If you’re like me, you’re trapped in the house under two feet of snow and you’ve got a lot of time on your hands. So it’s the perfect day to read “The Sports Guy” Bill Simmons’ lengthy treatise on the state of sports movies on ESPN.com. It is an interesting (if a tad long-winded) read but, hey, what else are you gonna do? Shovel the driveway? I didn’t think so.
Simmons begins by identifying what a down year 2010 was for sports movies: besides “The Fighter,” you had the inspirational horse drama (obviously — all horse dramas are inspirational) “Secretariat,” the basketball romantic comedy “Just Wright,” (in the proud tradition of “Forget Paris”) and the “Bad News Bears”-y girls’ basketball movie “The Winning Season” starring Sam Rockwell. The dearth of sports movies, a typically dependable cinematic staple, coupled with all the talk about how hard it was for Mark Wahlberg to get “The Fighter,” led Simmons to wonder how sports movies have evolved over the last few decades.
Though he has a bunch of interrelated points (and I encourage you to go to his entire piece to read them all), the big — and I think quite astute — picture is this: that sports movies thrive on familiarity, while modern mainstream Hollywood’s bigggest selling point is what I would call “enormous newness.” Here’s Simmons:
“The movie industry is battling the same issue as every professional sports league: How do you keep dragging consumers to your theater/stadium when (A) the home experience keeps improving (better televisions, surround sound, Blu-rays, season packages, the Internet), and (B) because we’ve become a nation of multitaskers, some people don’t want to spend two or three hours sitting in the same seat focusing on one thing?
So in essence, with so many entertainment options at our disposal, and so many different ways to consume media, what reason is there for audiences to come to the theater instead of waiting for films to come to them? Hollywood’s answer, at least in the short term, is spectacle: provide a 3D action-o-rama that can’t be replicated even on the finest home theater set-ups (and you better believe the studios are sweating bullets at the thought of 3D televisions catching on). A new movie has to be something you haven’t seen before and can’t see at home: hence, “enormous newness” like “Avatar.”
That makes sports movies like “The Fighter” an endangered species, since originality is anathema to their success. Ironically, since they involve men and women pushing themselves to accomplish nearly impossible physical feats, we like sports movies not because they challenge us, but because they reassure us. As Simmons notes, “We’re so accustomed to seeing every boxing movie end the same way — with our hero winning the big fight — that even though we love having curveballs thrown at us in the theater, it always feels disconcerting if a boxing movie ends unhappily.” He’s right; even the “Rocky” films that end with Rocky losses in the ring involve greater and higher spiritual or moral victories; he goes the distance, proves he’s still got a champion’s heart, etc. Sports movies are cinematic comfort food: we know “Rocky III” isn’t particularly good for us, we know it won’t teach us much about cinematic technique (other than, say, how to make an effective training montage) but, dammit, they make us feel so good.
In a sense, sports movies are victims of their own enormous success. We grew to love sports movies so much, that we could only envision them one way: the “Rocky” way, the “Bad News Bears” way, the underdog-makes-good-and-warms-our-hearts-way. Now when a new sports movie comes out it has to try to distinguish itself in some way to earn our money (and to convince us not to wait two years until it’s playing Saturday afternoons on basic cable to see it) while still fulfilling all of the classic sports movie cliches. The easiest and most common way to do that is to simply change the setting and the sport: from boxing to baseball, from little league to kids’ hockey. But that grows tiresome too. From that perspective, sports movies’ decline was inevitable. What else should we expect but decline if we refuse to let a genre evolve?
With all of these issues, plus the proliferation of good sports documentaries and reality television series, Simmons wonders if we still need sports movies at all. Ultimately, though, he believes “there’s more than enough room for both.” If a filmmaker can “just tell the story and tell it well,” he says, then “the rest will take care of itself. You hope.”
I’m not sure if that’s wishful thinking or resigned sarcasm on Simmons’ part. But “The Fighter” tells a story well, and it isn’t exactly lighting up the box office charts. According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, in one week of limited release and two weeks of wide release, the film has earned about $28 million, decent returns for a relatively small film, but certainly not enough of a hit at this point to reverse the decline in sports movies. Because that’s what it’s really going to take. Not a remarkable story of heartwarming courage that demands to be told on the big screen, or a really inventive take on the old formulas; just cold hard box office numbers. A new sports movie renaissance can only start with one massive sports movie hit. Only then others will follow, like the hundreds of kids who trailed Rocky through the streets of Philadelphia in the training montage to “Rocky II.”