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NEW YORK – With its popular 30 for 30 documentary film series having finished, ESPN Films is opening its next chapter.
Starting this week, it will create a weekend destination on the Walt Disney-owned sports powerhouse’s ESPN Classic network, which already focuses on showcasing classic games, moments, stories and personalities in sports history. Dubbed ESPN Films on Classic, it is designed to become the regular home for long-form sports storytelling.
Plus, ESPN Films also plans to launch this fall an annual documentary film series on the flagship ESPN channel that will continue to showcase films that follow the 30 for 30 parameters, but that will be shown under the moniker ESPN Films Presents. The company hopes this will ensure an ongoing relationship with filmmakers and give it a chance to continue telling sports stories, which will later move to the ESPN Classic weekend destination.
30 for 30 was inspired by ESPN’s 30th anniversary and featured films from big-name filmmakers, such as as Barry Levinson, Spike Jonze, Peter Berg, John Singleton and many others.
This upcoming fall’s series will feature six films with future years expected to have six to eight. Among the films planned for this fall are Sign Here by Morgan Spurlock about sports agents and the sports business and 2011 Tribeca Film Festival documentaries Catching Hell by Alex Gibney, about the Steve Bartman incident and the broader topic of sports curses and scapegoats, and Renee by Eric Drath about tennis player Renee Richards who underwent sex change surgery to become a woman. They will also include boxing-themed The Bayonne Bleeder by Jeff Feurzig and a yet-to-be-named film about Chris Herren by John Hock.
This weekend, ESPN Films, which was launched in 2008, will debut ESPN Films on Classic and showcase sports films for 50 hours each weekend starting at 10pm EST every Friday through midnight Sunday. The target audience is sports fans, casual or otherwise, whose interests go beyond news and analysis, and people interested in films and entertainment.
Connor Schell, executive producer, ESPN Films, said the 30 for 30 series exceeded all expectations and therefore led the company to look for a way to continue in the same vein. “We managed to draw in an audience and develop the trust that we would present good stories,” he explained.
“One of the things that make sports storytelling so captivating is that when a pivotal moment happens, it is almost instantly considered ‘classic’,” said Keith Clinkscales, senior vp, content development and enterprises at ESPN. “With 30 for 30, we were able to prove that classic sports stories resonate with a large and diverse audience, so our intent with ESPN Films on Classic is to create a permanent destination for this genre. We feel this is a natural brand extension for ESPN Classic, which already features documentary and historical programming.”
ESPN Classic averaged 20,000 viewers in primetime in the first quarter and 24,000 in the fourth quarter of 2010, according to Nielsen data.
Films from the 30 for 30 series were among the highest rated documentaries on ESPN. The final installment, Pony Exce$$, which aired in December, drew a 1.79 rating. ESPN Films later aired The Fab Five in March, which drew above a 2 rating.
But the new ESPN Classic home for ESPN Films product is less about viewer numbers and more about giving ESPN Films and 30 for 30 fans a specific destination they can regularly turn to.
“We feel that 30 for 30 represented an evolution in how we tell sports history at ESPN,” Schell explained. “We feel that with this kind of indie spirit we can also bring in new fans that our filmmakers bring to the table.”
The schedule for this launch weekend of ESPN Films on Classic includes two movies from the 30 for 30 series – June 17th 1994 from director Brett Morgen, which documents how the New York Rangers’ celebration on Broadway and Patrick Ewing‘s fight for a championship were over-shadowed by O.J. Simpson‘s chase in LA, and and Kirk Fraser‘s Without Bias about Len Bias since the weekend marks the 25th anniversary of his death.
The weekend schedule will also feature game 5 of the1994 NBA Finals between the Rockets and the Knicks, which took place during the Simpson car chase, and the 1986 match between Maryland and UNC featuring Bias. Additional debut weekend programming will include a mix of content produced by ESPN Films along with acquired content, according to the company.
Beyond the 30 for 30 series, ESPN Films also owns a catalog of other films, including hundreds of its own titles, such as Once in a Lifetime, Through the Fire, Black Magic and Lost Son of Havana. But the unit has also acquired more than a dozen films, including Hoop Dreams, Kings of the Ring, Endless Summer and Running the Sahara, narrated and executive produced by Matt Damon.
ESPN Films will also look for further acquisitions that fit its focus on long-form sports narrative and complement existing content. “Acquisitions will play a key role in our programming plan for ESPN Films on Classic as we know that some of the finest storytelling in this genre comes from independent filmmakers and this new approach allows us to create an on-air film festival for our own documentaries as well as others in the field,” said Schell.
How will the company evaluate the success of the new weekend program offerings?
Clinkscales said his team will take a holistic approach. Beyond pure ratings, filmmaker connections, the ability to curate and acquire films and the chance to provide innovative programming are all key, he explained. “This initiative helps us expand our tent and adds to our ability to talk to our audience in many different ways,” he said.
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