30 docs

ESPN invokes a serious love of all things sport, but one thing that wouldn't naturally come to mind is the documentary form. The net launched ESPN Films in March, and executive producer at ESPN, Connor Schell, explains just why the sports net is tapping Spike Lee, Barbara Kopple and Jon Alpert to turn their non-fiction lens to sports, and trolling Sundance and their own fest for docs.
September 17, 2008

ESPN invokes a serious love of all things sports, with programming that includes classic NBA games to the current in-depth coverage of the latest sporting event. One thing that wouldn’t naturally come to mind is the documentary form. But ESPN launched ESPN Films in March, and executive producer at ESPN, Connor Schell, explains just why the sports net is tapping Spike Lee, Barbara Kopple and Jon Alpert to turn their non-fiction lens to sports and trolling Sundance and their own fest for docs.

Why does the network air documentaries?
In everything ESPN does, we look to tell great stories in sports and this is a natural extension of that mission. We think this a perfect way to serve sports fans and I really think it’s that simple.

What is ESPN Film’s strategy?

There are four different things we do under that brand. We run the Tribeca ESPN Film Festival, a sports film festival with Tribeca and just completed our second year. We’re trying to create a home for great sports independent films.
We acquire and produce feature documentaries. The first documentary was Black Magic, directed by Dan Klores. In the winter we have another slate of documentaries set to air on ESPN and ESPN2. The highlights are The Greatest Game Ever Played, which is about the 1958 Colts-Giants NFL championship game credited with launching the modern NFL and Jon Alpert’s A Woman Among Boys, about coach Ruth Lovelace.
We’re doing the 30/30 initiative which launches next September. In celebration of ESPN’s 30th anniversary we’re going to roll out 30 one hour films by 30 different storytellers [including Barbara Kopple] who have a personal connection to an event, a person, or a story that occurred in the past 30 years and we’re looking to work with great creative people to bring these stories to life.
The fourth is we’re launching a theatrical film initiative.

Do you have a time block for your documentaries?
Not specifically. We’re doing somewhere in the neighborhood of six to eight feature docs a year and those are pretty evenly distributed between spring and the winter.

How do sports lend themselves to docs?
I think in all sports stories there’s an inherent drama within competition, winning and losing, and subjects going after a goal. I think those are all themes that play really well in documentaries. The Streak is about a high school wrestling team that hadn’t lost a match in 34 years, and ultimately over the course of the season that we were chronicling, the team lost. The kids dealt with failure but in truth they were still terrific wrestlers, and eventually they gained the state championship and triumphed. I think if you look at that film specifically, the drama of that journey really played nicely to telling a good story.

How do you find these docs?
I think this really runs the full gamut of going to film festivals like the film festival we started with Tribeca and looking at finished films and other times, in the example of the 30/30, it’s us talking to filmmakers, finding out what they’re interested in and figuring out if that meshes with what we’re looking for and commissioning projects.

What is the idea behind having 30 different documentaries?
We want them to be a great mix of established feature filmmakers and documentarians, and young up-and-comers and in some cases, actors and athletes. It’s specifically not a format driven project. On their own, we want each film to be a great stand alone film. Collectively we’re hoping to create a true mosaic of the period from 1979 to 2009 and by telling these 30 different stories from that period we’re hoping to tell a larger story of what sports has meant to an American culture.

Spike Lee has directed Game Day with Kobe, scheduled to air on ESPN next April, but he is also signed up to direct a film for the 30/30 project. How does Spike Lee relate to ESPN?
Spike is a great creative filmmaker who has a passion for sports and sports stories. That’s exactly the dynamic that we’re looking for when we try to find the documentarians or feature film directors we want to work with. We want the filmmakers to truly bring a passion to their subject matter and I think sports fans have passion like almost no one else.

How will non-filmmakers, the athletes and actors signed on for directing a 30/30 film, approach their documentaries?
We have Steve Nash, point guard for the Phoenix Suns and two-time NBA MVP, doing one of these films. Steve is an aspiring filmmaker and he’s a great creative person who really wants to invest himself in telling a story of a guy named Terry Fox, who he grew up idolizing and has a real connection to, and Steve has surrounded himself with great talented people.

Do you accept pitches?
We do. We’re constantly wanting to talk to creative people. Young and up and coming filmmakers, more established filmmakers who bring a true passion for an idea.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.