ESPN film unit fields more features

Shingle adds two biopics to development slate

After dabbling in the co-production of original scripted movies and series for its cable channels in the early part of the decade, ESPN this week reached the one-year mark in its ambitious plan to expand into the feature film biz.

Launched in March 2008, the Disney-owned sports media company’s ESPN Films now has three pic projects in development, as well as a flurry of documentaries set to bow on its cable networks.

This week, the shingle announced the addition of two theatrically targeted biopics.

One is based on the life of Jim Jones Jr., the son of the infamous Guyana cult leader who found redemption through basketball. Sang Kyu Kim (Starz’s “Crash”) is penning the script.

The other project follows the story of fallen firefighter Louis Mulkey, who coached a high school hoops team to a state title before an on-the-job accident claimed his life, with Mike Tollin set to helm and Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen Rivele penning the script.

These films come in addition to a Jackie Robinson biopic being produced in association with Robert Redford.

Several years ago, the cable conglom co-produced a number of originals through its ESPN Original Prods. banner — biopics including “3: The Dale Earnhardt Story” and the Bear Bryant-based “Junction Boys,” as well as pro-football-themed series “Playmakers.”

Ratings results were inconsistent, however, with the biopic events, for example, unable to draw the huge auds needed to justify their costs. Meanwhile, focus-group testing showed ESPN’s aud, while interested in sports films with the cabler’s brand on them, preferred to watch games and get news and highlights on the channels. Two-hour blocks of scripted programming didn’t mesh with those desires.

This data forced ESPN to re-evaluate its business plan in regards to original production.

“We did seven or eight movies and three series, and we had mixed results with what we put on our network,” conceded Ron Semiao, senior VP of ESPN content development. “But many (of those in the focus groups) actually said that if there is a sports movie coming out in theaters, and ESPN’s name is on it, that means something to me.”

Funding for any of what Semiao describes as “moderately budgeted” scripted projects has not been secured.

“As our parent company, Disney has the first opportunity to take on anything we develop,” he added. “We don’t want to go out and get any of this set up until we have finished scripts.”

Besides possible funding synergies, there’s plenty of source material. All three of the scripted pics in the shingle’s hopper were gestated either on ESPN news shows like “SportsCenter” or “Outside the Lines” or through reports on the cabler’s website.

There’s also added promotional wherewithal, with the cable channels and website set to further awareness of the film projects.

Meanwhile, ESPN Films is still very involved in feeding its associated cable channels through its documentaries. In that regard, the shingle produced a number of nonfiction specials for ESPN and ESPN 2 last year, including the segregation/hoops-themed “Black Magic.” It’s collaborating with sibling Disney Studios on “30/30,” an initiative tied to the 30th anniversary of ESPN that involves the production of 30 hourlong sports docus from 30 well-known filmmakers.

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