ESPN enlists top helmers

Lee, Linklater, others do docus for 2009 and beyond

ESPN is pacting with a slew of A-list filmmakers, including Spike Lee, Richard Linklater and Davis Guggenheim, for an ambitious series of documentary projects.

The network, which is expanding into the docu space with the creation of a program titled "30/30," will pair a filmmaker with a sports topic close to his or her heart. Each director will make an hourlong docu that will be broadcast, likely on Tuesdays, beginning in fall 2009 and continuing during the course of the next year.

"The intention is to get the best storytellers in the entertainment business, find personal attachments to a particular personality or a particular event in sports history and find a specific way to tell the story," producer Michael Tollin said. The subjects will come from the past 30 years.

Tollin, who is behind a number of sports-oriented television series as well as theatrical hits like "Wild Hogs," will advise on the slate and direct a docu of his own. His project will center on what he describes as the "fun and high-spirited irreverence" of the U.S. Football League, the grand but doomed 1980s experiment to create an alternative to the NFL.

The docus also might be packaged on DVD.

Regarding the other filmmakers who have signed on, Linklater likely will examine aspects of the Rose Bowl. The indie auteur has a history of sports projects, directing the 2004 remake of "The Bad News Bears" and working on a docu about University of Texas baseball coach Augie Garrido.

Guggenheim will explore a childhood sports hero of his; the "Inconvenient Truth" director, who grew up in the 1970s, declined to identify the icon but said that the hero was "misunderstood," and like "Truth," the movie would be an "extremely intimate portrait of a person we thought we knew."

"Often, sports stories are told in very worn-out ways," he said. "The beautiful thing about what ESPN is doing is (they are) letting you tell a story in the way you want to tell it."

Lee's project has yet to be determined; the director is an avid basketball and New York Knicks fan.

The move is part of a larger push by ESPN into theatricals announced Monday that includes the network's retaining CAA to package films and locate source material and further brings together the agency's sports and entertainment clients.

For ESPN, the plan continues the net's foray into docus that kicks off this month with Dan Klores' "Black Magic," a four-hour miniseries about Civil Rights-era basketball programs at the country's historically black colleges. It also reflects a growing ambition by cable networks to work with top-tier filmmakers, particularly on the documentary side; A&E and Discovery Films have growing docu slates and made high-profile sales at January's Sundance Film Festival.

ESPN is drawing from some high-profile film-world expertise for its docus. John Sloss' Cinetic Media will serve as a consultant on "30/30," advising ESPN on everything from filmmaking to marketing.

"This is very different from the concept of 'SportsCentury,' " Sloss said, referring to the countdown of the century's greatest athletes that aired on the net circa 2000. "It's going to be an extension of 30 visions of very established filmmakers who have an appreciation of sports in general and have a personal story they want to tell."