In a new effort just recently launched, ESPN will show 30 original documentary movies over the next year. Titled “30 for 30,” the new series will include films from high-profile directors such as Spike Jonze, John Singleton, Albert Maysles and Peter Berg (creator of the NBC show “Friday Night Lights”). Each film focuses on a notable sports event of the director’s choosing from the past 30 years. In the past few years, ESPN made a handful of documentaries that have recieved high ratings. The sports channel has plans to make two movies to be released in movie theaters, one on Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi and one on baseball star Jackie Robinson.
ESPN is in the early stages of looking at going beyond movies for its own channel and making movies that would be shown in theaters, says Keith Clinkscales, ESPN senior vice president of content development. ESPN has launched a division called ESPN Films which showed two of the documentaries—Mr. Berg’s “King’s Ransom” and Mr. Levinson’s “The Band That Wouldn’t Die”—at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival for the first time and finalized a sports film festival with The Tribeca Film Festival, called Tribeca ESPN Sports Film Festival.The goal of the documentaries isn’t necessarily to bring in more viewers. “While I’m interested in people who don’t watch ESPN, we have the yeoman’s work with the people who do. You want to make sure you don’t take the ones who come to your party for granted.”
Many of the “30 for 30” films deal with smaller subjects and moments in sports rather than the big-ticket games and big-name stars that are ESPN’s bread and butter. One movie focuses on the creators of fantasy football, for example, and one is about the demise of the short-lived United States Football League. Filmmaker Barry Levinson focused on the wistful band leader for the Baltimore Colts, who continued to lead the band long after the team had left the city for Indianapolis. When he initially pitched the story to ESPN, Mr. Levinson says he was concerned that it didn’t fit the ESPN mold.John Dahl, ESPN executive producer of the documentary series, says the network was attracted to the “mix of sports and culture, a topic personal to the director, and something that touches on at least one larger theme of the era.” What do you think?