DVDs, high hopes beef up once-risky genre

Studios are quietly upping their bets on sports films at a time when Hollywood is supposedly obsessed with the $200 million tentpole blockbusters.

Suddenly, the jock genre is showing surprising traction even though sports pics traditionally have little life in overseas markets.

Studios have clearly picked up the pace of greenlighting such projects. That trend’s driven by two key factors — the booming DVD market and execs who flat out love sports.

“‘Miracle’ is a really satisfying movie,” admits Universal vice chair Scott Stuber about the Disney pic. “As a moviegoer and avid sports fan, I want to see films that give me that kind of compelling story-telling.”

Witness Sept. 17, when a pair of jock pics went head to head: Universal’s romantic comedy “Wimbledon” with Kirsten Dunst against Disney’s baseball comedy “Mr. 3000″ with Bernie Mac. And three weeks later, U takes to the field with its long-in-development Texas football drama “Friday Night Lights,” starring Billy Bob Thornton with Brian Grazer producing.

Next year’s slate is hefty with athletic endeavors with high-profile players, among them:

  •  Paramount/MTV’s basketball drama “Coach Carter,” starring Samuel L. Jackson;

  •  U’s boxing saga “Cinderella Man” with Russell Crowe as Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock;

  •  The Paramount/Sony remake of “The Longest Yard” with Adam Sandler and Par’s updated “Bad News Bears” with Thornton;

  •  Disney’s basketball saga “Glory Road,” from Jerry Bruckheimer;

  •  Fox’s baseball comedy “Fever Pitch” with Drew Barrymore and Jimmy Fallon;

  •  Sony’s skateboard pic “Lords of Dogtown” with Heath Ledger;

  •  U’s comedy “Kicking and Screaming,” starring Will Ferrell as a crazed soccer coach;

  •  DreamWorks’ “Dreamer” with Kurt Russell and Dakota Fanning as a father-daughter team rehabbing a race horse;

  •  Warner’s boxing drama “Million Dollar Baby,” directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank.

      Studios are even becoming willing to try non-traditional stories such as “Lords of Dogtown,” directed by Catherine Hardwicke (“Thirteen”), and Fox Searchlight’s soccer-themed “Bend It Like Beckham,” which topped $75 million worldwide.

      As an example, Paramount recently bought a women’s beach volleyball project for producer Vincent Newman, attempting to leverage interest in the combo of skimpy swimsuits, high-power competition and the surging popularity of so-called extreme sports. In this case, Newman’s teamed with writer and former collegiate volleyballer Lisa Addario and her spouse, Joey Syracuse.

      “There was such a buzz during the Olympics about Misty May and Kerri Walsh even before they won the gold medal,” Newman notes. “It just feels like we’re part of the zeitgeist on this one.”

      Oscar-winning producers Al Ruddy and Gray Frederickson recently wrapped “Cloud Nine,” starring Burt Reynolds and D.L. Hughley as a has-been coach and con man creating a women’s volleyball team comprising strippers.

      Except for “The Longest Yard,” sports pics often get made at relatively modest budgets — around $30 million for “Friday Night Lights,” for example.

      “We really wanted to make this movie so we said ‘Let’s do this the right way and make this for a price,’ ” Stuber notes. “Anyone who went to high school is going to be remember what it was like on Friday nights in the fall.”

      Why have producers pumped about sports? Producer-director Brian Robbins believes solid showings for “The Rookie,” “Seabiscuit,” “Miracle” and “DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story” have gotten execs’ attention.

      “Like any genre, when films work, it winds up sparking a lot of development,” notes Robbins, who launched his career a decade with sports docs like “Hardwood Dreams” and “Chasing the Dream.” He and partner Mike Tollin’s credits include “Varsity Blues,” “Hardball,” “Radio,” “Summer Catch,” “Coach Carter” and “Dreamer.”

      “Producers have to be passionate to see projects through,” Robbins asserts. “The success of sports films makes people realize that there are a lot of great stories in sports that inherently touch people on a personal basis.”

      Sports movies don’t have much life once they go offshore, however, even when they succeed domestically. “The Rookie” grossed only $5 million overseas after topping $75 million domestically; “Miracle” had a very limited foreign release despite a $65 million domestic gross; “Seabiscuit” grossed $120 million domestically and $28 million overseas.

      Stuber hopes the dreary overseas perfs for American sports pics probably won’t apply to “Cinderella Man” and “Kicking and Screaming” due to their respective boxing and soccer themes.

      With “Cinderella Man,” Universal is actually revisiting similar turf to “Seabiscuit,” which looked last year to be an expensive gamble — a period drama set in the Depression. By the time it was over, the pic had cumed nearly $300 million from the box office and DVD along with snagging seven Oscar noms, including best picture.

      “Ours was an intrinsically American story so the foreign box office wasn’t very big, but the DVD was pretty good at over $150 million,” muses Gary Ross, who wrote, directed and produced. “You could almost say that DVD is the new foreign box office. What it means is that word of mouth doesn’t stop with the domestic release.”

      Sports fans also sparked to “Miracle” when it came out on DVD, spending more than $85 million buying and renting it, according to Variety sister pub Video Business.

      The current surge in sports projects may also stem from timing, Ross notes.

      “Movies are always searching for a means of capturing organic conflict and sports have that,” he adds. “These trends tend to be cyclical. I think gratuitous action films took a hit last year so that area may have faded a bit and given sports projects an opportunity.”

      Of course, there are always such cautionary tales as “The Legend of Bagger Vance,” “Mystery, Alaska,” “Juwanna Mann,” “The Babe” and “The Fan.”

      But none of that deters ever-hopeful sports-lovers in Hollywood. “We have to fend off a lot of sports projects every day,” Tollin admits.

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