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Few Sports Films Make A Hit

First Look at the Studios

August 14, 1986|DAVID T. FRIENDLY | Times Staff Writer

While writing "Hoosiers," the story of a tiny Indiana high school's improbable journey to the state basketball finals, screenwriter Angelo Pizzo kept a small placard above his word processor. It read: "This is not a sports movie." To Pizzo and director David Anspaugh, "Hoosiers" was really about characters and relationships. Basketball was simply the backdrop.

Still, Pizzo and Anspaugh knew that "Hoosiers" (opening this fall) would be a tough sell, and indeed it was. All the major studios passed on the project before Hemdale Film Corp. and Orion Pictures agreed to finance and distribute the $6.5-million movie. "They (the other studios) all told us the same thing," Pizzo said: "Sports movies are box-office poison."

Hollywood has long had a love-hate relationship with sports films. There have been literally hundreds made--from classics like the 1942 "Pride of the Yankees" to the four box-office champion "Rocky" films ($761 million in box-office receipts). But as a rule, sports movies have a poor batting average.

Strikeouts are commonplace and home runs are rare. For every "Chariots of Fire" ($60 million in domestic ticket sales), there is a "The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh" (1979 box-office bomb) or this year's "The Best of Times" (a dismal $7.8 million in ticket sales). "I don't want to make movies with balls bouncing in them," Michael Eisner, then president of Paramount Pictures, once reportedly told his creative team. Conventional wisdom says the true appeal of genuine sporting events (as opposed to the movie version) is in their real-life spontaneity--the uncertainty of the game's outcome. The book on sports movies says that women, usually the decision makers on what movie a couple will see, don't care about movies about jocks.

Los Angeles Times Sunday August 24, 1986 Home Edition Calendar Page 63 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
In his article on sports films David T. Friendly erroneously put Jack Nicholson in an acting role in "Drive, He Said," when, as Marvin Jones of Los Angeles points out, Nicholson actually directed and co-wrote the 1972 film.

It took producer Albert S. Ruddy five years to get Paramount to make "The Longest Yard," the 1974 picture about a football team formed on a prison yard. The movie made Burt Reynolds a star and grossed about $60 million, according to Ruddy. "If I hadn't been just coming off of 'The Godfather' (Ruddy produced it), they never would have made it," Ruddy said. "The prevailing wisdom was that American audiences see real football three times a week so why should they pay five bucks to see a mythical game on the screen?"

In 1974, "The Longest Yard" which featured one of Reynolds' best performances, helped inject new life into what was becoming a questionable genre at the box office. Other football movies preceding "The Longest Yard"--like the 1969 "Number One" and "Paper Lion" (1968)--did not attract large audiences.

But "The Longest Yard" struck a nerve and remains popular. It has been shown on prime-time TV five times and still draws good ratings, according to Ruddy. "That movie defied all the odds," said Frank Yablans, who was president of production at Paramount when it was made. "Prison films and sports movies are never supposed to make money."

The '70s was a decade dense with sports cinema. As technologies improved, a gritty realism both in sound and pictures came into play. One could almost feel the hits in "North Dallas Forty" (1979, with $26 million in ticket sales), still considered the most realistic portrayal of life in the NFL. It was also a decade for the lighter sports movie like the 1976 surprise smash "The Bad News Bears," which took in $32.2 million. (Two "Bears" sequels didn't do nearly as well.)

But when they miss, sports movies are sometimes completely shut out. When they fail, it's often because too much attention has been placed on the sport itself, which sacrifices the story line. "There is nothing implicit in sports that will guarantee a winner or a loser," Ruddy said. "It's just a marvelous tapestry in front of which to place a story. But you've got to have a good story."

Studios have practically created a genre of sports stories about stars whose careers are threatened by disease. "Brian's Song" (a well-received 1970 TV movie that did have a theatrical run); "Ice Castles" (1979), and "The Other Side of the Mountain" (1975) all capitalized on this theme, with mixed box-office results.

When all else fails, studios often rely on star power to boost a movie's box-office performance, but big names are no guarantee in the sporting game. Jack Nicholson couldn't make the 1972 "Drive, He Said" into a winner and Goldie Hawn failed as a football coach in this year's "Wildcats."

Rookies are sometimes a better choice. One of the many pleasures in the upcoming "Hoosiers" is that all but one of the players on the basketball team are Indiana youths who are real basketball players making their screen debuts.

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