Richard Roeper: BEARS DOCUMENTARY SHUFFLES ’85 MEMORIES INTO A MUST-SEE TIME CAPSULE. 3.5/4 STARS
By Richard Roeper
“Boys, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is, give me three years and we’re going to be in the Super Bowl. The bad news is, half of you ain’t gonna be here to see it.” – Mike Ditka after his first day of practice as the head coach of the Chicago Bears in 1982.
You can make the argument the 1985 Chicago Bears couldn’t beat the 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers or the 1989 San Francisco 49ers or the 2004 Patriots or some old-timey team from the leather-helmet era in a single game — but if you try to make the argument there was ever a team more dominant, more colorful, more entertaining, more memorable than those ’85 Bears over the course of a full season, well, I eagerly await your nomination.
Come on. Not only did the Bears have arguably the greatest all-around player in NFL history in Walter Payton, and his fellow Hall of Famers Dan Hampton, Mike Singletary and Richard Dent, they also gave us the Fridge, the Punky QB, the “Super Bowl Shuffle,” the “Superfans” bit on “Saturday Night Live” and of course:
The story of the 1985 Bears has been chronicled in numerous books and via documentaries such as the excellent ESPN “30 for 30” episode from 2016, but there’s never been a more impressive lineup of interviewees, from former players to the likes of President Barack Obama and Bill Murray, than the one assembled for director Scott Prestin’s “ ’85: The Greatest Team in Football History.”
This is essential viewing for any Bears fan, and for that matter any football fan.
Sadly, of course, the great Walter Payton, Dave Duerson and defensive guru Buddy Ryan are no longer with us, but nearly every surviving key component of the 1985 team appears in the film (excepting William Perry, who has battled serious health problems over the years). Mike Ditka, Jim McMahon, Dan Hampton, Willie Gault, Dennis McKinnon, Gary Fencik and a host of others weigh in with golden memories and often hilarious anecdotes.
We also get a recap of the era leading up to the mid-glory days, when the Bears were among the worst teams in football. Otis Wilson and Mike Singletary recall fans booing players not only at Soldier Field, but even when they walked into restaurants.
“Walter said, ‘This is what happens when in Chicago when you don’t win,’ ” says Wilson.
Offensive tackle Keith Van Horne remembers a time when “our own fans would dump beers on our head. They built a canvas over the tunnel to protect us. The fans burned a hole through the tent so they could keep throwing stuff at us. Then they put up a STEEL one up, and you could just hear stuff bouncing off the thing…
Bill Murray talks about the perennial disappointment of being a Bears fan: “You’d come out of church in a state of grace, you’d had communion — and the Bears would already be down 13-14 points. … God, you know, what’s the deal!”
But the culture started to change after Dikta was hired as Bears head coach in 1982 (he had sent a letter to George Halas applying for the job), and the Bears started to accumulate young, talented players — particularly on defense.
Former Giants QB Phil Simms said he’d never seen a more intimidating defense. Duerson, among others, would come up to the line of scrimmage and literally bark at him.
“They were as good a defense as I ever played against, maybe ever to play the game,” recalls former Dolphins great Dan Marino.
And of course that 1985 team featured William “Refrigerator” Perry, who became a national sensation after Ditka put him in the backfield in goal line situations, first as a blocking back, then a ball carrier and even as a receiver.
“ ’85 Bears” does a fine job of chronicling the Fridge’s ascension to instant celebrity — as well as Jim McMahon’s rebel status as the “Punky QB” (“He looked like he came out of some teen movie, like he was Sean Penn in ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ ” says Obama), the making of the brazen and fantastically cheesy “Super Bowl Shuffle” video (filmed and released well before the Bears were even in the postseason), and the origins of the “Superfans” characters.
As Robert Smigel tells it, he and fellow writers Bob Odenkirk and Conan O’Brien kept pitching the characters to Lorne Michaels, who had zero interest in greenlighting the bit until lifelong Bears fan Joe Mantegna was a guest on the show and wanted to do it.
By that point, the Bears had become a huge draw, not just in Chicago but wherever they played.
“We were truly a carnival act on the road,” says Hampton.
Despite all the distractions, including a wild week in New Orleans leading up to the Super Bowl, the Bears remained an unstoppable force on the field, all the way through a 46-10 dismantling of the overmatched Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
My only quibble with the film: There are so many top-line interview subjects telling so many great stories, the highlight clips are too infrequent and too brief. I would have loved to see more extended scenes of that magnificent team in action, perhaps with real-time play-by-play from the announcers of the time.
Still. This is a great time capsule about a team that dominated the sport for one season, and then fell apart all too quickly due to a variety of factors.
“In some ways that team was like a comet across the sky,” says Obama.
Bill Murray: “That was such a dominant event, I’ve never thought of Chicago as the Second City ever again and I don’t think a lot of people ever did again. What [the Bears] did said [about Chicago]:
“ ‘Be careful, because we can do anything. Anything.’ ”
“Trio of lawyers producing documentary on 1985 Bears team”
By Jack Silverstein
Law Bulletin staff writer
On Jan. 27, 1986, the day after the Chicago Bears demolished the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, an estimated 500,000 people showed up for the victory parade on LaSalle Street, followed by a rally at Daley Plaza.
Here’s who wasn’t there:
Walter Payton, Jim McMahon, Jay Hilgenberg, Jimbo Covert, Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson and Dave Duerson.
That’s because players selected for the following week’s Pro Bowl — like those nine — were required to report to Hawaii the day after the Super Bowl.
“When you win the Super Bowl, the very next day … the players go to the Pro Bowl,” said Wilson, one of the team’s three starting linebackers. “A lot of guys really didn’t share in that (celebratory) experience.”
Because of that, Wilson said, despite 29 years of accolades, headlines, books, commercials, reunions, interviews and general mythologizing, “There really hasn’t been anything done on a high level to celebrate this team — I mean, citywide. It’s overdue.”
A trio of Chicago lawyers feel the same way.
Richard W. Lenkov, Scott G. Prestin and Joseph G. Klest are joining Wilson to produce “’85: The Story of the Greatest Team in Pro Football History,” a film they are billing as the first feature-length documentary about the iconic team.
They plan to release it this fall to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the 1985 season.
“The window of opportunity is closing,” Wilson said. “After 30, many people won’t care about doing anything. That’s why I wanted to do something with the guys, with the organization … so that we can have a good time. Get together and be recognized and have a piece that you can show your grandkids.”
Lead producer Lenkov, of Bryce, Downey & Lenkov LLC — who practices general liability litigation, workers’ compensation and entertainment law — and director Prestin, a sole practitioner who recently relocated to Los Angeles, didn’t personally know any Bears when they started.
Instead, they got the ball rolling simply by deciding that they could provide what the market lacked.
“It did take some nerve,” Lenkov said. “Being an attorney who works with a lot of different clients and litigates every day, I’m not afraid of trying and sometimes failing.”
After deciding to produce the documentary, the group’s first bit of luck came when Lenkov — a sports memorabilia collector — attended a collectible show at the Rosemont Convention Center with his son early last year.
By coincidence, the show featured collectibles from the 1985 Bears with several players in attendance.
“I went there with my son and literally went up to as many players as I could and told them ‘I’m producing a film about the team,’” he said. “And off we went.”
His research as well as conversations with players led him to ask Wilson to join the project as a partner.
“He was still really active in promoting the team,” Lenkov said. “It seemed like he was still in touch with a lot of the players. When we were talking about who to partner up with, to a man, everyone thought Otis.”
Wilson needed no convincing. He joined Lenkov and Prestin as one of the film’s producers along with Klest of Klest Injury Law Firm and film producer Tom Pellegrini, whose credits include the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”
Prestin has 15 years of production experience and is working on a documentary about the trial of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, which he is co-producing with Klest.
Prestin also has the fandom credentials, having grown up cheering for the Bears in Libertyville, where he watched them beat New England, 46-10, in Super Bowl XX.
“I remember watching the game with my friends, and then we went outside at halftime and played football in the snow,” Prestin said.
Lenkov has a different story. He grew up in Montreal rooting for the Canadiens, Expos and, originally, the Houston Oilers because of running back Earl Campbell.
“Being a huge sports fan, but not someone who grew up here, I don’t have Chicago sports in my DNA,” Lenkov said. “But the Chicago Bears were the one team I adopted.”
That happened because the team appeared regularly on Canadian TV. Lenkov and his father became fans together.
“That was something we shared,” Lenkov said. “That game was as huge in Canada as it was anywhere.”
So how did a Canadian, Earl Campbell-rooting attorney convince the self-proclaimed “Mama’s Boy Otis” to lead the first feature-length documentary of arguably the greatest NFL team of all-time?
“God’s honest truth?” Wilson said. “Ain’t nobody been doing nothing.”
There has, of course, been plenty of attention shined on that team over the past three decades.
In 2012, NFL Films produced a 66-minute season recap with interviews from players and coach Mike Ditka. In 2013, author Rich Cohen published “Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football,” a biographical account of the season. That same year, Grantland.com published an oral history of “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”
There have also been countless stories about players from that team — including NFL Network’s “A Football Life” documentary about Payton — each of which touches on the season from a single perspective.
But has the team been adequately celebrated?
“In certain ways, I’d say yes, because they are legendary,” said Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander, who was interviewed for the film. “On the other hand, for as extraordinary a bit of Chicago history it actually encompasses, maybe you can’t celebrate it enough.”
Along with Wilson, the filmmakers have interviewed Dan Hampton and Steve McMichael with “seven or eight” other members of the team in the works, Lenkov said, including Ditka, McMahon, Dent, Gary Fencik, Willie Gault and Keith Van Horne.
The group is also talking to opposing players and coaches from the 1985 season.
Joe Theismann — former quarterback of the Washington Redskins, who the Bears beat 45-10 in 1985 — is committed, Lenkov said. The filmmakers are in talks with Lawrence Taylor — whose New York Giants lost to the Bears in the playoffs, 21-0 — and with Dan Marino and coach Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, the only team to beat the Bears that season.
Along with Telander, other interviews already done feature Jesse Jackson, Michael Wilbon and Bill Kurtis.
“When you make a film, it’s a huge undertaking, far more complex than anybody realizes,” Telander said. “Setting up the interviews, the cameras, the sound, the lights, the writing and then (getting) the rights might be the hardest part of all. Who better than a lawyer?”
In talks to narrate the film is Chicagoan Jim Belushi.
“He was on the sideline the whole time,” Wilson said. “It’d be perfect to have him a part of it.”
As the 1985 season rolled on and the wins piled up, Wilson knew he was part of something special. He recalls celebrating on Rush Street with teammates following the win over the Giants that sent the Bears to the NFC championship game.
“That was the greatest experience, seeing the fans going berserk,” he said. “We just partied with them. And after we had enough, police escorted us out of there, and we went to the next spot.”
Lenkov knew the team had reach — it found him in Canada. Wilson knew when it found him in New York after the Super Bowl during an endorsement trip. Dent traveled there with him, and the two called the aforementioned Taylor — the Hall of Fame linebacker — to hang out on Park Avenue.
“A kid was walking with his parents and said, ‘Ma, that’s one of the guys that was in the Super Bowl Shuffle!’” Wilson said.
“Didn’t even say ‘That was two guys who won the Super Bowl.’ ‘That’s the guy who was in the Super Bowl Shuffle!’ … We captured everybody.”
Wilson and the filmmakers are hyping the documentary as the “definitive, story,” with a focus exclusively on events from the 1985 season.
The film will not explore stories about painkiller abuse or the physical toll the game took on players such as Dent, McMahon, William Perry and the late Duerson, who fatally shot himself in the chest in 2011 and left a note in which he requested his brain be studied due to concerns about concussions he suffered.
“Those are all really interesting issues and ones that are relevant now,” Lenkov said. “But honestly, our focus is not on that. It’s on that year.”
The filmmakers are planning a theatrical screening in the fall and are exploring streaming options with Netflix, Amazon and HBO. Lenkov, Prestin and Klest are open to others getting involved; those interested can e-mail Lenkov at email@example.com.
“I’m just excited that the story’s going to be told,” Wilson said. “It’s a fun story. Of course everybody knows what happened and how it unfolded, but the behind-the-scenes things — the stories the guys can tell that wasn’t told — that should add to it.”
As we come up on the 30th anniversary of the Bears winning the Super Bowl in 1985, Chicago lawyer Rich Lenkov of Bryce Downey & Lenkov is producing a new documentary about that special time in Windy City sports history. Former Bear and ’85 team member Otis Wilson is a co-producer, and the film will be narrated by Jim Belushi.
The film is expected to be released next summer, just prior to the beginning of the 2015 NFL season. Among those featured in the documentary will be ’85 team members Jim McMahon, Mike Singletary and Richard Dent.
Also interviewed for the film will be Mayor Rahm Emanuel and actors Jeremy Piven and John Cusack — both Chicago area natives and big Bears fans.
“New Documentary Tells Story of ’85 Super Bowl Champion Chicago Bears”
Filming is currently underway for a new feature-length documentary on the 1985 Super Bowl-Champion Chicago Bears. "'85: The Story Of The Greatest Team In Pro Football History" is slated for release this fall, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of this iconic team's lone Super Bowl winning season.
A Chicago production team has assembled a unique cast to tell the story of the 1985 Chicago Bears. '85 Bears linebacker Otis Wilson is a co-producer of the film.
Pro football Hall of Famer and '85 Bear Dan Hampton and Bears legend Steve "Mongo" McMichael have already been involved in the filming of the documentary with more Hall of Famers from the team slotted as well, including Mike Singletary, Richard Dent and Coach Mike Ditka. Several other notable players, including Kevin Butler and Willie Gault are scheduled to participate as well as a host of celebrities, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, ESPN's Michael Wilborn and Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Rick Telander.
"Our film is the first in-depth telling of all that happened on and off the field during this championship season," said Chicago attorney Rich Lenkov, producer and longtime Chicago Bears fan. "This storied team comes to life through the voices of its players, coaches, superfans and prominent Chicagoans."
The documentary was recently highlighted in The Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
See link here:
The production team includes:
Scott Prestin (Director/Producer) is a director, producer and attorney with more than 15 years of film production experience. His most recent work is the official documentary of the best-selling book "John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster".
Rich Lenkov (Producer) is a member of the law firm of Bryce Downey & Lenkov. He has been involved in theatrical productions including "Rock of Ages" and "The Rascals: Once Upon a Dream".
Tom Pellegrini (Executive Producer) is the producer of "Jiro Dreams of Sushi", "Hesher" (Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman) and "Sympathy For Delicious" (Mark Ruffalo, Orlando Bloom, Laura Linney).
Otis Wilson (Executive Producer) is a legendary linebacker and key member of the dominant 4-6 defense from the Super Bowl XX-winning '85 Chicago Bears. Otis was a soloist on the "Super Bowl Shuffle" video, still the only hit single by a professional sports team. Otis currently runs the Otis Wilson Charitable Association.
Joseph Klest (Associate Producer) is a personal injury attorney representing clients throughout Illinois and across the nation. Joe is recognized as a "go-to" resource on civil sex abuse and injury cases, and is considered a pioneer in representing abuse victims having co-authored the 2003 Illinois Child Protection Act.
Marc Menet (Cinematographer) is a heralded Chicago-based freelance-cinematographer and a member of the International Cinematographers Guild. His work has appeared on Showtime, National Geographic, History Channel, Weather Channel, Animal Planet, VH1, NBC, Fox, Fox Sports, PBS and others including the 2009 Chicago Cubs documentary, "We Believe". Marc currently also teaches production and cinematography at DePaul University.
The '85 Bears are one of the most colorful and talented football teams of all-time. In their Super Bowl-winning year, they had the first-ranked defense, shut out both of their conference playoff opponents and in their Super Bowl XX victory in New Orleans, they set records for both total points scored and margin of victory - records that still stand. In 2011, President Obama called the '85 Bears "the greatest team in NFL history."
For more information contact:
'85 Documentary, LLC
A documentary about the Super Bowl champs is currently in the works. Called "'85: The Story of the Greatest Team in Pro Football History," it is produced by linebacker Otis Wilson and Chicago attorney Rich Lenkov, and will feature players such as Dan Hampton and Steve "Mongo" McMichael, as well as the coach himself Mike Ditka. Scott Prestin directs. Go to 85Bearsdoc.com.
Did you think we were done celebrating the ’85 Bears?
The 30th anniversary of that memorable season which culminated with a Super Bowl victory is this year. And the way Chicago lawyer Rich Lenkov sees it, that might be the last timely opportunity to recognize the squad. That’s why he decided to get to work on the documentary, “’85: The Untold Story Of The Greatest Team in Pro Football History.”
“It seems like that story has been told, but we looked and nobody had actually done a feature length documentary on this team,” Lenkov said. “We thought, ‘Man, that’s strange. We’ve got to do one.’” In order to get members of the 1985 Bears to participate, Lenkov brought in Otis Wilson, a linebacker on that team, as a producer.
“He was one of the fist moves,“ Lenkov said. “We knew we had to get the players to believe in the project. I did my research and discovered Otis was still active and keeping the word out about the team. His teammates knew it was a positive project once Otis vouched for it.”
Wilson said his role so far has been to coordinate interviews. He hopes to set up interviews with 15-20 former teammates and coaches when all is said and done.
“You don’t know the individual stories,” Wilson said. “Everybody has their own unique story on how that season touched them. I listened to (Keith) Van Horne and he said something even I didn’t remember and then stuff came back to me. (This documentary) is celebrating what was a good time for the city, because at 40 or 50, they won’t remember you the same way. A lot of us probably won’t be alive then. The bottom line is Chicago really appreciates us.”
Wilson said every player and coach from the ’85 Bears they’ve approached agreed to participate, including former Mike Ditka, Jim McMahon and Mike Singletary. The film also spoke with ESPN personality Michael Wilbon and Rev. Jesse Jackson and is hoping to interview opponents from that year such as Miami Dolphins’ legend Dan Marino and New York Giants’ legend Lawrence Taylor. Lenkov said actor Jim Belushi will serve as the narrator.
The film is directed by Scott Prestin (“John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster”) and executive produced by Tom Pellegrini (“Jiro Dreams of Sushi”). It is scheduled to be released in the Fall to coincide with the start of the football season. A decision has yet to be made on how the film will be released, but Lenkov is considering distribution platforms such as Netflix, Hulu and Google Play and said the NFL Network has also shown interest.
The ’85 Bears were invited to the White House to meet with President Obama in 2011. They were the subject of the 2013 book ”Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football,” by Rich Cohen.
“You think you’ve heard everything until you sit down with the guys,” Lenkov said. “Rest assured the film will tell our audience things they haven’t heard.”
‘The Jinx’ Ushers in Golden Age for Documentaries, Fueled By Netflix Push
The arrest of Robert Durst on a murder charge this month was cause for celebration in documentary filmmaking circles.
HBO (http://variety.com/t/hbo/)’s successful sixpart series “The Jinx (http://variety.com/t/thejinx/),” an investigative look at murder suspect and real estate heir Robert Durst, adds fuel to a whitehot market for deepdive investigative documentary fare.
In recent months, nonfiction works such as “Going Clear,” a critical look at Scientology; “The Hunting Ground (http://variety.com/t/thehuntingground/),” a broadside against sexual violence on college campuses; and “Serial,” a hit podcast about a reallife murder, have sparked intense debate and mobilized committed followers, while whistleblower tale “Citizenfour” took the doc Oscar.
A confluence of trends is driving the nonfiction boom. Nobody goes into the business to get rich, but opportunities are expanding, particularly for films that have something profound to say about a social issue or have a big reveal in a truecrime story. And the amplifier effect of social media has helped enhance docs’ realworld impact.
“This decade has been a golden age of nonfiction filmmaking,” said Joe Berlinger, director of the “Paradise Lost” trio of films about the West Memphis Three.
Key to the docu spike has been Netflix (http://variety.com/t/netflix/)’s decision to enter the arena in a big way — and with a fat checkbook. The netcaster has been making the festival rounds for acquisitions, and helping to seed projects early on with filmmakers.
The prices that Netflix is paying to underwrite production or to license material — ranging anywhere from highsix to lowseven figures — has had a ripple effect on other buyers. Showtime, CNN, A&E Network, OWN, IFC, SundanceTV and others have entered the space.
“All of those platforms are out there hunting, and it’s driving the documentary business, and definitely raising the market value of films,” said CNN Films chief Vinnie Malhotra.
Dealmaking ranges from outright acquisitions to licensing pacts that allow creators to retain the underlying copyright, which means the content can eventually be licensed to other buyers for a fresh round of fees. “There are a lot of places to turn to when you have an idea that you’re excited about pursuing,” said veteran producer (http://variety411.com/us/losangeles/producers/)
R.J. Cutler, whose recent doc works include 2009’s “The September Issue,” 2012’s “The World According to Dick Cheney,” for Showtime, and Showtime’s upcoming “Listen to Me Marlon” study of the famed actor using his private audio recordings.
Cutler notes that the reality TV boom has also expanded the appetite of a wide range of outlets for unscripted programming.
“Since the beginning of what has become known as the reality television era, you’ve had a simultaneous growth in nonfiction drama series, the kind of thing we started with (the 1999 Fox docu series) ‘American High.’ It’s a healthy market if you know how to work it,” Cutler said.
Along with the influx of TV money, support from nonprofits is on the rise, as organizations see the kind of impact that a wellmade doc can have on social issues and specific causes. The Ford Foundation and MacArthur Foundation are among the wellheeled benefactors that have increased their grant money, according to Marjan Safinia, president of the Intl. Documentary Assn., a membership org for filmmakers and doc enthusiasts.
Private corporations are also underwriting documentaries that they see as a fit with their public image, Safinia noted. Patagonia, the outdoor apparel firm, sponsored “DamNation,” a look at the environmental damage caused by aging dams. Softdrink maker Mountain Dew helped fund the skateboarding doc “We Are Blood,” which debuts this summer.
At the other end of the spectrum, crowdfunding campaigns have evolved in the past few years to become viable sources of coin for projects with enough sizzle.
And then there’s the expansion of the documentary form itself — from classic but confining videoverite studies to a range that incorporates all manner of POVs and presentations.
“The documentary film has really evolved as a format,” Safinia said. “It’s moved away from being the broccoli of films to using storytelling styles that are really engaging.”
Netflix also has made an impact in the way that the service’s recommendation engines suggest titles to its 50 millionplus global audience. Endorsed documentaries are woven into the same streams as those of narrative features and TV shows, pushing them out of the niche realm.
But theatrical play is no longer the holy grail of the documentary world. Releases of a film in more than a few theaters are rare, and only a few docs ever crack $1 million in receipts. Berlinger notes that his recent film “Whitey,” a look at Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, flatlined at the box office, even though it was a VOD hit.
“You have to realign your expectations of what constitutes success,” said Berlinger. “Expecting big revenues from theatrical documentaries is an old model.”
Digital revenues and rights deals with streaming services are helping to fill the void. RadiusTWC copresident Tom Quinn, whose company won backtoback best doc Oscars for “20 Feet From Stardom” and “Citizenfour,” said he’s seen a 60% increase in the ancillary revenue docs generate from a combination of VOD, electronic sellthrough, streaming and broadcast rights.
“There are now multiple places to go and watch documentaries, and that has built a large and significant nonfiction audience,” he said.
Yet democratization of the form, thanks to cheap digital cameras, has spawned a generation of wannabes. “To stand out, you have to be about something relevant and urgent,” said Brad Barber, codirector of the SXSW breakout documentary “Peace Officer.”
Though filmmakers such as Berlinger report that they’re busier than ever, most supplement their incomes from other sources. Barber and “Peace Officer” codirector Scott Christopherson teach film studies, while several top directors make commercials and branded films.
Ultimately, though, as the swell of interest in the Durst saga showed last week, documentaries are clearly making a strong case with viewers.
“Documentaries Are the Go-To Players of Sports Television”
You have probably seen many of the films. There was “The Fab Five,” about the rise and fall of a fabled Michigan basketball recruiting class, and “The U,” which told the story of Miami football so well that its director made a sequel. More recently, “Of Miracles and Men” described the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament from the less familiar Soviet team’s point of view, and Dukeloathing basketball fans were treated to the analytic probing of “I Hate Christian Laettner.”
All those stories, and many more, have been injected into the bloodstream of sports fans since 2009 through ESPN’s “30 for 30” series and its various offshoots like “30 for 30 Shorts,” which are shown online at Grantland.com and SEC Storied. The success of “30 for 30” has, in only a few years, created a growing industry on television for sports documentaries. Their proliferation and profitability, even as a formerly dominant player in the market has markedly retreated from the field, has quickly brought a niche market into the mainstream.
“I can do basically a film a year and have millions of people see it without having to fight and claw for distribution and funding the way we used to,” said the director Jonathan Hock, whose ESPN credits include “Of Miracles and Men” and “Survive and Advance,” about the North Carolina State team, coached by Jim Valvano, that won the 1983 N.C.A.A. men’s basketball title.
Hock added, “This is a golden age for sports documentaries.” Sports documentaries have been around for decades, but they were more often special events, like Bud Greenspan’s Olympic films, or occasional television or theatrical presentations. When ESPN introduced “30 for 30” in 2009 — 30 films to celebrate the network’s 30th anniversary — it was a thunderclap in the industry.
Quickly, ESPN became the dominant force, and since then, the ambitions of ESPN and HBO, which once dominated the genre by producing four films a year, have shifted drastically. ESPN committed heavily to documentaries, releasing 142 films since 2009 — so many, in fact, that it now qualifies as a de facto documentary studio.
HBO Sports, meanwhile, shuttered its in-house documentary unit in November 2011 and struggles to maintain its relevance in a transformed market in which many networks, including Showtime, Epix, CBS and Fox Sports 1, are active at various levels. The NBC Sports Group is close to announcing the formation of an internal unit to produce four documentaries a year starting in 2016.
George Roy, whose HBO documentaries were among its most honored, said: “ESPN has created a brand that is more powerful than HBO’s.” ESPN and other media companies have quickly learned that sports documentaries offer a reliable audience and a viable business model: They are a bargain to produce — ESPN’s cost about $500,000 each — when compared with the soaring prices of live sports rights, and they can be repeated for years. In its 2011 debut, “The Fab Five” attracted 2.7 million viewers; a replay three years later was watched by 476,000.
“I Hate Christian Laettner,” the newest “30 for 30,” is an example of how a provocative title about a provocative subject can generate success. Released on the eve of this year’s N.C.A.A. tournament, the film was directed by Rory Karpf, whose goal was to explain Duke haters’ special loathing for Laettner, one of the stars of the Blue Devils’ 1991 and 1992 championship teams.
The film examines Laettner’s arrogance, good looks, bullying style and seeming sense of privilege — often humorously — and it was done with his full cooperation, if not his full embrace of its title. At a screening this month in Manhattan, Laettner watched it with a smile that did not seem forced. He occasionally leaned forward — apparently entranced — and regularly glanced to his right at his former teammate Grant Hill to see if Hill was equally amused. When the film made its premiere on ESPN on March 15, it attracted 2.3 million viewers. Another 573,000 watched when it was replayed later that night on ESPN2.
Done well, documentaries can be the sort of programming that fits the landscape of changing viewing habits, in which fans watch what they want, when they want, untethered to the television schedule for live events. The “30 for 30” films, for example, are available on iTunes and Netflix and can be watched on WatchESPN and bought in DVD sets.
“Long-form storytelling is growing,” said Connor Schell, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films. “You can tell people in-depth stories, and they can consume it when they want. Sit people down and tell them a good story.”
Showtime and Epix have recognized the same thing.
“Kobe Bryant’s Muse,” a vanity project on Showtime, stars Bryant, who was also the executive producer and is the only person interviewed. Epix has shown documentaries on Dwight Howard, the integration of the N.F.L. and college sports, and it carries the series “Road to the N.H.L. Winter Classic,” which was created by HBO.
“Our mission is different from ESPN’s,” said Stephen Espinoza, the executive vice president of Showtime Sports. “We want to appeal to the sports fan and the non-sports fan.”
Every network is benefiting from the talent diaspora spread far and wide by HBO. Ross Greenburg, a former president of HBO Sports, has worked for both Showtime and Epix. Joe Lavine made “Playing for the Mob,” about the Boston College point-shaving scandal, for ESPN, and Jason Hehir directed “The Fab Five” and is in postproduction for another about the Sacramento Kings’ near-departure for Seattle. “I used to watch Joe Lavine’s documentaries in school,” said Hehir, who added that he had more freedom to make the films he wanted at ESPN than he did when he was with HBO.
For Greenburg, his latest project is a collaboration with Steve Stern and Roy, whose HBO work earned them eight Sports Emmys. “Dean Smith,” about the late North Carolina basketball coach, will debut Wednesday on Showtime. “Networks realize there’s thirst for this kind of entertainment,” Greenburg said. “They also realize the younger demographics eat this up, not just the 50- somethings who’ve lived a life in sports.”
Ken Hershman, the president of HBO Sports, said the company had not abandoned sports documentaries but wanted to create a “different space” for experimentation, rather than have a largely in-house group of filmmakers, like the one that won 31 Sports Emmys for HBO from 1991 to 2012. Those films, “were nice stories and nice projects,” he said, adding, “But we wanted to break the mold.”
To fill the gap, he has been relying on Peter Berg for an issue-oriented series called “State of Play” — hybrid documentaries and panel discussions and the acquisition of films with production or talent connections to personalities like Jay Z, 50 Cent and the agent Ari Emanuel.
In discarding a successful documentary-making model for one that seeks deals with well-connected outsiders, HBO is trying, in its own way, to imitate ESPN. But ESPN has clearly found a productive formula in hiring an eclectic group of independent, well-credentialed directors like Barry Levinson and Alex Gibney, and first-timers like the rapper Ice Cube and Marquis Daisy, a former HBO staff member who made a documentary about Randy Moss.
Before she made “Selma,” Ava DuVernay directed “Venus VS.” as part of an ESPN Title IX series in 2013.
And this month, six short films by Errol Morris, who won an Oscar for “The Fog of War,” debuted online and on ESPN. Morris worked for ESPN on an advertising campaign called “It’s Not Crazy, It’s Sports” a few years ago, and he used that title for his short films, each focused on different types of fan passion.
“Sports is just a way in, a portal, to tell a whole range of stories,” Morris said. “You can call them obsessives or stories about obsessiveness. But sports is a perfect breeding ground for them.