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Where have all the sports films gone?


When Space jam Hitting theaters in 1996, it was, in many ways, a one-of-a-kind movie. How could it be otherwise? What other movie mixed live action footage with animation and teamed up with the world’s biggest basketball star with a bunch of classic cartoon characters? But remove the gadget and you’ll find a familiar-looking sports flick, in which a bunch of scrappy underdogs overcome adversity to win the big game. It was the kind of movie they made all the time. Or used to.

The big budget, the high concept, the relentless merchandising and the pure Jordanness of Space jam assured that it would not be confused with another sports movie, but it has been another sports movie in an era filled with sports movies. In the 90s, basketball-inspired films as varied as White men can’t jump, He has a game, and Air Bud next to everything Sunset park (Rhea Perlman takes over the coaching job at a tough high school) to The 6th man (Kadeem Hardison plays the role of a ghost playing basketball). Soccer (Rudy, Any Sunday) and baseball (A league apart, Sand) were not far behind. There was even a bobsleigh movie (Cool races).

But that was some time ago. When Space Jam: a new legacy Released in theaters and HBO Max on Friday, it was the first major studio basketball movie since the 2020s. The way back. This film arrived a year after the production of Netflix by Steven Soderbergh High-flying bird, which in turn came a year after Kyrie Irving’s 2018 comedy, Uncle Drew. One basketball movie a year may not sound like this an unhealthy pace, but that’s a significant drop from the boom years of the ’90s. The choices were even slimmer at the start of this decade, when movies like 2012’s Kevin Durant Family Fantasy Stunned counted as highlights. All told, the number of significant non-documentary basketball movies made over the past decade can be counted on two hands with just a few fingers left. And other sports haven’t done much better: Finding a baseball movie that received a national release means going back to 2014. Million dollar arm. After decades of Hollywood success mixing sport and cinema, the tradition has entered a real doldrums.

The mere existence of Space Jam: a new legacy could provide an explanation why. It’s a project that ticks the boxes that studios love to see ticked in 2021: recognizable stars (in this case, LeBron James, Bugs Bunny, and an assortment of supporting players that includes Damian Lillard and Porky Pig); and a familiar title that has built-in nostalgia value (read: parents who grew up with the original Space jam can bring their children to the suite). It’s like the force awakens but with more cheesy jokes and one-handed dunks. Space jam is also a global brand, and that contains other global brands – James, NBA, Looney Tunes characters. Modern Hollywood is run by world-class entities, action that doesn’t need subtitles to translate to international audiences, and a fare designed for young, show-hungry viewers. The only way you could do Jam space 2 a film more suitable for the current cinematic economy is to choose Spider-Man and Dominic Toretto to be James’ teammates.

But the box office dynamic that makes the news Space jam the first mainstream sports movie we’ve seen in over a year also probably makes it the last we’ll see for a while. In a recent interview, writer and director John Lee Hancock said Scenario magazine, he doubted he could make a sports film again, despite the The recruit and The blind side, which were huge successes in 2002 and 2009, respectively. “There is no international [return] on sports movies (even football!), “Hancock said,” and the loss of that source of income results in a lower budget for work, which can be a challenge. In other words, while LeBron James and Bugs Bunny play basketball have international audiences, basketball itself does not, at least as the subject of a Hollywood movie.

Reached by phone, Hancock seemed a little more optimistic, but within limits. “I think when I said it was probably half correct,” Hancock says. “I looked like an old man the way things were done in the past in a traditional national theater model, whether it was a studio film looking for an international film, hence 60% of their money comes from. Or if it was an independent who relied on pre-sales to the territories to raise money to start production. In both of these cases, the fact that most sports films were not shown internationally as well as nationally was a factor. Hancock however sees some hope in the streaming world, which has enabled him to pursue projects that could not find a place in the current theatrical environment, “I do, for the most part, adult drama. and those are on the decline too from a traditional studio perspective, “he says.” And yet with streaming there is an opportunity out there. “It was Netflix, for example, that made it possible for Hancock to do The bandits (“a period piece on two old blanks,” in Hancock’s words) after 15 years of trying to place the film. “Likewise,” he said, “I think there are more opportunities there than there were five years ago.

Romantic comedy is another genre that has largely disappeared as studios shifted away from producing and releasing mid-budget movies, but found a more user-friendly environment on platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Sports films can go this route as well, but they present technical challenges that less action-oriented genres, like romantic comedy, do not. “When I directed The recruit, I said: ‘OK, a double set, how many configurations is that?’ Hancock says. “And if you want to do it creatively, it’s like 11 setups. Which is almost half a day’s work for a part.

It could also be that the sports film itself is evolving, suggests Mike Rich, screenwriter of The recruit and Secretariat and an uncredited contributor to several other sports films. “What I think is going to happen, and it’s already happening,” says Rich, “is that our definition of what a sports movie is is changing. I was able to write. movies about basketball, baseball, soccer, just American basics of sports. The Queen’s Gambit is perhaps the modern and current definition of a sports film. Rich highlights two elements of the Netflix miniseries, written and directed by Scott Frank: it follows the basic model of a sports movie, and like all good sports movies, it ultimately isn’t. about sports. “When he sat down to write this thing, Scott Frank knew he was going to have to follow kind of the same blueprint that a lot of these movies have to fit into,” Rich says. , having between six and eight sporting events that have to show a natural progression, then a setback, then the ultimate triumph at the end. “But the sport itself doesn’t matter as much as the participants:” It is based on the characters, “he says.” John Lee and I have always been proud to say The recruit is not a baseball movie. It is a story of fathers and sons.

Like many writers, Rich also admires the space that television allows. “I wouldn’t want to make a two-hour movie out of it,” he said of The Queen’s Gambit. “As a writer it’s a lot more appealing to realize, OK, I have leeway here. In the old days with television they would give you the dimensions of the box and you had to fit the stories in that box. And now this is the box you need.

Yet even though the current television boom has opened up new creative possibilities, it’s hard not to feel like something is being lost with the withering of sports feature film. It’s probably not worth the effort to come up with a list of classic sports movies to back up this argument. You already know the names and probably have an idea of ​​the ability of sports films to capture a specific moment in history: there has been the flood of baseball films that have captured the heights of the sport as a national obsession in the 1930s to 1950s; the way Michael Ritchie immortalized the shaggy ’70s absence of a goal via Bad news bears and Semi hard; and the welfare stories of tragedy, triumph, and social change that surfaced in the 2000s. But maybe sports film is disappearing for reasons other than the changing film economy. Maybe we don’t care about sports like we used to, generally speaking, and sports and sports stars don’t appreciate the cultural centrality they once had. “Baseball always has this problem,” says Will Leitch, writer for MLB.com and new York magazine. “I’m not sure they fixed that problem, as the actual number of die-hard fans has gotten smaller, as is the case with just about all forms of entertainment. Everything has fragmented. For this reason, sport is by definition a niche. ”

Will Hollywood ever regularly produce sports films that do not to feature an NBA superstar and cartoon bunny again? Will a distributor like A24 or Neon, who figured out how to cut the noise and get their movies noticed, be the champion of the next big sports movie? Right now, a worrying question mark hangs over the entire subgenre and so many other types of films that were previously multiplex edits. But this may be the scene where the sports film turns around, the moment where all seems lost before an unexpected turn spills its fortune, culminating in a spectacular triumph. And maybe it’ll be a movie about the underdog sport, one that nobody expected to win anything on, that turns the tide, sends the reigning champions to pack their bags and becomes a source of inspiration for outsiders around the world. Perhaps. But the odds seem pretty long at the moment.

Keith Phipps is a film and television writer and editor. Previously: Uproxx, Dissolve it, and The AV Club.


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