WILL FERRELL! In spandex! On figure skates! For better or worse, that is how sports movies in the year 2007 will be remembered. Ferrell's Blades of Glory made $118.2 million and was one of only two sports flicks to finish in the top 50 at the box office. (The other was Disney's family comedy The Game Plan, which made $88.4 million.) Just how bereft of traditional sports films was 2007? Perhaps the most noteworthy entry was Who's Your Caddy?, which made Caddyshack II look brilliant by comparison and was voted by the users of Internet Movie Database as the second-worst movie ever made.
Where are the Hoosiers and the Raging Bulls? Where have all the Crash Davises gone? The reality is that it's not nearly as easy to make a sports movie as it used to be. With movie attendance in the U.S. dropping, the new Hollywood business model relies more heavily on foreign receipts. (Last year, for example, The Da Vinci Code made $217.5 million Stateside but pulled in $540.7 million overseas.) "But there's no foreign [earning] on sports movies," says Mark Ciardi, who has produced four of them. Baseball movies are a tough sell in Europe, but football movies are the least attractive abroad, where there are no pro leagues. Invincible, Ciardi's acclaimed 2006 movie about a real-life bartender who makes it to the NFL, took in $57.8 million. Only $670,000 of that came from abroad.
Then there's the prevailing notion in Hollywood that women choose which movies couples see together but that only men are drawn to sports films. "The first thing a studio decides when it's making a sports movie now is that it doesn't want to make a sports movie," says Jeff Freedman, who has marketed sports movies for 14 years. "They want to say it's a love story, or a father-son story."
Historically, the best sports movies have been the ones that have an edge, but to many producers now, edgy means risky. "If somebody wanted to make Raging Bull today, I don't know that it could happen," says one Hollywood marketer. "It's too dark." Nick Santora, a writer for Fox's Prison Break, has shopped two sports film projects in the past five years: one an uplifting tale of a young African-American girl who takes her Pop Warner team to the national tournament ( Ice Cube is attached) and another about the beer-swilling, cocaine-snorting 1986 Mets. Guess which one is being made. As for the Mets movie, Santora says, "It doesn't have a chance."
And so Hollywood keeps plugging away with the same old sports comedy-drama-romance hybrids. In 2008 there will be another Ferrell effort, an ABA comedy called Semi-Pro, and a period football comedy titled Leatherheads, which will benefit from having George Clooney as its driving force. An Ernie Davis biopic is slated for October, and Universal Pictures just announced that it's doing the Joe Namath story, starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
Meanwhile, independent sports movies that are worth seeing—such as 2007's Deep Water, about the first around-the-world boat race—get buried despite glowing reviews. One Salt Lake Tribune critic called it "the most fascinating story of self-deception you've never heard of," which raises the question of how someone in Utah managed to see a movie that was released on only 17 screens. And more, like the touching soccer documentary Sons of Sakhnin United, which was a hit with critics at the Tribeca Film Festival, are still looking for distribution. "We are still afloat and punching above our weight," Sakhnin producer Roger Bennett said by e-mail, "but it's a nightmare out there."