By Hammad Zaidi | February 8, 2011

This installment of Going Bionic is coming to you “live from the La Quinta Hotel in Addison, Texas.” I just attended the Super Bowl in Arlington yesterday (Dallas/Forth Worth area), which was an amazing experience. Of course, the weather, road conditions and Christina Aguilera’s attempted murder of our beloved National Anthem was painful to endure, but the game itself made up for most of the shortcomings. I’ve had the pleasure to attend more than a few Super Bowls over the years, and doing so never gets old. Few things in life, like my wedding day and becoming a father to twins this July, could ever eclipse the Super Bowl experience. Since I’m fixated on sports today, I thought I’d write about sports films and their distribution track record.

*One thing to keep in mind before I lay out several facts and figures about sports films is that a theatrically released film must make 2.5-3.0 times its budget, in order to break even.

In short, sports themed films generally make less money than most other genres. This is the case because:

a) Not everyone is a sports fan.

b) Not everyone is a fan of the sport the film is about.

c) The main sports in America are not popular worldwide.

In honor of the Super Bowl, let’s examine football films first.

Remember The Titans (2000)
This film is widely regarded as one of the finer football films ever made. It’s also deemed a success, as its $30 million dollar budget garnered a domestic theatrical gross of $115,654,751. However, its total worldwide theatrical gross was only $136,706,683. Hence, the picture only made $21,051,932 outside of The United States and Canada, proving that it only had “legs” in it’s home country where American football is played.

The Longest Yard (2005)
This Adam Sandler remake of the 1974 Burt Reynolds football comedy classic is admittedly far more of a broad comedy than it is a football film. This $82 million dollar production made $158.1 million domestically, but only $29.9 million more worldwide ($190 million total). The $29.9 million international total proved once again that football films don’t travel.

Rudy (1993)
This Sean Astin gem is clearly my favorite football themed film. Far more independent in nature than the films listed above, this $12,000,000 budgeted picture only grossed $22,750,363 domestically. Given its lackluster performance in America, I’m not sure it was even released internationally.

Now that I’ve gotten football out of my system, let’s chronicle a few other landmark sports films.

Rocky (1976)
Regardless of what you think of Sylvester Stallone, he did get write one hell of a script that got him nominated for an Oscar and his performance as Rocky Balboa was pretty incredible, too. Furthermore, this film won three Oscars, including “Best Picture.” With a budget of less than $1 million, Rocky grossed more than $225 million worldwide, making it the most successful film of 1976, and one of the most successful budget-to-box-office ratios in the history of motion pictures. The success of Rocky opened the film studios eyes (and wallets) to what heights a well made sports film could reach.

Raging Bull (1980)
This Martin Scorsese masterpiece is highlighted with a tour-de-force performance from Robert Di Niro as aging boxer Jake LaMotta. As a work of art, this picture is flawless. But, as an investment, Raging Bull got knocked-out, as its $18,000,000 budget only garnered a gross of $ 23,383,987. I often times wonder if this film would have captured more of an audience if it weren’t filmed in black and white, but I doubt one aesthetic change would have enhanced its fate enough to make it a financial success.

CaddyShack (1980)
This incredibly funny golf comedy made $39,846,344 at the domestic box office alone. Since it was made for $6,000,000, it was considered an immediate smash-hit. Of course, most people remember this film as being more of a broad comedy and less of a sports film, but the fact that it was sports-related certainly helped other sports films to get made.

Now that we’ve examined some essential sports films, let’s go over some distribution trends related to them.

Winning Isn’t Everything
Many people tend to forget that Rocky Balboa lost the title fight in Rocky (1976) and The Bad News Bears (1976) also lost their championship game. Furthermore, in Rudy (1993), Rudy’s focus was to get on the field for just one play during his entire career (he wound up getting two plays). Although winning oftentimes equals a larger box-office, like in Remember The Titans (2000), there are many instances where losing can garner similar success. The key is to have a heart-thumping dramatic climax, regardless if they win or lose.

Film Festivals May Not Be The Right Launch Pad
If you’re making a sports related film, you may want to think twice about taking the film festival route to find distribution. There are festival darlings like Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and the documentaries Hoop Dreams (1994) and Murderball (2005), but film festival programmers normally shy away from programming sports films.

Discuss Potential Territory Sales With International Film Buyers Before You Make Your Film
Regardless of how popular football, baseball and basketball are in the United States; their popularity varies internationally. This is especially the case for American football, since fewer countries play it worldwide than they play baseball or basketball. Thus, it’s a good idea to talk to and meet with international film buyers and ask them if your film could get a healthy sale (or any sale for that matter) in their territory. While I’m not suggesting you cancel your production if the international interest level in your film is weak, I am suggesting that if that’s the case, you should consider tightening your budget in order to give your film the best chance to succeed. Remember, information is power, and the more information you arm yourself with, the better you can navigate your film.

Sports Films Budgets Are Always Smaller
The reason there is no such thing as a “tent pole sports film” is because studios would never risk a few hundred million dollars on a genre that has traditionally underperformed. Thus, when you’re developing a sports film, always remember to keep your budget as tight as possible, because anything other than an extremely tight budget won’t get financed.

Before I go head out of the La Quinta Hotel and try to find Addison, Texas’s finest Chinese food…I’d like to mention a handful of other must-see sports films.

First we have my favorite sports film of all time; the great basketball story Hoosiers (1986). As for baseball films, Field Of Dreams (1989), Bull Durham, (1988) and The Natural (1984). For you hockey fans, check out Miracle (2004) and Slap Shot (1977). We also have to acknowledge the Academy Award winning running epic, Chariots Of Fire (1981), and if you’re ever in the mood to watch a really stupid, poorly made basketball gem, rent The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979). Hell, after the putrid performance by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl 45, Pittsburgh is going to need a lot more than a bunch of “fish” to save them.

That’s all I’ve got this week. Check in with me next week, when I’ll be reporting from the European Film Market (EFM) in Berlin, during the Berlin Film Festival. Until next Tuesday, thank you for lending me your eyes!

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  1. Bwakathaboom says:

    Love the column but I’m wary about quoting box office numbers when trying to make the case for trends in *indie* filmmaking. I hope we’ve reached a point where independent filmmakers are savvy enough to realize that their movies aren’t going to see a theater outside of their festival run.

    With that in mind, my question is how does a sports film affect foreign sales (aka the only money and indie we likely ever see)?

    What ever happened to the “Ski School” model of sexy teens who save the rec center (with obligatory nude scenes) and selling that crap to Dubai and making your budget back?

  2. anonymous says:

    I would like to add John Sayles film, “Eight Men Out”.

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