ESPN '30 for 30's' Connor Schell Talks World Cup 'Soccer Stories,' O.J. Simpson Chase (Q&A)

 Courtesy of ESPN

Since its launch in October 2009, ESPN's groundbreaking series 30 for 30 has become renowned for tackling controversial topics and recounting sports history from unique perspectives.

Tuesday marks the 20th anniversary of O.J. Simpson's infamous white Ford Bronco chase across Los Angeles, and the confluence of that day's breaking news and unrelated high-profile sporting events was the topic of a film from the first series of 30 for 30 titled June 17, 1994

The original concept of chronicling 30 stories from the "ESPN era" of the past 30 years has since expanded to over 75 films, including the latest collection, Soccer Stories (which aired during the run-up to the World Cup).

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The first 30 for 30 film, Kings Ransom, about Wayne Gretzky's move from the Edmonton Oilers to the L.A. Kings, attracted 645,000 viewers when it premiered in 2009. The latest installment, Bad Boys, about the Detroit Pistons teams of the late '80, opened to 1.8 million viewers this April. 30 for 30 also nabbed the Outstanding Sports Documentary Series award at the 2014 Sports Emmy Awards in May.

Connor Schell, executive producer and vp at ESPN Films and Original Content, told The Hollywood Reporter why even with the phenomenal success of the series, his mantra — along with co-executive producers Bill Simmons and John Dahl — is always, "If we tell a really good story then people will ultimately find it and appreciate it."

How has 30 for 30 embraced the excitement over the World Cup?

 

The soccer series was a bit of a new model for us as we carved out a miniseries within the series and organized it around a specific sport to capitalize on the premier sporting event in the world. We didn’t tell stories specifically about the World Cup [in films such as Hillsborough, Ceasefire Massacre and The Opposition], but hoped that when people began to get invested in it they would appreciate these subjects more. We deliberately rolled them out on the air a couple of months before the tournament to get people in the mindset of these great international soccer stories — to live, breathe and re-air on Netflix, our on-demand platforms and across our international networks. The overall premise of trying to tell really unique, evergreen stories is the exact same as with our other films but just centered around international soccer.

Could this spinoff model work for other sporting events?

The World Cup is unique in its global impact, but it could work for other things such as college football as it is very replicable. We are continuing to try and innovate within this series — 30 for 30 Shorts was a very logical move, Nine for IX had the same ethos — and I think Soccer Stories is a step forward as we try different approaches to the nonfiction documentary form.

How does 30 for 30 convey the impact of historical events like the O.J. car chase?

June 17, 1994, which Brett Morgen did four years ago for us about the O.J. Simpson car chase, remains one of my favorite films. Brett is a master of how he uses archives, and it was such an innovative way to tell a story that everyone is familiar with in a different way. The premise of that film is that everything in the sports world was happening that same day — the NBA Finals between the Knicks and the Rockets, the victory parade for the New York Rangers, Arnold Palmer's final U.S. Open, and the World Cup opening in Chicago — so it is a great collision and juxtaposition of news events. 

Brett's approach was to take you back to that day because everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing, and he told it in such a way, using only archival footage, that was completely immersive, so you were able to appreciate what was happening through the personal experience of that event. It is all about this day in the sports world when everything happened at once, then right in the middle of that was O.J. Simpson.

We are very mindful of telling sports history to a younger audience. When we tell stories grounded in the '80s and '90s, there is a large percentage of viewers that weren’t born then, or it was before they were aware of what was going on in the sports world. Some of them didn’t even know the Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan story. If you are 18 years old, why would you? That is an incredibly satisfying thing to be able to do. 

Which are your other personal favorite films?

My answer to what my favorite film is changes all the time, but just recently Hillsborough and Bad Boys were creatively two of the best projects we've ever done and we were so proud to air those two films in the same week to showcase the breadth of the stories and the different nature of storytelling we are capable of in this brand. They are wildly different films about completely different subject matters — one is fun and at the core of American sports culture, and the other is an incredible piece of journalism about this tragic event in sports history that Dan Gordon brings to life in an emotional way. Another favorite is The Two Escobars, as it told of an incredible event and how it related to a larger societal issue. 

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How do you respond to high-profile news stories such as the Donald Sterling scandal?

We have the incredible luxury of existing within an organization that has such an amazing news and information enterprise that is covering everything that is happening in sports, so there is no story that we have to tell. We are lucky that you are going to get the best coverage on the Donald Sterling case on OTL, ESPN NewsSportsCenter or Grantland.com, then we get to take a step back and say, "Let's have five or 10 years pass and look at this with real perspective on what this means and how to tell it." 

With approximately 2,245,000 videotapes in the library at ESPN's Bristol, Conn., campus, how do the archives help portray these historic events?

The archives are an enormous asset. It is a secret ingredient that brings so much of this to life as this organization has been covering sports for more than 30 years. We have production assistants who are in our library assigned to the archival research so they can immediately identify all the relevant material that ESPN has documented over the years and how it played out in the moment with field tapes, interviews, game film, et cetera. We also have the living history of the people who work here, so we are able to speak with the director who was there that night or the reporter who broke the story. It makes [the films] all the more authentic, so to be able to tap into that is incredible.

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Will you do more digital content now that you're under the umbrella of Marie Donoghue's Exit 31 group with Simmons' Grantland and Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight?

We absolutely love the digital form for these stories. I think it is incredibly creatively freeing not to have to live by traditional television formats and to be able to tell a story that could be seven minutes, or 17 minutes, or 29 minutes. You can take different approaches and really drill down into moments of time, so I think you will see us fill out our digital storytelling across Grantland and FiveThirtyEight significantly.

Has there ever been a topic that you've thought was too controversial? 

We are always looking to tell important cultural stories throughout sports, and the bar is always, "Can we be honest and can we be interesting?" I don’t think we’ve ever looked at anything and said, "This is too extreme, we can’t do this." 

How do you find these projects and directors?

We try really hard to create and identify new voices and take a lot pride in finding second-time filmmakers at film festivals who have a diverse point of view, and then seeing if they have a sports story to tell. Sometimes someone at ESPN suggests a story and we find a director for that, or someone calls us up and says they have a great idea. We are huge believers that great ideas can come from anywhere, so it is all about having new conversations and trying to find as many more new and diverse voices as we can continue to reinvent this genre. We have been privileged to work with such an incredible list of talented directors and have had great working relationships with every single one of them, but we also want to keep innovating and find the next great storyteller — so we need to strike the right balance.

What is next for 30 for 30?

The series comes back in the fall and we will air seven films between October 1 and the end of the year, including When The Garden Was Eden [Michael Rapaport's documentary about the Knicks, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival], and a film with Jonathan Hock about the Russian hockey team, telling the "Miracle on Ice" story from the other side. We're also working on a sequel to The U, which is interesting to make a sequel to a documentary.

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