Traditionally, sports movies are a kind of pep talk on a national or even global scale, a collective huddle around our heroes who, by snaring victory from the jaws of defeat, give us the determination to press on in our daily contests.
The famous “win one for the Gipper” speech in 1940’s “Knute Rockne: All-American” is memorable for its overdose of corn, but it still manages to tap the noble sentiment of digging deep to beat a common enemy. It’s the sentiment that spurs fans to cheer, audiences to root and, if need be, countries to fight. Winston Churchill made the same speech during the Battle of Britain and it worked then, too.
“Sports is very populist filmmaking,” says Michael Tollin, producer of “Varsity Blues,” which stands in the top 10 at the box office among football movies, and this August’s “Summer Catch,” a baseball pic set in the minor leagues.
Steve James, director of docu “Hoop Dreams” and the upcoming “Joe and Max,” about boxers Joe Louis and Max Schmelling, says movies and sporting events are the main sources of entertainment and drama in most people’s lives.
“When you’re cheering for your team it’s as dramatic and cathartic an experience as the typical American has,” he says. “If you find that universal appeal and get that into a film, you’re successful.”
Films that manage to do that, however, are few and far between. Of the 193 films that have made more than $100 million, only seven have had a sports theme. In the 1990s, only two films surpassed that level: “The Waterboy” ($161 million), which some purists may resist calling a sports movie, and “Jerry Maguire” ($153 million), about an agent.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer found that appeal in football movie “Remember the Titans,” which grossed $115.7 million, the only sports film so far this decade to exceed the $100 million mark.
“I love stories that show the pride, commitment and sacrifice that athletes need to succeed,” says Bruckheimer, who is so taken with the inspirational side of sports stories that he’s looking to do a similar project to “Titans” set in Amish Pennsylvania.
Sports may be dear to our hearts, but they don’t get special treatment at the box office; indeed, if anything, audiences can play hard to get. A classic such as “Raging Bull,” for example, which looked deep into the psyche of a successful boxer, earned $22.7 million.
“Yes, audiences always want to feel good,” says Ron Shelton, writer-director of such films as “Tin Cup,” “White Men Can’t Jump” and “Bull Durham.” “But I think you can make them feel good about experiences that are more challenging.”
Shelton has tried as much, if not more, than any other contemporary filmmaker working in the sports genre to push audiences into new territory. But his biopic about baseball badboy Ty Cobb, “Cobb,” took in a scant $1 million.
“You can make a movie about a fake monster like Godzilla and people love it,” he says, “but you make a movie about a real monster and people don’t wanna go.”
Especially, it seems, if that monster is a hall of famer with a reputation for hard-nosed play, who also happens to be misogynist and racist.
Of the 2,000-odd movies listed in “Sports Films: A Complete Reference,” it’s fair to say most adhere to the genre’s traditional virtues, depicting the discipline, sacrifice and heroism of sports. But some of Hollywood’s most memorable sports films achieve a grandeur without relying on the climactic victory or last-second shot.
Although the 1940s yielded “Knute Rockne” and that other corny sports pic, “Pride of the Yankees” (1942), filmmakers at the time broke new ground by looking at the underbelly of sports, or at least boxing, with “Body and Soul” (’47) and “The Set-Up” (’49).
Ever since, the corruption, greed and brutality in sports have bubbled to the surface in film, but not with anywhere near the same regularity traditional stories are made. Among the better films in this rarer category are “The Hustler” (’61), “Requiem for a Heavyweight” (’62), “Slapshot” (’77), “North Dallas Forty” (’79) and “Raging Bull” (’80).
Other filmmakers manage to find an authenticity and a humanity that may not be pretty but create an honest sentiment about athletes (or sports agents) and their relationships to the game, their friends and lovers, and to themselves. Standouts include “Bang the Drum Slowly” (’73), “Rocky” (’76), “The Bad News Bears” (’76), “Breaking Away” (’79), “Hoosiers” (’86), “Bull Durham” (’88) and “Jerry Maguire (’96).
Looked at historically, the old saw says sports act as a mirror on the larger society. These days, however, with professional athletics changing in ways that tend to alienate fans, film audiences seem to prefer stories that are uplifting. Box office disparities between recent sports films seem to indicate that, to some degree, broader cultural forces are at work.
“Everyone is more cynical about sports as they are about the rest of contemporary life and they’re still looking for the same thing they’ve looked for since they were kids,” says James. “Heroes they can believe in, dreamers whose dreams come true and the drama of winning and losing on a large scale. That hasn’t changed.”
Adds Tollin, “While people’s relationships with sports heroes has changed dramatically, the challenge to the filmmaker is the same. It’s all about the storytelling.”