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Beyond ‘O.J.:’ How ESPN Became The Most Powerful Platform for Docs To Make a Difference

ESPN won their first Oscar last night, but Ezra Edelman's masterpiece isn't their first film to tackle big issues and reach a huge audience outside the liberal bubble.

"OJ: Made in America"

“OJ: Made in America”

ESPN

“We’d been kicking around the idea, ‘How do you tell the story of 50 years of American history through O.J. Simpson,” for a little while,” said Connor Schell, senior VP and executive producer, ESPN Films and Original Content, who started the “30 for 30” project with Bill Simmons 10 years ago.

READ MORE: Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast: ‘O.J.: Made in America’ Director Ezra Edelman on Making an Eight Hour Oscar Contender (Episode 11)

In a media empire with multiple cable channels (ESPN, ESPN2 ESPN3 ESPNews ESPNU, ESPN on ABC, ESPN Deportes, ESPN Classic, along with regional speciality sister outlets), a massive sports talk radio network, and website dedicated to covering the latest n the sports world, “30 for 30” has a unique and important place in the ESPN ecosystem. By producing an enormous library of documentaries, it supplies the network with quality programming that can fill the gaps between live sporting events and news coverage for their multiple 24-hour-a-day cable channels.

“A big premise of what we’re doing is to tell evergreen stories,” said Schell. “Stories with a beginning, middle, and very clear ending point that can live in re-airs over a long period of time. One of the things I’m proudest of our library is you can air something like ‘The Two Escobars’ [a 2010 documentary about Pablo Escobar and Colombian soccer team] tonight and it’ll feel new.”

In a sense, it’s the antithesis of current media culture that focuses on chasing the big buzzy story and what can break through a cluttered media landscape. “30 for 30,” on the other hand, diversifies ESPN’s breathless up-to-the-minute programming and has become something their dedicated audience has come to discover and explore over time.

Schell says ESPN Films needs to be extremely choosy in the stories they pick to ensure they don’t feel like they are repeating themselves.

Venus Williams Ava DuVernay's "Venus Vs"

Ava DuVernay’s Doc about Venus William (“Venus Vs”)

ESPN Films

“From a development standpoint, we get pitched an incredible amount of stories from filmmakers and athletes, and the one question we always say is, ‘So what?,'” said “O.J.” producer Libby Geist, who is the vice president of ESPN Films and one of four in-house producers, each of whom oversees the production of approximately five documentaries a year. “Your coach was really great, or remember that big game, but what’s the second layer? That’s the differentiator with us, why did that matter? How did that big moment affect the culture around it?”

For both Geist and Schell, the filmmaker’s point of view is often the key to reaching that second layer. Having worked with Edelman on two previous projects, the director seemed like the perfect candidate to tackle the larger cultural element to Simpson’s story.

READ MORE: Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey Discuss ’13TH’ in Upcoming Netflix Special – Watch Preview

“Ezra took that idea, made it his own, and authored it so far beyond what we thought was possible,” said Schell. “Is the power in the idea or the execution? We’ll argue every time that it’s more about the storyteller than the story itself.”

Baked into Schell and Simmons’ original premise for the doc series was attracting top filmmakers by collaborating on the premise, then giving them autonomy. The result is a roster of Hollywood’s biggest directors: Judd Apatow, Barry Levinson, Albert Mayles, Peter Berg, Barbara Kopple, John Singleton, Ice Cube, Alex Gibney, Nelson George, in addition to Lee, DuVernay, James, and others.

“We don’t just say, ‘Hey, this director wants to do this, let’s do it,'” said Schell. “It’s a dialogue and that conversation gets to interesting places.”

Renee Richards, Transgender Tennis Star

The story of Renee Richards’ battle to enter the 1977 U.S. Open as the first transgender tennis player is told in “Renee”

ESPN Films

As Steve James finished his groundbreaking “Hoop Dreams” — the first documentary Schell and Edelman saw in theaters — the filmmaker’s father told him about an amazing high school athlete, Allen Iverson, from their hometown of Hampton, Virginia. In 1993, fortunes changed for 17-year-old Iverson during a bowling alley brawl partially caught on video. Allegedly, the fight stemmed from the yelling of racial epithets; Iverson was accused of striking a white woman.  The star athlete was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and was eventually pardoned by the Governor after serving four months.

“This was an athlete that, before the bowling alley incident, 10,000 people would show up at the Hampton Roads Coliseum to watch him play a high school basketball game, but as soon as that incident hit, it cleaved the community in a profound way,” said James. “A lot of the assumptions and underlying negative feelings towards him, that were racially motivated, came to the fore.”

James was instantly drawn to the story, but didn’t have the money to start filming and he was deep in the process of finishing “Hoop Dreams.” He always held onto the story and, 15 years later, he pitched it to ESPN.

“At first they weren’t so sure they wanted to do it, because they as a network they felt like — and this is true — they covered this when it all happened,” said James. “I came back and said what I want to do is go back, all these years later, and revisit this. And not to try to figure out what did he do, or if he was really guilty, but to look at why it cleaved my hometown to the degree it did. They liked that it would kind of turn it into a semi-personal journey.”

For Edelman, who grew up in DC and whose favorite athlete is Iverson, “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson” highlights how sports can open the door for a documentary.

“You see that really isn’t a sports movie, that’s a Steve James film,” said Edelman. “You can tell it’s made by the same guy who made ‘The Interrupters’ [James’ masterpiece about the effort to end Chicago gun violence].”

Steve James shooting "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson"

Steve James shooting “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson”

ESPN Films

While “The Interrupters” is one of James’ most celebrated films, “Hoop Dreams” and the Iverson doc have reached a far wider audience.

In the first three months “No Crossover” was on ESPN, it was seen by 9 million unique viewers. In the seven years since then, it has played twice on ESPN (averaging just over 600,000 viewers each time), once on ABC Sports, eight times on ESPN U, 10 times on ESPN 2, and 106 times on ESPN Classic, as well as on DVD and streaming.

Tim Horsburgh, director of communications for Kartemquin Films, the Chicago-based non-profit that produces social-issue documentaries (including James’ films), was a new employee when “No Crossover” premiered in 2010.

READ MORE: Kartemquin: Taking A Look Back at 50 Years of Great Documentary Filmmaking – Exclusive

“[The night of the premiere] was my first time running the social media during a TV national broadcast of a Kartemquin film,” said Horsburgh. “We had not anticipated how much interaction from there would be from the Twitter audience; it felt like it grew as the broadcast went on, from people who were obviously more basketball fans to being a large, diverse group of viewers, discussing race in America while relating that their judgments of Iverson were being upended.”

James laughs about it in retrospect, remembering how in the late ’80s he couldn’t raise funds for “Hoop Dreams” because sports weren’t seen as a sufficiently serious topic. One executive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting went so far as to tell him that if one of his two teenage subjects in “Hoop Dreams” were to become a drug dealer or be part of a violent crime, possibly murdered, maybe then he’d have a story.

From Schell’s perspective, ESPN is in a unique position: It can offer filmmakers the ability to reach a traditional arthouse crowd, while crossing over into a broader audience that doesn’t normally seek out documentaries.

READ MORE: Arthouse Audit – Oscar-Contender ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ Soars, ‘The Comedian’ Dies

Edelman agrees. “You have these people who otherwise might not communicate with one another in the world, who all share the experience of watching ESPN and otherwise wouldn’t engage with a documentary or this subject matter in different forms, but because there’s a universality to sports there’s that subversive aspect — it’s almost like the only place where this actually would work to get the proper absorption of this material is on ESPN,” he said. “Because every other outlet in some form — whether it has an elite aspect to it, or it’s a political bent — arguably alienates some section of the audience when tackling a topic like race.

“Seriously, can you name another platform like that?” Edelman asks. “I can’t.”

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