As we all know, the “E” in ESPN stands for “Entertainment,” and the formation of ESPN Films last year was meant to take the network from TV sets to the big-screen. Unlike ESPN Original Productions, which focused on biopics like “3″ and “Junction Boys” and the TV series “Playmakers,” ESPN Films was specifically created to produce feature-length dramatic and documentary films for theatrical release.
But after announcing the planned production of a Jackie Robinson biopic starring Robert Redford as Branch Rickey last year, ESPN Films had been relatively quiet. They had produced documentary specials such as “The Greatest Game Ever Played” and “Black Magic” for the network: interesting, but exactly the same sort of programming ESPN had already been making.
But that seems to be changing, as THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER has word of two new biopic projects that have been given the greenlight by ESPN Films: the story of Jim Jones Jr., the basketball-playing son of the cult leader Jim Jones, and a project based on the life of Louis Mulkey, a championship-winning high school basketball coach who was one of nine Charleston, SC firefighters killed while battling a blaze at a sofa store in 2007.
Both are intriguing stories - even if they do seem a bit…morbid and depressing. For example, Jones Jr. (who ESPN PR person Josh Krulewitz says is consulting for authenticity on the film) only escaped the Jonestown mass suicide because the camp’s basketball team was away playing an exhibition game. And now his son is playing for the University of San Diego. (How do you address that in the team media guide?)
According to VARIETY, ESPN executives decided to move to theatrical releases because focus-group testing showed that while their viewers were interested in sports movies, they (shockingly) were more interested in watching sports events and news on ESPN’s family of networks.
“We did seven or eight movies and three series, and we had mixed results with what we put on our network,” conceded Ron Semiao, senior VP of ESPN content development. “But many (of those in the focus groups) actually said that if there is a sports movie coming out in theaters, and ESPN’s name is on it, that means something to me.”
Of course, nothing can explain the decision to plow ahead with night after night of “The Mt. Rushmore of Sports” segments, but I guess we can’t blame ESPN Films for this. The talent lined up for future projects looks interesting (Spike Lee, Richard Linklater). The question is: with the state of the economy, is this the right time to be launching an ambitious new theatrical film initiative.