Adam Duerson contemplates the current status of the sports movie in the December 17, 2007 issue of Sports Illustrated magazine.
Asking whether or not "the perceived need to appeal to women--and overseas markets [has] doomed the sports flick," Duerson begins his piece, "Endangered Species," by remarking that "Will Ferrell! On Figure skates! For better or worse...is how sports movies in the year 2007 will be remembered" (26).
After providing some box office numbers, he wonders, "where are the Hoosiers and the Raging Bulls?" and then adds, "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."
The problem with this method is that according to Mark Ciardi, "there's no foreign [earning] on sports movies" overseas.
In addition to how unenthusiastic other countries are for American sports movies, Duerson argues that "there's the prevailing notion in Hollywood that women choose which movies couples see together but that only men are drawn to sports films." Duerson gets veteran sports film marketing man Jeff Freedman to comment on the situation, which is basically that a sports film can only be made if the sport is secondary to thematic and other narrative elements. In other words, "the first thing a studio decides...is to say it's a love story, or a father-son story."
He includes an unnamed Hollywood marketing professional's observation that "if somebody wanted to make Raging Bull today, I don't know that it could happen" because "it's too dark." Duerson's article then implicitly criticizes Hollywood's multiplex complex as a limitation to the production and wider distribution of sports films that possess artistic qualities on par with dramas and action films. To get funding or a distribution deal, filmmakers are "plugging away with the same old sports comedy-drama-romance hybrids." He then cites the Will Ferrell basketball comedy Semi-Pro and George Clooney's period comedy Leatherheads as 2008's sports film offerings.
Duerson closes his thoughts by pointing out that independent sports cinema may inspire the critics and are received well at film festivals, but distributors aren't convinced the general public will buy it.
As a one-page article, Duerson understandably doesn't have the space to delve deeper into the issues and examples he brings up as indicating the steady decline of the sports film. I'm going to attempt to contextualize or offer some more points to ponder. Duerson's three concerns are profits, audience, and distribution. Ultimately, though, it's one issue: money. Whether or not a movie is to be made depends on how much money it could make. Hollywood is a business and has always operated along the paradigm of telling stories the audience will purchase (with or without encouragement from the studios). Artistic innovations and creating the impression or building the mythology that making movies (and any art form for that matter) privileges the art above else is realistically speaking wishful thinking.
The example of Raging Bull as a sports film of quality and not just a guilty pleasure (entertainment) needs a bit more background explanation. Kevin J. Hayes articulates in the introduction of Cambridge Film Handbooks' edition on the film that "superlatives abound whenever people talk about Raging Bull. Not only is it an exemplary cinematic work, it is also a cultural icon representing a rich cross section of themes, issues, and characters that reflect American culture in ways that typical Hollywood films do not" (1). Wouldn't you say that the bulk of commercial, mainstream American films today don't come close in this respect? Hayes later adds, "Raging Bull owes an important debt to the heritage of the boxing film genre" and boxing itself (10).
Culturally, Scorsese's film was conceived in an atmosphere that allowed it to be brought into the world. Its examination of masculinity, violence, and the notion of loss isn't what would keep a studio head or a distribution company today from a greenlight. Instead, it's about the way the entertainment industry has changed post-highspeed internet and DVD. The idea of diversification of markets isn't new to advertisers. Merchandising of characters in films and books aren't limited to the movies and the publishing industry. Dialogue and images from a film can be found in all consumer markets (ahem, George Lucas). Cross-stitching the music with the movie industry isn't new either. Elvis. Frank Sinatra. Louis Armstrong. Barbara Streisand.
The difference now is that the internet is a new medium through which music, moving images, and literature can circulate. The behaviors and the tendencies (and preferences) of the buying public (which is primarily teenagers) is devastatingly significant in determining how to make the most amount of money (over a short or long period of time). If the sports film (as a drama) today can't narratively or thematically be similar to those of earlier generations for reasons of economy rather than artistry, it's happening across the board. Outside independent cinema, studios have little motivation to make movies--they want to make franchises (that include video game tie-ins).
And, if you want originality in content and form, you might not find it in a movie theatre. You might have to turn to Youtube or an art gallery.
I don't think it's that unfortunate that studio heads have to view sports films as not being sports films. Thematically, they're about more than whatever sport is involved. These films are about relationships between people, self-discovery, and hope, or, in other cases, defeat. Instead of employing the motif or metaphor of a soldier or an artist, these movies elect the athlete.
Adam Duerson, if you're reading this entry, when I make my football movie, it should be a sign of better things to come. Mine won't be a sports romantic comedy.
I'm cognitively wiped out right now. I'll revisit this post again.