In 1981, soccer legend Pelé teamed with Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine to play a life-or-death grudge match against Max von Sydow’s nefarious team of Nazis. That’s what happened in “Victory,” John Huston’s attempt at combining two global passions: soccer and cinema. However, Huston’s film is a microcosm of an essential problem faced by soccer movies: People want to see them as much as they want to watch a tie-game at a stadium.
Why does the global game have such a hard time finding a global movie audience? There have been movies around international soccer stars (“Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait”), international movie stars (Gael Garcia Bernal in “Rudo y Cursi”), internationally renowned teams (“Real: The Movie”) and even world-renowned film companies (Disney’s “The Big Green”). Adidas got into the action with the “Goal” trilogy, a series that barely made it into the third installment. Soccer documentaries have fared a little better, but soccer and cinema have yet to have a runaway success story.
Dylan Leiner, executive VP of acquisitions & production for Sony Pictures Classics, and “Goal Dreams” filmmaker Jeffrey Saunders are now approaching this often-maligned merger through a more interactive angle: They’re bringing the film world into the game rather than bringing the game into the movies.
“Dylan and I have parallel pasts,” says Saunders. “He is a distributor, I’m a filmmaker and over the years we’ve run into each other consistently at film festivals. We noticed that the subject of our conversations skewed more to soccer than film and we started hashing up our plan to merge the two together.”
Their plan was realized last weekend in the inaugural edition of NYFEST, a day-long soccer celebration held in conjunction with the Tribeca Film Festival. The event featured an industry tournament, a freestyle juggling competition, a clinic for kids and a celebrity match featuring a number of personalities from the sports and entertainment worlds. The best part: All proceeds went to charity. “We really wanted to figure out a way to create a bridge between the film world and the soccer world, using all that energy to help benefit underprivileged kids,” Saunders says.
Says Leiner, “Sports and film are an incredible bridge between people and they build fast friendships. The people I’ve met through soccer and film have often become lifelong friends and acquaintances all over the world. This is an opportunity to bring these two things together.”
The idea was realized in a short span of time; their conversations began last November and by December they’d already met with Tribeca. They saw the 10th edition of the New York-based festival as the perfect locale to launch their new project.
“Soccer is such an international game, such an international draw, that we wanted to use it as an opportunity to get a lot of friends and colleagues together,” says Leiner. “We knew we are going to get people not only from L.A. but also from other countries. We also knew that Tribeca has a particularly strong marketing team that could help us get the word out about the event and they also have an affinity for sports through their relationship with ESPN.”
Tribeca received the idea with open arms. “This is great. It’s something that came out of the blue around three or four months ago, so I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the organizers,” says Geoffrey Gilmore, chief creative officer of Tribeca Enterprises. “I think [it fits in] with what we’ve done with this year in the festival when it comes to the sort of conversations we’re having: dialogues about distribution platforms, our online section, gaming and cinema becoming a new narrative form — it’s the sort of approach we look forward to.”
NYFEST’s celebrity game was the most bizarre part of the rain-soaked afternoon in Manhattan’s West Side. NBA star Steve Nash held his own alongside experienced soccer ex-pros, entertaining the crowd with flashes of skill throughout the match. The biggest surprise, however, came when John McEnroe showed up in full soccer gear, playing alongside teammates who included multiple former members of the U.S. National team. In case things got rough between “Johnny Mac” and the game officials, the tennis champion knew he could count on another teammate, mixed martial arts expert Anderson Silva, to get whatever call he wanted. As it turned out, McEnroe didn’t need any help from the officials after scoring the first goal of the game off a magnificent header, despite the best defensive efforts of Ethan Hawke.
The industry tournament was hard fought, with a number of teams from the entertainment world battling for the cup. The tournament was organized in such a way to foster rivalries; “The Colbert Report” faced off against “The Daily Show,” while CAA battled it out with Gersh and Paradigm, and companies like Fotokem squared off against Technicolor and Deluxe.
Although indieWIRE wasn’t present at this year’s edition, the office is already looking forward to playing the likes of Variety (if they agree to not put in their paywall as goalkeeper), Moviefone (if they can find enough players) and Deadline Hollywood (if they show their face) at next year’s event.