LONDON — Will U.S. moviegoers want to see a championship duel between a posh Brit and an icy Austrian that took place four decades ago in a sport they don’t care about?
Brian Oliver is betting they will. The producer and financier who took ballet (“Black Swan”) far beyond its fanbase and backed Daniel Radcliffe in his first post “Potter” hit (“The Woman in Black”), is banking on director Ron Howard to bring the kind of magic to Formula One motor racing with “Rush.” Formula One has always seemed ready-made for Hollywood. The sport is peopled with international heroes engaged in a struggle that can be life-or-death. It combines high technology and low politics. It takes place in exotic locations. And it boasts a global TV audience of more than 500 million.
But there’s a snag: The U.S. is the one major territory F1 has failed to crack.
Despite numerous attempts over the past 50 years to set up movie projects featuring the sport, only a handful have ever made it to the starting line. And those few have mostly fallen short, both creatively and commercially, in their attempt to capture Formula One’s high-octane drama — at least until “Senna” came along last year. That documentary by Asif Kapadia about the life and death of Brazilian racing legend Ayrton Senna has given hope to other filmmakers that it’s possible to do justice to F1 on the bigscreen. A slew of features are now in the works.
“Rush,” which started shooting Feb. 22 in the U.K., is the first. Its success or failure could determine whether the others will stall in development or accelerate into production.
“It was a kind of a race to see who could get the first one away,” Oliver says. “The others are definitely now in wait-and-see mode.”
Producers with rival F1 projects are certainly cheering “Rush” on. Irish producer Frank Mannion, who’s developing a script called “Racing Bull” about the rise of the current world champ Red Bull team, says: “There’s a degree of caution among potential financiers who want to see how ‘Rush’ does. I’m sure it will be an amazing movie, and I would hope that if it succeeds, there will be an appetite for more.”
Oliver says he believes the story, rather than the sport, is what will drive people to theaters. “I don’t think people will go to see ‘Rush’ because of the motor racing, but because it’s a really great, character-driven story that happens to be set in that world,” Oliver notes. “People didn’t go to see ‘Black Swan’ because it’s a ballet movie, or ‘The Wrestler’ because it’s about wrestling. The problem with a lot of sports movies is that they don’t transcend the sport, and auto sport movies in particular have been really bad because their focus is so much on the cars.”
Scripted by Peter Morgan and co-produced by Andrew Eaton of Revolution Films, “Rush” tells the extraordinary true story of the 1975-76 world championship duel between English playboy James Hunt, played by Chris Hemsworth, and Austrian champion Niki Lauda, played by Daniel Bruehl. Hunt was notorious for partying as wildly as he raced, while Lauda was a perfectionist who did exactly what was necessary to win.
Halfway through the season, Lauda was leading the championship by miles when he crashed in the German Grand Prix. He suffered burns to his head and lapsed into a coma, but remarkably returned to racing just six weeks later. In the meantime, Hunt ate away at Lauda’s lead, and stood just three points behind going into the final race in Japan. Faced with appallingly dangerous weather conditions, the usually nerveless Lauda retired early from the race because he thought the conditions too dangerous, and Hunt took the title by finishing third in the torrential rain.
Lauda, who still has extensive scarring from the accident, is heavily involved in “Rush” as a consultant. (Hunt died in 1993.)
“It’s like ‘The Right Stuff,’ ” Oliver says. “People don’t like to admit it, but the sexiness of auto racing is the danger; men risking their lives every time they get into the cockpit.”
Oliver’s Cross Creek Pictures is co-financing the $56 million project with Exclusive Media Group. Universal, which bankrolled “Senna” but didn’t release it domestically itself (see sidebar), has taken U.S. rights under its first-look deal with Cross Creek.
Clearly, “Rush” has a big marketing advantage in territories where F1 is popular. “There’s definitely a bonus in the U.K., because of James Hunt, and in Austria, Germany and Italy where Niki Lauda is loved,” Oliver says. But he believes Howard is the key to selling “Rush” to American moviegoers.
“American audiences expect a certain amount of quality from a director as great and commercial as Ron Howard, and Chris Hemsworth is a star in the U.S. With Ron directing, the U.S. should be equal to or better than foreign,” Oliver predicts. “Now with the Internet age, American audiences are much more apt to see movies that are well reviewed than movies on specific topics. If we make the movie well, it won’t matter if Americans don’t know who James Hunt is. Look at ‘Chariots of Fire’ — no American knew who that was about, but it won best picture.” (The 1981 film grossed $59 million domestically.)
There are some wealthy players behind Formula One with a vested interest in expanding its worldwide audience even further. If the movie can help to break open the largely untapped American market, that’s the jackpot.
Formula One mogul Bernie Ecclestone is renewing his assault on the U.S. The sport is set to return to America in 2012 for the first time since 2007, with a U.S. Grand Prix taking place this November in Austin, Texas. In 2013, the race will be staged in New Jersey against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. The real drive to raise the profile of F1 in the U.S. is coming from automobile manufacturers, who bankroll the teams as a promotion for their premium wares.
Oliver notes: “I’m a fan of Formula One, but it’s not a big sport in the U.S. because it’s hard to figure out where to watch the races (on TV). But the U.S. is making a huge effort to get two races, and if Bernie thinks there’s an audience, there probably is. If you could crack that market. It’s potentially massive.”
Manish Pandey, the writer and exec producer of “Senna,” suggests that the problem for U.S. audiences is their unfamiliarity with the history of the sport and its personalities. “They’ve just never had a helmet they could root for,” he says.
Films such as “Senna” and “Rush” could help to fill in the backstory. Pandey is developing a $50 million drama about the early days of the Ferrari Grand Prix team in the 1950s, co-written by Tim Nuthall and produced by Julia Taylor-Stanley.
With the working title of “Figlio,” it’s the true story of two English drivers who raced for Ferrari’s legendary founder Enzo Ferrari, and vied for the love of the same American woman. “Our story is much more off the track than on it. It’s not just set in the world of Grand Prix,” Pandey says.
Pandey, who’s the darling of the F1 crowd after “Senna,” is looking to raise the finance entirely out of Europe and the Middle East, and is in the midst of courting Ferrari for its blessing. “There’s no resistance to financing this project in the Middle East, and for Ferrari it’s a heritage project,” he says.
Other Formula One or closely related projects include:
•Mannion’s “Racing Bull,” a David vs. Goliath story about how car designer Adrian Newey led the Red Bull team from nowhere to back-to-back championships in just five years. Mannion has a first draft script and is in talks with F1’s Ecclestone for his sanction.
•A remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film “Grand Prix,” by producer Peter Douglas at L.A.-based Vincent Pictures.
•A biopic of Jackie Stewart, the Scottish F1 champ from the early 1970s, titled “Winning Is Not Enough,” being developed by Bill Pohlad at River Road.
•”Villeneuve,” about Canadian driver Gilles Villeneuve, which Brit producer Jeremy Thomas has on his development slate.
•An adaptation of Garth Stein’s quirky novel “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” which Universal optioned as a vehicle for Patrick Dempsey. The book is narrated by a dog trying to learn how to be human by observing his owner, a racing driver.
•Michael Mann’s “Go Like Hell,” about the Ferrari vs. Ford rivalry for supremacy at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race during the 1960s. It was close to being set up at Fox last year, but is reportedly on hold until “Rush” is finished.
•”Real Steel” writer Dan Gilroy is developing a “Rocky”-style script about a fictional American driver trying to break into Formula One.
With “Rush” safely under way, Oliver hopes the others get some drag from his slipstream.
“I’m a motor sport fan, and we need some good movies about auto-racing,” he says. “I’ve seen all the old movies, and there hasn’t been a good one … if (“Rush”) is as good as we hope, maybe we’ll see more.”
Of the few studio films that have featured Formula One themes, fewer still have won roses at the finish line.
“Grand Prix” (1966): Shot throughout the preceding season using actual races and drivers, John Frankenheimer’s movie, starring James Garner, was generally regarded (before “Senna,” at least) as the only half-decent feature ever made about the sport. However, the full impact of its thrilling live-action footage was lost with the death of the super widescreen Cinerama format in which it was shot.
“Bobby Deerfield” (1977): A curio in the careers of director Sydney Pollack and star Al Pacino, this misfired drama sees Pacino playing a star American driver who falls for a free-spirited European woman who turns out to be terminally ill.
“Driven” (2001): This notorious Renny Harlin-Sylvester Stallone collaboration was supposed to be set on the Formula One circuit. But it was hastily rewritten for ChampCar when they couldn’t get sufficient access to the F1 world. The resulting mish-mash was described by critics as the worst car racing movie ever made, and nominated for seven Razzies.
“Iron Man 2” (2010): Formula One makes a rare appearance in a blockbuster, when Robert Downey Jr’s eponymous hero finds himself challenged by the villainous Mickey Rourke while racing around the legendary Monaco street circuit.
“Senna” (2011): This BAFTA-winning doc mines extraordinary footage to recount the life and tragic death of Brazilian racing legend Ayrton Senna. Pic was the first doc ever made by Universal and a passion project for Working Title’s exec producer and motor sport fanatic Eric Fellner. But U never seemed sure how to distribute it, opting for a gradual worldwide rollout, which delivered big numbers in the U.K. ($5.2 million), Brazil ($1.3 million) and Japan ($1.3 million), but less impressive tallies elsewhere. In the U.S., the studio palmed the pic off on the Producers Distribution, which scraped out a modest $1.6 million.