Indeed, most sports movies get made because of a personal passion, whether it's the executive's, the director's, the writer's or the star's. "Any Given Sunday was Oliver's passion," says Lorenzo di Bonaventura, president of worldwide theatrical production for Warner Brothers Pictures. "He got us to finance a movie we hesitated to put money behind." That's important because most sports films are not big box office. (Don't even think about pointing out the $161 million gross on Sandler's The Waterboy; it really isn't a sports movie.) The very thing that makes sports movies attractive at home—that recognizably American something that compels, say, audiences at an Indiana Pacers playoff game to go silent when a clip from Hoosiers appears on the scoreboard screen—reduces a significant contributor to the back end: foreign business. Icebergs, nude portraits and Kate Winslet shivering on a life raft are comprehensible in any language; Shooter's picket-fence play in Hoosiers is inscrutable in Norway. "For the treat of a lifetime," says Shelton, "you've got to hear the playground trash-talking in White Men Can't Jump in Japanese."
True, Rocky, filmed in 28 days on a budget of $1.1 million, grossed about $117 million in domestic box office and many millions more abroad, and its four sequels raked in money as well. (For the record, Stallone says he has decided there will be no Rocky VI. "Part of me wants to do it and says it's credible because of guys like George Foreman and Larry Holmes," Stallone says, "but ultimately I think it would be beating a dead horse.")
Bull Durham, which cost only about $7 million to make, grossed about $50 million and is still a U.S. rental staple. By and large, though, sports films are not in the same league as Star Wars and Titanic. Raging Bull, the only sports film regularly mentioned among the true greats (it was 24th in the American Film Institute's top 100 a few years ago), did a modest $22 million at the box office.
That's why the success of Titans surprised everyone. In one sense the studio had set the stage for it in the '90s with a string of what might be called "family sports movies," cotton-candy versions of The Bad News Bears, which had a deliciously gritty feel. Emilio Estevez was more interesting as Otto Maddox in one frame of Repo Man than he was as coach Gordon Bombay in three Mighty Ducks movies, but die Ducks (which collectively earned $119 million) made him a household name, at least among the household's younger members. Though the public tuned out a football-fetching golden retriever (1998's Air Bud: Golden Receiver made $10 million), it had opened its arms a year earlier to Buddy as a basketball player: The first Air Bud, with a $3 million
budget, pulled in $23 million.
Titans is different—an adult sports movie that is doing big numbers—but its family appeal is similar. "Positive word of mouth started early," says Hollywood power broker Jerry Bruckheimer, who, before Titans, had produced blockbusters like Top Gun, The Rock and Armageddon and whose next release is Pearl Harbor, budgeted at $135 million. "Parents have a hard time on weekends deciding what movies they can take their kids to. Everyone can see Titans"
Therein lies a tale. The original Titans script was rougher, "a lot more reality-based as far as the language goes," Bruckheimer says. Walt Disney Studios agreed to make the film only if the script was, well, Disneyfied. "Take out all the swear words," studio chairman Peter Schneider told Bruckheimer and scriptwriter Gregory Allen Howard, "and we'll make it." Bruckheimer saw no other way to get the script produced, so out came the s-and f-words, out came all sexual tension (indeed, the most compelling female character is a nine-year-old girl who knows more pigskin jargon than John Madden) and out came a hard-edged portrayal of race relations.
Watching Titans, you feel as if you're sitting in a Pavlovian laboratory, a submissive subject in a study of elementary emoting: O.K., the topic of the moment is, White folks don't want blacks to integrate the high school. Cue the Chambers Brothers doing Time Has Come Today, show some angry young whites and some frightened young blacks. Time for everyone to come together? Cue the Marvin Gaye—Tammi Terrell duet Ain't No Mountain High Enough. "Is the movie a clich�?" asks Schneider. "Maybe. Is it predictable? Maybe. But it comes out the way you want it to come out, and it has enough "twists and turns to keep you amused and entertained. Yes, we were pushing your buttons, but you gave up after a while and let them be pushed, right?"
Anyway, sports films were never all that original. " Hollywood comes back to sports films because they present dramatic material and because there are so many sports nuts out there," says Steve James. "But it almost always comes down to someone at the studio deciding the film has to be inspirational. It's hard to present a script for a sports film that doesn't conform to the big-victory or big-game blueprint."
Of the classic sports films (page 100), precious few, such as The Hustler and Raging Bull, are truly dark ruminations on American society. North Dallas Forty and The Longest Yard were renegades in their time but now seem tame. Yes, some complain that the film version of The Natural (written, incidentally, by Roger Towne, Robert's brother) takes Bernard Malamud's sober novel and turns it into a schlocky hero-of-the-heartland vehicle for Redford. But at some point almost everyone (critics notwithstanding) gave in to the movie, to the bravura performance of Robert Duvall as sportswriter Max Mercy, to the rambling dugout conversations between manager and coach (Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth), to the athletic grace of the ol' lefty, Redford. (I wish, though, that somebody would bean the Glenn Close character with a Cracker Jack box when she stands up, bathed in celestial light, to get Roy Hobbs's attention.) "I can't remember now," says Stone. "What did happen at the end of the novel?" Malamud's last words: "He lifted his hands to his face and wept many bitter tears." Does that tell you that the original Hobbs didn't go yard?
SPORTS FILMS in the first half of the 20th century were for the most part slapstick comedies, fluffy things with farfetched plots or, in the case of 1940's Knute Rockne, All American and 1942's The Pride of the Yankees, so stilted and serious as to be comical. ("The most dangerous thing in American life today is, we're getting soft," says Pat O'Brien, as Rockne.) Still, some brilliant moments came out of those films, especially the comedies. Who can't enjoy watching Chico Marx, as Baravelli, call signals for Huxley College in Horse Feathers? "Hi diddle, diddle, cat's in the fiddle. This time I think we go through the middle." Or watching Chico, in A Day at the Races, sell railbird Groucho (Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush) first a tip book, then a code book that interprets the tip book, then a master code book that interprets the code book, then a bunch of breeders' guides that interpret the master code book?