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Tackling Sports History: ESPN's '30 for 30'

By Scott Bayer

From Barbara Kopple's The House of Steinbrenner, which premieres on ESPN as part of its 30 for 30 series

If filmmaking was a sport, then ESPN would be a contender. Few players in television would commission and produce 30 films in less than two years--and grant creative autonomy to the filmmakers.

In 2007, Bill Simmons, columnist for, e-mailed his bosses a short pitch: With ESPN's 30-year anniversary coming up, the cabler should produce 30 documentaries from that time frame--but not SportsCentury: 30 Years of ESPN. Import a few well-known Hollywood filmmakers and give them complete creative control. Call the series 30 for 30. The top brass at ESPN took the idea further: Filmmakers from outside the ESPN stable would make all 30 documentaries.

 "We made a list of respected filmmakers and celebrities who were sports fans," explains Simmons, executive producer of the series. "We made another list of filmmakers we respected, whether they liked sports or not. We hoped to land a few early for a ‘domino effect,' of sorts, and we only needed two or three names. Something happened that we never anticipated: These people had been waiting for us.

"Al Maysles, who had filmed two months of incredible footage of Muhammad Ali before the Larry Holmes fight in 1980, cut a 30-minute film that nobody wanted to buy, as the fight itself had been so depressing," Simmons continues. "Dominos started falling. Ice Cube is a lifelong Raiders fan. Steve Nash grew up idolizing the late Terry Fox. Barry Levinson never recovered from the Colts leaving Baltimore." Other documentarians who signed up included Alex Gibney, Dan Klores, Brett Morgen, Billy Corben and Barbara Kopple.

As Documentary went to press, ESPN was at the midpoint of its series. Executive producer Connor Schell believes that 30 for 30 is special not just for the sheer number of quality films produced in such a short period. "We have some pretty extensive documentary history in the past with SportsCentury, as well as our 25th year project," he maintains. "However, all were internally produced and more biographically driven and countdown-focused."

Senior director Mark Durand, who oversaw films made by Kopple, Morgen, Maysles and Gibney, was a senior producer on SportsCentury from the beginning. "SportsCentury was ESPN's first real effort to get into sports history--a successful series that was more like documentary than previous Sports Center programming, and it laid the foundation for ESPN Classic''s in-house documentary efforts," he explains. "30 for 30 continues the evolution and takes it to another level."  

"When we sat down and discussed 30 for 30, we agreed on how the independent film genre had advanced, with some incredible storytellers out there that we felt could turn their focus to sports projects and capture them with independent film spirit," Schell adds. "We sought out an eclectic mix of feature film directors, professional documentarians and first-time filmmakers. The common denominator was real passion for the story they wanted to tell. Each piece stood on its own, not dependent on the one that came before or after it. Collectively, they tell a larger story of the era in a mosaic of the last 30 years, diverse points of view and cultural turning points. We tried to support every aspect of production without getting in the way of the filmmakers, so the work of each is their vision."

"These are evergreen stories that ESPN can broadcast on multiple platforms for years to come," Schell says. "We feel we have a great dynamic here, by commissioning great filmmakers to tell stories they have passion about. We're hoping to continue to do that in the coming years."

The only feature-length piece in the series, Jeff and Michael Zimbalist's The Two Escobars, premiered on ESPN in June and in commercial theaters in August, and enjoyed successful runs at the Tribeca, Cannes and Los Angeles Film Festivals. According to the Zimbalists, The Two Escobars was green-lit by ESPN as a result of the series' shortage of both Latin American-oriented titles and soccer stories. "ESPN was looking for works portraying the impact of sports on society," says Jeff. "We thought both Escobars [Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord, and Andres Escobar, the captain of the Colombia national soccer team] were critically involved in issues of major social import, particularly in Latin America. We also felt the stories were so compelling that we needed a feature length to do them justice. Who would have thought ESPN would produce a socially conscious story about drugs and soccer, support our vision and allow us creative control, show a Spanish language film for two hours in prime time, and even set up a theatrical run?"

Another high-profile project in the series, Kopple's The House of Steinbrenner, about the late owner of the New York Yankees and the dynasty that he created, premieres September 21. Kopple was on ESPN's short list, and with two previous sports films under her belt (about boxer Mike Tyson and baseball player Lenny Dykstra), it was an easy decision for her. "I had been talking with ESPN during the 30 for 30 project selection," she says. "I was at the All Star Game two years ago, and was impacted strongly seeing George [Steinbrenner] driven around in a golf cart weeping, and I decided I wanted to do something on the Yankees. I've been a loyal Yankees fan since I was a girl. ESPN gave me great creative latitude. I showed them rough cuts and they'd make suggestions, but I could take them or leave them. The story of the Yankees in this period of transition evolved several times over the two years, including shooting and editing after Steinbrenner's death."

"Steinbrenner and the Yankees were not an easy organization to tackle," Durand contends. "The family doesn't care for publicity. The younger generation does things in a different way than their dad, who would call reporters at 2:00 a.m. if he thought he'd make a score. Part of the deal going in was no filming of George, who was not in good health the past four years. But here you have Barbara Kopple, distinguished filmmaker who has worked with a lot of famous people--often during controversial points in their lives--accustomed to getting intimate access. But that wasn't going to happen with the Yankees. She still got uncommon access, yet from her point of view, she would have liked a lot more. That was a tricky thing, so she took advantage of being able to come out with three cameras at the closing of Yankee Stadium-from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.--to cover a really historic moment and catch the full transition from the old stadium to the new one.

"It's more of a vérité film," Durand continues. "Not entirely, but closer to her style; she wasn't interested in doing a history. She was interested in the heritage and the feeling that goes with the heritage of the Yankees. All these things were happening at once--the old ballpark to the new ballpark, the era of George, the era of the heirs, particularly Hal. At the same time, the Yankees come back and win their 27th championship. George's death brought it full circle."

Kopple characterizes the film as being "about family ties, the passing of things. At the end, George passes away; it was pretty heavy. Major League Baseball and the Yankees are an experience that is both massive and intimate. These were once-in-a-lifetime stories. I looked at it as a total: the Yankees, the family, the players, the fans and the legacy."


H. Scott Bayer is the editor/publisher of Indie Film Reporter and writes about independent film, filmmakers and production technology for several trade publications and broader audience newspapers when not working on his own or other peoples' films.