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After a shoulder injury cut Mark Ciardi’s professional baseball career short — the pitcher made it to the majors for a few games with the Milwaukee Brewers in 1987 — he set his sights on Hollywood, where he led off by producing a film about his onetime teammate Jim Morris. That movie, The Rookie, became a huge hit for Disney, and Ciardi has since produced a successful run of real-life sports dramas including Miracle, Invincible and Secretariat. But, the producer notes, in recent years major studios have lost interest in his genre of choice.
He has spent more than a decade trying to tell the story of Ray Ray McElrathbey, a former Clemson University football star who started secretly raising his 11-year-old brother while in college. “We came close a few times but couldn’t get it made,” says Ciardi. When Disney+ was announced, the game changed. McElrathbey’s story, which is being directed by Reginald Hudlin, is part of the fledgling streamer’s first slate of original features.
Like the romantic comedy, the real-life sports drama fell out of favor at the box office — and consequently off studio slates — in the mid-2010s. But an upcoming batch of projects signals an impending resurgence, buoyed by the rise of streaming and diverse stories.
“The heyday of sports movies was the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s,” says Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com. The genre proved a winning midbudget model at the domestic multiplex, with movies like 2000’s Remember the Titans ($115 million on a $30 million budget), 2009’s The Blind Side ($255 million gross on $29 million) and 2013’s Chadwick Boseman-led Jackie Robinson biopic 42 ($95 million on a $40 million budget). Since then, tentpoles and franchises have taken over schedules as sports dramas saw diminishing returns. Disney’s 2015 title McFarland, USA, earned $45 million, while Focus Features’ 2016 Jesse Owens biopic Race grossed $19.2 million.
But streamers, says Ciardi, are ideal for the sports drama, a genre with a long shelf life. “My films over-indexed when they went into these second windows,” he says. “People who might not drive to a theater will watch them at home, and will watch them a lot.”
In May, Netflix put into development a feature about the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup soccer team. Two months later, it announced a movie about Jessica Watson, the youngest person to sail solo and unassisted around the world. In January, Walt Disney Studios president of production Sean Bailey told THR, “On Disney+ we have the ability to make a range and a kind of movie that we stopped making for the theatrical marketplace.”
The renaissance isn’t strictly via streamers, though. Taika Waititi is helming Fox Searchlight’s Next Goal Wins, the story of the struggling American Samoa national soccer team’s quest to qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Warner Bros. is working on King Richard, which stars Will Smith as Richard Williams, the father and coach of tennis icons Venus and Serena Williams. And Zachary Levi will star in Lionsgate’s American Underdog, about Hall of Fame QB Kurt Warner, produced by Ciardi.
“We’re living in a time where people are looking for inspiration and hope,” says Robbins of one reason for the return. “Sports movies have always been able to fill that void.”
The genre has long focused on white male athletes and coaches, but now is seeing more stories about female and nonwhite sports stars. In June, Will Packer Productions announced that a project it had been pursuing for years is finally happening: a biopic on Doug Williams, who in 1988 became the first Black quarterback to win a Super Bowl. “Maybe five or 10 years ago wasn’t the time to tell Doug’s story. But now it is,” says Packer president James Lopez. “It’s about the life of the Black quarterback and how it has evolved in the NFL. It’s not lost on us that you can draw a straight line from Doug to Colin Kaepernick.”
The banner is also teaming with Universal on One and Done, a sports drama involving historically black colleges and universities. The story, which the banner has been developing with writers Chad Sanders and Chris Spencer since 2019, draws inspiration from an ongoing conversation in athletics. Says Lopez, “A top-ranked high school player committing to an HBCU has been talked about for years.”
In a case of life imitating art, days after One and Done was announced, on July 3, top high school basketball prospect Makur Maker committed to Howard University over UCLA, becoming the highest-ranked hoops player to choose an HBCU. Lopez notes, “When Chad and Chris brought the idea in, I thought, now is the time for this movie because it is going to happen. And then it did.”
This story first appeared in the July 31 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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