Los Angeles:ESPN Inc. dominates sports on television. Now, the cable heavyweight is making a run at the big screen.
ESPN said it would collaborate with Creative Artists Agency and Walt Disney Studios to produce and distribute theatrical films with sports themes. “We see this as a new way to reach sports fans and engage them,” said Keith Clinkscales, ESPN’s senior vice-president for content development. “A lot of people who spend time being engaged in ESPN also spend a lot of time going to the movies.”
Movies will be financed by Walt Disney Co., which owns ESPN, outside investors, or a combination of these. ESPN executives declined to comment on financial elements, except to say budgets would vary by project.
The self-proclaimed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” is on a mission to tap into new areas of growth as it faces challenges in its core operations.
But ESPN must also battle the exploding amount of sports video on the Web. Recently, ESPN has been hiring sports journalists to strengthen its bench of pundits while retooling its approach to live streaming video on the Web and mobile devices.
As it moves into filmed entertainment, ESPN also needs to be careful not to damage its symbiotic relationship with sports leagues. It is a risk the network knows all too well. In 2003, ESPN programmers drew flak from the National Football League for Playmakers, an effort at a drama series that depicted steroid use.
Clinkscales points to ESPN’s recent experience with scripted television as evidence that the new entity, ESPN Films, will succeed. The channel’s eight-part miniseries The Bronx Is Burning, shown last July, was praised by critics. A 2004 made-for-television movie about the late NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, 3, drew raves along with stellar ratings.
“We believe this represents a big score for sports fans and moviegoers alike,” said Richard Cook, chairman, Walt Disney Studios. He noted that Disney has had success with such sports-themed movies as Remember the Titans.
Bringing Creative Artists into the fold signals ESPN's seriousness to Hollywood, Clinkscales said. The agency, a leading talent representative, has in recent years expanded aggressively into sports representation, picking up clients like Peyton Manning, David Beckham and LeBron James. In addition to helping to line up financing, Creative Artists may also place its athlete-performers in the films.
Close watchers of ESPN know the network has been ramping up its filmed entertainment efforts for some time. Last year, it helped create the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival to showcase the genre, and the company in January acquired Kicking It, about street soccer players, at the Sundance Film Festival.