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Punt, pass and kick: Cinematic football

By Staff | Dec 29, 2009

As the crowd swarms into what will be a packed stadium, cheerleaders and mascots promote their favorite teams while vendors push pop, popcorn, hotdogs, and beer. The team captains meet, shake hands, flip a coin, and the referee signals the kicking and receiving team. Soon, the whistle blows and the game begins.

Assembling cast and crew for a football film, the studio asks whether this will be a critical disaster/boxoffice dud or a go against the grain winner. Gene Wang, sports editor of the Washington Post, cites three challenges for football flicks — casting, cliches, and authenticity.  Actually, what’s more likely to land a gridiron story in the cinematic hall of fame is a screenplay that emphasizes an “individual” (or group) who happen to line up on a line of scrimmage.

When assembling a collection, the first line of demarcation: Is the film merely ABOUT football (i.e. background) or are there teams really playing to win or lose? 

For instance, “Jerry Maguire” cast Tom Cruise as a sports agent; Corey Haim was the unlikely high school player, “Lucas;” and Bruce Willis assisted a down and out pro quarterback with solving a murder in “The Last Boy Scout.” A few flicks straddle the inbounds markers, such as the terrorist/disaster flavored “Black Sunday,” and “Two Minute Warning.”

Before continuing, a disclaimer is a must — I have a prejudice, not simply as a Marshall University alum, but I was given (I asked nicely for “observation” privileges, not “gossip” mongering privileges ) — at least until other members of the media complained — open access to the “We Are Marshall” exterior sets in Huntington (except for intimate star scenes) by the film’s director, McG. 

Yet, in actuality, I did not have carte blanche access, I had permission to watch and write (subject to any temper tantrums being excised, if requested), not snap and yack. I may have “shadowed” too well, as occasionally I received communications for which I did not ask.

Fortunately, I had experience shooting publicity photos for an independent film in production. The budgets were vastly different, but I did learn that I had better be away from the camera’s range before I heard “sound speed.”

Among the lasting impressions from the shoot — McG allowing a tyke to take the director’s chair at the Greyhound Bus Station set and yell “action;” the director’s steadfast insistence for retaining the fountain end credits; and negotiating with him to reveal a flight phobia that truly inducted him as a real Son of Marshall. Although his mom told me her son’s fear of flying was the Lord’s way of assigning him to direct, “We Are Marshall,” instead of another film, McG allowed me to write that prior to accepting the job he rode alone on a flight to Tri-State Airport then visited the crash scene memorial and gave thanks to the Man Upstairs.

Although it ranks 11th in terms of theatrical attendance, hopefully, the years will be kind to it. The 2006 Christmas period release clashed with the unwritten rule of timing the release at the beginning or middle of football season. The positioning of “Rocky VI” and the feel-good “Pursuit of Happiness” wedged “WAM” in a Hail Mary underdog role on the schedule despite unbelievably favorable responses from preview audiences.

Two of the state’s largest motion picture exhibitors agree with essentially two approaches for films featuring football.

Derek Hyman, president of the Greater Huntington Theatre Corp., which has locations in Charleston, Logan, Huntington and Cincinnati, chose “Invincible” starring Mark Wahlberg and “Remember the Titans” as his favorite sports based flicks. “They are both different — ‘Invincible’ is the ‘underdog making it to the big time’ and ‘Titans’ is more about the community learning how to get over their prejudices.”

Curtis McCall, chairman and CEO of Marquee Cinemas, which has multiple screen theatres throughout West Virginia and the southeast, has lots of football favorites too: “Friday Night Lights,” “Brian’s Song” and “Waterboy.” But he has quite a few others on the top of his viewing favorite chart — “Remember the Titans,” “Jerry McGuire,” “All the Right Moves,” “The Longest Yard,” “North Dallas Forty” and “Wildcats.”

Like the rest of those interviewed, McCall added a not quite punt, pass and tackle flick.

He called “Blindside,” which focuses on a homeless boy rising to an NFL draft pick, “not really a football movie.” Whether high school, college or pro, “most of the movies coincide with football season and perform above average [at the box office].”

Sandra Bullock’s “Blind Side” will tally “around $225 to $250 million” [in its theatrical release]. “That’s a great run,” McCall said.

Hyman agreed that football and sports based movies, “are not a hard sell since they appeal to a wide group of moviegoers. You have sports, usually a love story on the side, quite often an underdog struggling to win, and sometimes social commentary. Something for everyone.”

As with any film, it requires more than simply an athletic field and a ball.

Hyman praised “Invincible” and “Titan” as “well written” with “great acting. This makes them believable and allows me to escape into another world for a short time.”

And, it’s the escapist qualities that have defined the industry: An inexpensive form of entertainment which allows viewers to forget the real world for 90, 120 or 150 minutes.

Looking back at the “classic” era, the same game versus prominent characters surrounded by players, coaches, fans and referees. John Wayne played a single dad attempting to maintain legal custody of his daughter in “Trouble Along the Way,” in which he happens to be a disgraced coach attempting a comeback at a small Catholic college. From the same era, Pat O’Brien stars in a biopic of the player and eventual coach of Notre Dame. Ronald Reagan (as George Gipp), a walk on player, has a poignant, still memorable deathbed speech about “winning one for the Gipper.”

Ironically, the producers did not obtain the permission of Gipp’s family in advance of the inclusion of the scene. For many years, the speech was not contained in television prints due to the litigation. 

The future could bring actual live games to cinemas. Last year, Marquee ‘experimented’ with a live big screen digital telecast of a WVU game. The venture was successful; however, the logistics are a ‘rights’ nightmare, as the universities and cable networks control the option of allowing an in-theatre telecast for a reasonable fee. For fans, it’s the next best thing to being in the stadium.

Contact Tony at trutherford@graffitiwv.com