Yes, the sports network is annoyingly obsessed with LeBron James. But it quietly has pulled off a stirring creative coup, bankrolling 30 for 30, a series of 30 documentaries about people who aren't necessarily household names or SportsCentury icons but who were central figures in modern-day athletic stories with wide cultural reach and social impact.
If you missed the films on ESPN, they're available on iTunes, video on demand and DVD. The series features docs from such prominent Hollywood filmmakers as Peter Berg, Barry Levinson, Ron Shelton, and Ice Cube, as well as from such documentary notables as Albert Maysles, Steve James, and Dan Klores.
Many of these films have packed a wallop, offering stories full of emotion, wry humor and personal reflection. Brothers Michael and Jeff Zimbalist delivered The Two Escobars, a fascinating look at the interconnected lives and deaths of Colombian soccer star Andres Escobar and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Levinson's The Band That Wouldn't Die recounted the story of his hometown Baltimore Colts marching band, which stayed together even after their team left for Indianapolis under the cover of night.
Having grown up as a die-hard Raiders football fan when the team played in Los Angeles, Ice Cube used Straight Outta L.A. to show how much the team's bad-boy image influenced the burgeoning hip-hop culture. Steve James, who grew up in the same Virginia town as basketball star Allen Iverson, directed No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson, an unsparingly personal portrait of the gulf between blacks and whites in Hampton, Va., after Iverson allegedly hit a woman over the head with a chair in a 1993 bowling alley brawl and was convicted of a felony (later overturned).
What makes the series worth celebrating is not just its pedigree, but also the creative autonomy ESPN gave its filmmakers. In franchise-focused Hollywood, even our best filmmakers are largely at work on sequels and remakes: Brad Bird is making Mission: Impossible 4, Darren Aronofsky is doing Wolverine 2 and Marc Webb, who did the indie delight (500) Days of Summer, is directing Spider-Man 4. Even Johnny Depp keeps making Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
30 for 30, which was launched in fall 2009, has gone in the opposite direction. When ESPN columnist/blogger Bill Simmons pitched ESPN executive producer Connor Schell on the idea of commemorating the network's 30th anniversary with a series of documentaries, one key idea was embedded in the DNA of the project.
"ESPN always had a vision that this would be filmmaker-driven," said Mike Tollin, a supervising producer on the series who also directed Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? which is included in a box set of the first 15 documentaries that went on sale Tuesday. "They really looked to the filmmakers to generate the ideas for the stories."
Sometimes the films feel like dramatic features. Levinson's The Band That Wouldn't Die has the air of a Frank Capra film, full of the kind of quirky, blue-collar characters missing from studio teen comedies or superhero thrillers. They sit around swapping stories straight out of a Preston Sturges film, as with the account of how when the team's equipment was shipped to Indianapolis in moving vans, the band's uniforms were accidentally left behind and held for safe keeping by the musicians in a local mausoleum.
Though Levinson is known for Oscar-winning films such as Rain Man and Bugsy, perhaps his best-regarded Hollywood work involved a string of personal comedies dating to Diner and Tin Men. When I asked him if he could make those kinds of films today, he offered a one-word answer: No. He wouldn't dream of pitching the idea of a marching band without a team to a modern-day studio chief.
"You could never tell this kind of story in Hollywood anymore," he said. "The studio folks are scared to do anything that's original. An original story requires a leap of faith and if you're an executive today, facing all of the pressure to make money for your corporation, you don't like to take many leaps of faith."
Nearly every 30 for 30 filmmaker has a strong personal identification with the movie they made. Jonathan Hock, a documentary film veteran, had been fascinated for years with Marcus Dupree, an early 1980s high school football phenom from Philadelphia, Miss., who was recruited by virtually every college in the country.
For Hock, the Dupree story had an almost mythological significance, since Dupree was an African-American folk hero from the same town that, in 1964, had been the scene of the murder of three young civil-rights activists by the Ku Klux Klan. (One of Dupree's teammates and friends was the son of Cecil Price, the local deputy sheriff who handed the activists over to the Klan.)
"Marcus and I are the exact same age, and when I was in high school, I'd follow his exploits," Hock said. "For years, I carried around a book by Willie Morris about how everyone was courting Marcus, thinking to myself, 'I'll make it into a Hollywood movie. It'll have Jeff Bridges playing Morris and some great young kid playing Dupree.' But who's going to greenlight a film about a football player who's now forgotten? It's not The Blind Side. Marcus never made it to the NFL, there was no Sandra Bullock character in his life. He's the one who got left holding the bag."
Luckily, Hock had ESPN. "Basically, all they said was, 'Go make your movie.' The whole hook for 30 for 30 has been the director gets to tell their story. Look at it this way: I was supposed to deliver a 50-minute film, but I gave them a 100-minute rough cut and they said, 'You know, we like it the way it is.' I mean, it doesn't work that way very often."
As Schell put it, "ESPN saw this as a gift to sports fans. It wasn't about ratings. It was about telling great stories." It sounds like such a simple formula, but it's a formula in short supply in Hollywood these days.