Genre counting on 'Leatherheads,' 'Express'

Don’t be misled by the so-so returns for “Semi-Pro,” Will Ferrell‘s latest sports parody.

Hollywood isn’t benching sports films anytime soon, even if the most recent wave of pics haven’t been box office champions and Ferrell and company have reduced the genre to parody.

ESPN is betting big that the genre is due for a resurgence, a notion also supported by Gary Ross, the writer-director behind “Seabiscuit.” Disney’s sports cabler announced March 3 that it had set up ESPN Films to develop features and telepics; and Ross has a deal with Universal to develop and direct an untitled drama set against the world of NASCAR, penned by “The Sopranos” exec producer Terence Winter.

While mid-priced sports films may have fallen victim to studios cutting slates to focus on tentpoles and low-cost niche entries, the genre remains a durable contender as long as budgets are kept lean and such films have a durable life in cable repeats and DVD sales. Ross’s own “Seabiscuit,” as well as the “Rocky,” “Mighty Ducks” and “Major League” franchises remain home- viewer faves.

For the time being, though, only two more sports films are slotted this year: U’s period football comedy “Leatherheads” with George Clooney on April 1, and Warner’s football biopic “The Express,” about Ernie Davis, in October.

That’s a dramatic switch in Hollywood’s thinking from a few years ago, when sports often served as the basis for inspiration or comedy. In 2005, the majors released nine sports films including best picture winner “Million Dollar Baby”; in 2006, there were eight — “Benchwarmers,” “Glory Road,” “Gridiron Gang,” “Invincible,” “Nacho Libre,” “Rocky Balboa,” “Talladega Nights” and “We Are Marshall.”

Ferrell’s “Nights” was the biggest hit with $148 million. But the overseas take was a mere $14 million, underlining the ongoing problem of sports pics having little traction in overseas markets.

Ross isn’t ready to write off the sports genre, pointing to its capacity to highlight human drama. “And I think this goes in waves anyhow, such as when ‘Bull Durham, ‘Field of Dreams’ and ‘The Natural’ came out around the same time,” he adds.

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