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Sports Illustrated Launches ‘SI Films’ in Another Shot Across ESPN’s Bow

Time Inc. mag to debut 6 documentary features online in 2015

Time Inc.’s Sports Illustrated is expanding its slate of long-form video programming with the launch of SI Films, which is slated to debut six new features this year on the web.

The move by SI is designed to capitalize on the 61-year-old magazine’s legacy of in-depth storytelling and reporting — and it’s another challenge to ESPN, which has built up its own stable of documentaries with ESPN Films.

“With changing consumption habits, especially among millennials, and the plethora of popular distribution outlets at hand, there are limitless opportunities to offer an independent voice and quality video programming,” said Sports Illustrated group editor Paul Fichtenbaum. “Sports Illustrated Films aims to capitalize on all of that.”

SI Films will encompass features produced in-house by Time Inc. staff as well as outside production houses. The company announced production deals with Mandalay Sports Media and Velocity to produce a variety of programming under the SI Films banner.

Two new films are premiering Thursday at SI.com/Films: “Brett Favre: Life After the Game,” which profiles NFL quarterback Brett Favre, and “The Rise and Fall of the Danbury Trashers,” the story of a minor league hockey team owned by Connecticut Waste Management King Jimmy Galante, adapted from Jon Wertheim’s Jan. 20, 2014, magazine article story. In addition, about 40 other original long-form Sports Illustrated productions will be available at SI Films, including all three seasons of the “Underdogs” profile series of high-school football teams.

“With this specific launch, we’re investing in programming we know consumers are going to watch,” Time Inc. senior VP of video J.R. McCabe said. The goal is “to create habitual viewing on the part of our audience.”

Under SI’s deal with Mandalay Sports Media, Mike Tollin and Jon Weinbach are producing “Patrick and ‘Zo,” about the unique kinship and rivalry between Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, two pro basketball stars who both hail from Georgetown U. and squared off in the NBA. The deal with Velocity entails the creation of a video franchise, “100 Greatest Moments in Sports,” set to premiere later this year.

Mike Tollin, co-chairman of Mandalay Sports Media, said the company has boosted the number of its digital productions in recent years. Besides the SI Films project, MSM inked a deal to produce nearly 50 short films for Vice Sports and earlier this year launched scripted series “Sin City Saints” on Yahoo.

“I always evaluate a story and what shape and size it ought to take — is this a feature film, scripted series, unscripted series? Or is it a short-form digital piece?” he said. “Increasingly we’ve been leaning toward the latter because there’s an instant gratification, and an appetite that’s ravenous for content that can be consumed on small screens.”

The launch of SI Films comes after Sports Illustrated Group’s acquisition earlier this year of FanSided, a blog network of 300 sites, as well as its launch of Campus Rush, devoted to college football culture. In addition, Time Inc. has formed SI Play, a new division devoted to youth sports.

Overall, Time Inc. — like other historically print-oriented media companies — has been ramping up video production across all its properties. It’s set to open a 3,000-square-foot studio space in its new headquarters in lower Manhattan later this year.

The company’s video initiatives include Sports Illustrated’s live daily live talk show, “SI Now powered by Ford,” and Time Inc. is also a founding partner of 120 Sports, an over-the-top sports network. And last month, Time Inc. also debuted “New Orleans Here & Now,” the first video content produced and distributed under its partnership with Emiliano Calemzuk’s Rampante.

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