Frustrations with sports movies

THE GAME OF MY LIFE - Bill Velasco - The Philippine Star

There is a lot of buzz about two new sports programs being streamed internationally, both about the glorious history of the Los Angeles Lakers. The first, HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” was highly anticipated. However, when Lakers greats like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson criticized the dramatization of their era of the Lakers, the excitement waned. The two NBA All-Stars complained of unwarranted embellishments in the story. The second, the documentary series “Legacy: The True Story of the LA Lakers” showing on Hulu, is considered somewhat more faithful, if not as colorful. It includes interviews with a legendary list of LA’s greats, but was somewhat tainted because of the involvement of Lakers owner Jeanie Buss as executive producer.

In the Philippines, we envy content of this kind, both the recreations and documentaries. For the most part, sports movies are cheap, low-brow vehicles for comedians or former basketball players to break into movies. There were some attempts at serious TV series like “Manila Files” with Robert Jaworski roughly 40 years ago, but they didn’t really focus on the sport.

Throughout the last half-century, there were some decent attempts at “sports movies.” Fernando Poe Jr.’s “Durugin si Totoy Bato” cast 1969 Mr. Universe runner-up Roland Dantes as the antagonist boxer. In 1988, Golden Lion Films’ “Kambal na Kamao: Madugong Engkwentro” brought together world champion boxers Rolando Navarette and Rolando Bohol as small-town pugilists. In 1990, FPJ cast several PBA players as fellow taxi drivers in “Minsan May Isang Tsuper ng Taxi. In 2003, he teamed up with Efren Reyes for “Pakners” in 2003. Many of these films, however, challenged one’s suspension of disbelief.

Frankly, the genre is very challenging as a whole. In Time magazine’s original list of 100 greatest movies, “Raging Bull” was the only sports entry. Sports films are rarely nominated for major awards, and occasionally win technical awards, where they are on even footing with other genres. As early as 1931, “The Champ” won Oscars for Best Original Story and Best Actor (Wallace Berry). But it was Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky” (1976) that first won for Best Picture, along with Best Director and Best Film Editing, before it was followed by “Chariots of Fire” in 1981. It took another 23 years before Clint Eastwood’s “ Million Dollar Baby” duplicated their feat. Lastly, Kobe Bryant’s “Dear Basketball” won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 2015. That’s how hard it has been for sports-themed films to earn respect.

There are two polar-opposite challenges to making a good sports film. If the subject is relatively recent, people assume familiarity and nit-pick. If the topic is far removed historically, the story needs to be extremely compelling to draw audiences in. Boxing is the big winner in terms of sports films, mainly because the story can center around one person. And since the boxing ring is elevated, crowd scenes can be “cheated.”  It becomes much more challenging to do team sports and big events as backdrops, like the Olympics, NBA, and so on.

However, there is hope. Local movie producers are more open to international distribution. Streaming services offer an alternative platform for release. New mergers like HBO and Discovery will soon operate in the Philippines, and will need local content. As we often say, it only takes one to start.


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