The Success of Ford v. Ferrari Cements the Triumphant Return of the Sports Movie

With the Academy Awards approaching, producers are hoping that the success of Ford v Ferrari will open up doors for similar sports movies to get made.

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Each and every year, between five and ten films compete for the illustrious prize of Best Picture at the Academy Awards. This year, one of those films is Ford v Ferrari, a highly acclaimed movie about American car designer Carroll Shelby and British driver Ken Miles, as they try and build a revolutionary race car from Ford to beat Ferrari at the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1966.

In the last ten years, since the Academy increased its nominees in the category from five to a maximum of ten, just three sports movies have found themselves within an opportunity to take home The Oscars' top prize.

The entertainment industry has changed in the last decade, as Hollywood continues to churn out sequels, remakes, and superhero movies faster than Disney acquires companies. That leaves less room for original ideas, and even less room for movies about sports.

In the era of cinema prior to globalization, sports movies were once a popular staple. Sports was unscripted, it was dramatic, and it created storytelling moments that were magical and majestic. The best sports movies are often about the underdogs, the ones who turn the impossible into the possible. The ones that make our jaws drop and leave us in awe. Needless to say, sports movies, especially based on real events, were the perfect garden for Hollywood to pick from.

In the last decade that has changed. Underdog stories in sports have now become the underdogs when it comes to big box office draws like Marvel, Star Wars, and Disney. Forgotten are the movies rooted in reality that once inspired us, that moved us, that showed us what courageous superheroes looked like before Batman and Superman.

Sports movies are often critically successful, but not at the box office. The main reason for the decline in the production of sports movies is the big business that has become the international box office. Soccer is a global sport, baseball and American football are not. Often times, American sports don't perform well internationally. It is because of that, that studios shy away from sports movies, and even if a sports movie does get a green light, the budget is often a fraction of the size of other films on their slate.

“We are looking at the numbers for these movies pretty hard, and we don't have the cushion that may have been there in the past,” said Sean Bailey, President of Production for Disney in a recent interview.


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Take a movie like 42 for example. The Jackie Robinson biopic is the second highest grossing baseball movie in America with gross sales of $95 million. It was made on a shrunken budget of $40 million, still considered widely successful for Warner Bros, the studio that distributed it. However, the movie made just $2.4 million internationally.

Despite the fact the movie was profitable, it wasn't a "grand slam" to purposely use a sports idiom. Another Warner Brothers film, Joker, was made for a similar budget of $55 million. However, it grossed over $335 million domestically and over twice that internationally, for a total haul of over a billion dollars. That's a profit of nearly 20 times its original budget.

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Joaquin Phoenix attends the premiere of Warner Bros Pictures "Joker" on September 28, 2019 in Hollywood, California.

“It's more difficult to make any movie now, but sports movies are as difficult as they come because they are hard to travel with,” Erica Huggins, president of Imagine Entertainment, told The Wrap.

Additionally, most sports movies have a target audience of men ages 25-50. In the era of esports, men under the age of 25 would rather stay at home and play video games like Madden or NBA 2K, than head to the movie theaters for their sports entertainment.

One person familiar with the struggle of getting sports movies made is producer Luca Miano, an alumni of the American Film Institute. Miano has multiple sports related projects in his portfolio, including the award-winning screenplay Chasing 4:00. The story is about Roger Bannister, John Landy, and Wes Santee's quest to become the first person to break the four-minute mile in the 1950s.

“This is an inspiring character-driven story about underdogs, human relationships, and love," said Miano, who optioned the rights to the script in 2018. "It's about people fighting with courage against their darkest demons and deepest fears… and sometimes in our lives fear involves physical pursuit. Although, you don’t have to love running or be an expert in the field to cheer for Roger Bannister. Stories like this grab hold of your heart immediately and never let go”

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Roger Bannister about to cross the tape at the end of his record breaking mile run at Iffley Road, Oxford. He was the first person to run the mile in under four minutes, with a time of 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. (Photo by Norman Potter/Central Press/Getty Images)

Miano says he's been met with hesitation and pause from distribution and financiers who don't see sports movies as good investment opportunities when it comes to the box office returns.

“I’ve been shopping Chasing 4:00.0. for over a year between Hollywood and London, and most of the time, I receive the same answer by executives and agents: 'This is a great script and story, however today it is very hard and difficult to get made. A period piece about sports?  No, thank you.'"

Miano and others like him are hoping that has all changed with the recent success of Ford v Ferrari,

Ford v Ferrari suffered from the same set of setbacks that has plagued sports movies over the last decade. The film originally landed at 20th Century Fox in 2013, but after two different screenwriters and directors, the project was shelved until James Mangold revived it in 2018.

Similar to the same excuses Miano was hearing from executives and agents, Ford v Ferrari suffered before production ever began because of the preconceived negative notions that have afflicted most sports movies in the last decade. It's a period piece, meaning the production budget would significantly increase compared to a story that takes place in modern times. It's about sports, in this case, the world of race car driving, and is a predominantly male cast with a male target audience.  

However, Mangold fell in love with the story and believed in the project. He got the green light from 20th Century Fox after he delivered them previous successes with The Wolverine and Logan, so once he was able to get Matt Damon and Christian Bale on board, the studio took the risk and gambled nearly $100 million on the budget.

The gamble paid off, as the movie became both a critical and box office success, racking up over $115 million domestically and over $105 million internationally.

The movie has gone on to receive four Academy Award nominations and has already won multiple Satellite Awards and technical awards for its editing and sound mixing.

Not since 2009's The Blind Side, has a sports movie been this successful both critically, at the box office, and on the awards circuit. The Sandra Bullock drama about the real-life story of football player Michael Oher, grossed over $300 million at the worldwide box office, albeit over 80 percent of it coming from domestic ticket sales alone.

Regardless, the movie went on to make over 10 times its original budget of $29 million, and landed Bullock her first Oscar for Actress in a Leading Role.

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Actress Sandra Bullock attends the premiere of "The Blind Side" at the Ziegfeld Theatre on November 17, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

Miano is hoping that Ford v Ferrari will take home some hardware at the Oscars on February 9, 2020, and that its success at the box office will open up doors for more sports movies to be greenlit like Chasing 4:00.

"After the success of Ford v Ferrari at both the domestic and global box office, in addition to the accolades its racking up during the award season, I'm confident that the stigma in the industry surrounding sports movies will finally change," he said.

At the end of the day, Miano wants all movies, not just sports movies, to be judged on the quality of their story and their ability to inspire, not whether or not people will watch it in China. He believes that if you tell the best story you possibly can, it will attract all audiences.

"I'm attracted to characters, and their frustrations. I love stories about underdogs," said Miano. "I've always been an underdog and I'm sure most people in the world feel like underdogs. Underdogs are the ones who are not supposed to win; at school, at work, in sports…at life. They dare to dream big and work had to achieve the impossible. That is why people are drawn to movies like Ford v Ferrari, and that is why people all around the world will be drawn to a story like Chasing 4:00."

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