'Moneyball,' 'Blind Side' pave the way for Hollywood pics

Sports movies are historically a tough sell — particularly overseas, even if they succeed domestically — but with the recent success of “The Blind Side,” “The Fighter” and “Moneyball” paving the way, more than a half a dozen projects with sports connections are in the pipeline.

Warner Bros. is releasing “Trouble With the Curve” with Clint Eastwood as a baseball scout in September, followed by Fox-Walden Media’s surfing pic “Chasing Mavericks” in October and Warner-Legendary’s Jackie Robinson biopic “42” in April.

Exclusive Media and Cross Creek are in post on Ron Howard’s Formula One racing drama “Rush,” starring Chris Hemsworth, Daniel Bruhl and Olivia Wilde. Red Bird Cinema has tapped Billy Bob Thornton and Edward Burns to star in baseball drama “Three Nights,” based on Buzz Bissinger’s book “Three Nights in August,” while Basil Iwanyk’s Thunder Road has signed up Casey Affleck to script a biopic on Texas Rangers outfield star Josh Hamilton. And producers Mike Tollin and Glenn Rigberg have acquired the rights to adapt Howard Bryant’s Hank Aaron bio-graphy, with Barry Levinson directing a script by Adam Mazer.

That’s an impressive list, but with studios looking askance at mid-budget films, multiple challenges remain. The key mantra, according to “Blind Side” producer and Alcon topper Broderick Johnson: If you’re making a sports film, make it be about more than sports.

“We got inundated with sports pitches and scripts after ‘The Blind Side,’ but what John Lee Hancock had done was to portray the emotional drama in an exceptional way — which is hard to capture on film,” he says.

“With sports films, they tend to rise and fall based on how compelling the story is when it comes to what happens off the field. In ‘The Blind Side,’ you don’t have to really understand football to understand the movie.”

Walden Media’s Michael Bostick has a similar approach to “Mavericks,” starring Gerard Butler as surfer Rick “Frosty” Hesson, who trained the young Jay Moriarty, played by Jonny Weston. Bostick says the project has been in the works for more than four years.

“The story transcends the sport of surfing in that it really focuses on how Frosty taught Jay to be a man,” Bostick says. “I compare it to ‘Ray’ in that it’s a real life-affirming story. The breakthrough was the Kario Salem script.”

Moriarty sought to ride the iconic Northern California break known as Mavericks, where winter swells bring in treacherous waves the size of five-story buildings, and trained for more than a year under Hesson. At one point, Butler nearly drowned during filming.

That sort of realism also pervades “Rush,” shot at Formula One tracks in Silverstone, U.K., and Nurburgring, Germany, though Exclusive Media production chief Tobin Armbrust says getting the racing right was far from the only concern in the story focuses of the rivalry between James Hunt (Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Bruhl) and their Formula One racing teams, McLaren and Ferrari.

“The key for us was to bring the passion and the conflict in this sport of what were larger than life, like rock stars and gladiators,” Armbrust says. “It’s not just about the competition on the track.”

Armbrust has high praise for “Moneyball” for the same reason, saying “the parts that really sing are the relationships.”

Red Bird’s “Three Nights,” based on a three-game series in 2003 between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs, has a screenplay by Bissinger (“Friday Night Lights”) with David Anspaugh (“Rudy” and “Hoosiers”) directing. Red Bird was founded in 2007 by Kevin Pollak, businessman John Loar and Tony La Russa (who retired from baseball last October after the Cardinals won the World Series) with Thornton later joining as a partner.

Loar says he was encouraged by the success of “Moneyball,” which focused on the 2002 Oakland A’s and general manager Billy Beane. “Ours isn’t really about the front office, but it’s very helpful to us that a baseball movie did so well,” he adds.

“Moneyball” producer Rachael Horovitz has always maintained that one of the keys to the movie’s success was capturing characters in what was a workplace drama.

“My approach to almost all of my projects is to find interesting characters that interesting actors will want to portray,” she notes. “Some of them happen to be sports stories, as in ‘Moneyball’ or ‘Sweet Thunder,’ my Sugar Ray Robinson movie, but I don’t think of them as sports movies — which clearly limits the films.

“I don’t have the data on this, but I would guess that a significant percentage of people who went to see ‘Moneyball’ were not people who generally watch sports or plan their moviegoing around sports movies. I think a lot of people went to see it because they heard it was an interesting story.”Jeffrey Freedman, a Los Angeles-based publicist who’s marketed sports films, says producers are aware of the risks of appealing to a narrow demographic.

“They don’t want to exclude females or people who aren’t fans of the sport,” he says. “They believe that it’s easy to tap into the larger emotional aspects — the underdog, the elation.”

HIGHLIGHTS

9:45 a.m.: Keynote conversation with AEG prexy/CEO Tim Leiweke, Variety Sports Entertainment Leadership Award honoree

10:15 a.m.: State of the Sports and Entertainment Business, with HBO Sports prexy Ken Hershman, Katten Muchin Rosenman partner Adam Klein, Time Warner Cable Sports prexy David Rone, Fox Sports Media Group co-prexy and COO Eric Shanks, Pac-12 Enterprises prexy Gary Stevenson

12 noon: Keynote conversation with UFC prexy Dana White

1:30 p.m.: Last Night at the ESPYs: A behind-the-scenes look with exec producer Maura Mandt

1:45 p.m.: The Impact of Social Media, Entertainment Programming and Athlete Endorsements with Wasserman Media Group action sports and Olympics prexy Steven Astephen, actor and former NBA star Rick Fox, JockTalk co-founder and former MLB star Shawn Green, four-time Ms. Olympia and “Tighter and Leaner to the Core” star Rachel McLish, NASCAR entertainment marketing and business development managing director Zane Stoddard, Olympic gold medal skier Picabo Street

2:30 p.m.: The Regional and Niche Channel Explosion, with NHL exec veep of content Charles Coplin, Fuel TV exec veep and general manager George Greenberg, ESPN senior veep of college sports programming Burke Magnus, Fox soccer exec veep and general manager David Nathanson, YouTube director and global sports head Claude Ruibal

3:50 p.m.: Masters of Sports Talk and Commentary with NBC Sports and “Access Hollywood” correspondent Michelle Beadle, “NFL Today” analyst Jason La Canfora, Seattle Seahawks fullback and “The Real Robinson Report” host Michael Robinson, CAA agent Becky Sendrow, “NFL Sunday Ticket” host Andrew Siciliano

4:45 p.m.: Keynote conversation with skateboarder and sports entertainment entrepreneur Tony Hawk

5:15 p.m.: Creative Leaders in Sports Film and TV with “The Rookie” producer Mark Ciardi, “Tim Tebow: Everything in Between” director Chase Heavener, “Necessary Roughness” creators and exec producers Liz Kruger and Craig Shapiro, WWE Studios prexy Michael Luisi, Mandalay Sports Media exec producer Jon Weinbach

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