In a town that needed something to believe in, sits an unlikely hero ready to beat the odds, to go for gold and prove that life is more than a game. And next to that kid (preferably played by a young Dennis Quaid or Omar Epps) sits a sleazy Hollywood producer ready to exploit the triumphant tale and provide a run-of-the-mill look at the athletic tale. Movies like Glory Road, Remember the Titans and Invincible offer interchangeable plots and cliché characters that rotate through the cinematic genre. In an effort to give aspiring producers a comprehensive manual to further the demise of quality films, the following is an easy step-by-step guide to making a stock sports movie.
Interesting is always nice, but inspiring is usually the best way to go. Starting out with a washed-up, last chance, comeback-seeking character (The Rookie, Bull Durham or Rocky) is always a winner. It lets every former high school football player in the audience believe that the Dallas Cowboys may call during his break at Kinko’s to fill in at the Super Bowl.
Lovable losers are also a nice touch (Bad News Bears, Mighty Ducks or Hardball). It’s crucial to make sure every single character in the film is presented as having been given up on in some way immediately after the opening credits roll. The characters are usually a collection of misfits and fat kids who have no business anywhere near a field unless they’re mowing it. That is, of course, until a new coach teaches them how to believe in themselves and win some games.
For the mature audiences, the ever-popular “it was more than a game” script is usually a winner (Gridiron Gang, Miracle, Pride or Glory Road). The key here is to throw an ungodly amount of tragedy or external turmoil at the characters early in the movie only to have a brave protagonist and inspirational speech end racism in a small town, save the community center or prove that Iceland is not the dominant hockey power Emilio Esteves previously believed it to be.
For the Oliver Stone crowd, there’s also the “riveting look at the true nature of sports” plot (The Program, Raging Bull or Any Given Sunday). This will often involve sex, drugs and Dennis Quaid butchering the role of an aging star. While these movies often prove to be as realistic as Brendan Fraser throwing a 114 mile-per-hour fastball in The Scout, they do let kids know that money is more important than winning and guys who take steroids get the hottest chicks.
To the romantics out there, please avoid using sports as a backdrop for a love story. In theory it’s a great way to get men, women and teenage girls into the same theatre, but in reality it turns into a steaming pile of Nicholas Cage that leaves the audience craving a cliché Dennis Quaid flick. Watching Freddie Prinze Jr. walk off the mound in the middle of a perfect game to make out with the chick from 7th Heaven at the airport in Summer Catch may have been the single worst moment in the history of film. This travesty narrowly edged out the awkward love scene between Kevin Costner and John Travolta’s wife in the straight-to-airplane release of For the Love of the Game.
Perhaps the only thing worse than the marriage of love and sports is casting comedians to mildly alter their intellectual prowess to play retarded athletes (Waterboy or The Ringer). Not that laughing at the Special Olympics isn’t fun, but doing it in a public theatre is sort of awkward and always good for a protestor or ten at the premiere.
Small towns are a must (Friday Night Lights, Varsity Blues or Hoosiers). In order to create a sense of desperation, have the community face tough economic times and have already lost, or be in danger of losing, the mill, plant or factory that every white trash hayseed local whittles away at. The residents, who often abuse alcohol or minorities, put their last hopes in a local team whose state championship inevitably leads to the town once again becoming prosperous. This is often achieved through some sort of odd bet made between a confederate-looking gentleman and a seedy, but lovable hustler (Diggstown).
Inner-city-based movies are also a solid choice. They give white moviegoers the chance to observe urban settings from a safe distance and explain the trials and tribulations of less fortunate kids to their country club friends. A high school with metal detectors or baseball team playing in the projects (Coach Carter or Hardball) provide an “impossible to succeed” setting that’s perfect fodder for formulaic films.
Characters and Casting
The reluctant hero who tugs at the heart and wins the big game (Varsity Blues, Cinderella Man, The Rookie or Invincible) is always a crowd favorite and a riveting tale. Though James Van Der Beek’s half-autistic, half-Texan portrayal of Johnny Moxon was more comical than inspiring, Mark Wahlberg would also be an excellent choice for this sort of typecasting.
Every hero needs a leader too, and there’s nothing better than the hard-nosed coach to do it. Often plagued by his own inner demons, this inspiring character takes a team of losers and turns them into champions through training, life lessons and a series of slow-motion montages (Coach Carter, The Express or We Are Marshall). Of course, formulaic superstar Dennis Quaid is great as the loving coach who helps his players learn a lot about life beyond the game, while Samuel L. Jackson is ideal for the angrier bench boss who ends up having the biggest heart of all.
The washed-up star with one last chance to achieve glory and make his family proud is never a bad character to include. Outside of the Brett Favre-esque retirement rollercoaster of the Rocky series, The Rookie and Cinderella Man work beautifully. Once again, if Dennis Quaid is willing to put The Alamo Part 2 on hold, he always delivers a nice performance and if the audience is able to suspend reality and believe Russell Crowe is able to throw anything other than a telephone, he is a suitable back-up selection.
Perhaps the most crucial character of any cinematic foray into sports is the funny fat kid. Often playing the wise-cracking goalie, happy-go-lucky catcher or comedic offensive lineman (Mighty Ducks, The Sandlot or Remember the Titans), this character adds invaluable humor to the plot and delivers a misguided message to fat kids in the theater that they might one day be anything other than tuba players and A/V club secretaries once they enter high school.
Overcoming the odds is a key plot point for any movie. This can be achieved through rallying around an injured star (Varsity Blues and Friday Night Lights) or breaking stereotypes and spitting in the face of small towns and small minds (Glory Road, Pride and to a lesser extent, The Air Up There).
Often the defining victory comes against a team that has previously beaten the protagonists at the start of the film, and is likely comprised of players resembling Detlef Schrempf and Dennis Quaid.
Before the win, the main character must have a tumultuous moment of self-discovery that leads him to understand just how much a victory will mean to his team, town, family and also, improve his chances at nailing the superfluously sexy 27-year-old model with zero acting ability who has been cast to play a high school cheerleader.
During the big game, without fail, the protagonists’ team will fall behind and appear on track to once again lose to the unbeatable foes that destroyed them before their mid-film montages and spirited turnaround. That is, of course, until the inspiring half-time monologue featuring the coach’s “win or lose, you’ll always be champions in my book” speech (Hoosiers, Glory Road, Any Given Sunday and once again, Remember the Titans).
At this point, the crowd gets behind the team and they begin to mount a comeback relayed via another montage set to Green Day or Foo Fighters’ songs. (Gridiron Gang, Any Given Sunday and Hoosiers)
Eventually the main character will be faced with one last chance to win in the fourth quarter, third period, ninth inning or 12th round. And every single coach knows without a doubt that a gimmicky, long-shot trick play is the way to go. (Team members must pass to the obese lineman, triple deek on the penalty shot or walk across the finish line holding the bobsled above their heads.)
Once the trick play succeeds, the celebration ensues. The goofy main character will celebrate with the sexy cheerleader while the funny fat kid awkwardly dances as his breasts jiggle with excitement. (Varsity Blues, the Replacements and Necessary Roughness).
If the character has overcome an exceptional amount of travesty or accomplished the impossible, it is appropriate for him to be carried off the field or be given an endorsement deal by the evil corporation threatening to shut down the town mill.
The end of the game is also the time for the evil dean, racist opposing coach or sexy-but-malevolent female team owner hoping to move the Indians from Cleveland to get their comeuppance.
Scripts win Oscars, but marketing sells tickets. The right slogan can make the difference between Field of Dreams and The Legend of Bagger Vance (which, for the record, had the awful slogan of: “Some things can’t be learned, they must be remembered.”)
Conversely, Rudy, one of the greatest sports movies ever, boasted the tagline: “When people say dreams don’t come true, tell them about Rudy,” which placed it in the hearts of every American sports fan and made it the gold standard of cheesy but effective marketing.
Field of Dreams told fans: “If you believe the impossible, the incredible can come true,” a line later reused by American Idol and the Louisiana penal system.
In order to get fans in the seats and secure the sequel, a good slogan is crucial.
With these easy to follow instructions, $30 million in production money and a green light from a major studio, making a formulaic sports movie is as easy a phone call to Dennis Quaid. Grab a camera, have some fun and make sure to spend no more than 30 minutes on the script. Trust us, it’s the industry standard for sports movies