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Volume 21 No. 1
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NFL goes all in on ‘Draft Day’

Anyone paying close attention at the NFL draft in April may have noticed something was not quite right.

One of the draft prospects walking around looked just like Texans running back Arian Foster.

During breaks in the proceedings, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could be seen emoting away from the ESPN and NFL Network cameras, as if he were in a Shakespeare play.

Running back Arian Foster arrives on the red carpet at the NFL Draft as character Ray Jennings.
Photo by: Dale Robinette / Courtesy of Summit Entertainment
Representatives manning the phones at Radio City Music Hall for the 32 NFL clubs wore the same clothes during the draft for three straight days in New York.

Turns out Radio City wasn’t only the site of the 2013 NFL draft; it simultaneously served as the set of a movie titled “Draft Day,” starring Kevin Costner and directed by Ivan Reitman, expected to be released by Lionsgate in 2014.

It can be argued that in the history of cinema, there has never been more cooperation between a major U.S. sports league and a major motion picture studio than the filming of “Draft Day.” The fictionalized movie focuses on 36 hours around the Cleveland Browns making a draft selection. The NFL’s consent was not just essential to the producers’ goal of making the film authentic — “Draft Day” would not have been green-lighted without it.

“The fact is, without the NFL’s blessing, production never would have started,” said Ali Bell, one of the film’s producers. “It couldn’t have been done without them, and they turned out to be the best partners we ever could have hoped for.”

The producers started their approach to the NFL last August with a pair of phone calls to Tracy Perlman, the league’s vice president of entertainment marketing and promotions. The first was an appeal from Reitman, well-known for directing hit films such as “Ghostbusters,” “Stripes” and “Kindergarten Cop.” According to Perlman, Reitman said he wanted the movie to be “authentic to the core” and he wanted to tell movie studios that the NFL was on board.

The other call was from Costner.

“It was memorable,” Perlman said. “He told me that this script needed to be made into a movie, that he really wanted to be in it, and that he hoped the NFL would work with them because it had the potential to be great.”

Costner also showed his passion for the project by traveling to London to make his pitch to NFL Chief Marketing Officer Mark Waller during the Patriots-Rams game at Wembley Stadium last October.

As all sports leagues require, the NFL wanted assurances that the league and the game would be reflected well before signing up to cooperate.

“Leagues are protective of their brands and want to vet everything,” said Chip Namias, a former PR executive with three NFL teams and now the president of Los Angeles-based Athlete and Event Sports Public Relations, which has worked on “Draft Day” and other sports films. “For the NFL to go to the lengths it did to allow access to its people, its teams and its marks, assurances were needed.”

Three months after Perlman was first contacted by the producers, and after script reviews by many NFL executives, including some from the legal department, the NFL decided to give unprecedented access to Reitman and his crew. Goodell was kept informed each step of the process and approved the small part he plays in the production.

“The story of the movie goes far beyond football and is more about personal relationships,” Perlman said. “We embraced the project.”

The NFL made suggestions to improve authenticity. For example, a team official played by Jennifer Garner originally was slated to be at Radio City Music Hall for the draft, but the league pointed out that in reality she would be at the team’s “draft war room” back in the team’s city, not actually at the draft.

Scenes have been shot in the offices of several NFL clubs, including the Browns — who feature most prominently in the film — the Jacksonville Jaguars, Seattle Seahawks, Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans. The league controls all national deals when it comes to team trademarks, and all team and league marks were made available. The original script centered around the Buffalo Bills, but Ohio offered tax breaks for the production that made Cleveland a more affordable option.

Actor Frank Langella portrays fictional Cleveland Browns owner "Harvey Molina."
Photo by: Dale Robinette / Courtesy of Summit Entertainment
As a bonus to NFL sponsors, including General Motors, Pepsi and Gatorade, their products will receive visibility in the movie at no cost.

“These are our exclusive partners,” Perlman said. “If NFL people, places and marks were going to be utilized in the movie, our sponsors should be part of it, too.”

The three days of the draft in New York were referred to by Reitman as “guerrilla filmmaking.” The NFL was not going to stage a fake draft at Radio City Music Hall once the real one concluded. Everything that Reitman needed had to be done at the draft.

“There was no time for re-shoots,” Perlman said.

Among the draft scenes was a fictional exchange between NFL Network broadcasters Rich Eisen, Deion Sanders and Mike Mayock about a draft choice made in the movie. Reitman urged the trio to throw the script out and improvise. When they did and Reitman said “Cut,” he also added, “That was amazing.”

So was the performance of Foster, who beat out more than two dozen actors to play the supporting role of Ray Jennings, one of the draft picks. To this point, Foster’s acting career had been limited to a cameo on the new version of “Hawaii Five-0.” Eagle-eyed fans at Radio City were confused to see the 26-year-old Foster, well into a superb NFL career, anxiously waiting to be “drafted.”

The final scenes of “Draft Day” were completed last week. The film will be in theaters next year, although a specific date has yet to be decided. Lionsgate is considering dates when it can best optimize publicity from the NFL season.

“Draft Day” will not be the easiest movie to sell. It does not feature a bankable star in his prime, the kind of actor who can “open” a movie. But neither did “42,” which starred Chadwick Boseman in the leading role of Jackie Robinson and went on to gross nearly $100 million in the U.S. and make a huge profit. Boseman is also in “Draft Day.”

What Bell and the rest of the producers of “Draft Day” believe their movie has in common with “42” and “The Blind Side” — another rare sports movie hit, with over $250 million in domestic grosses — is a story that transcends sports. What separates “Draft Day” from the rest is the high level of cooperation the film received from the major sports league it depicts.

“I don’t have a sports movie on my desk right now, but I’d love to work with the NFL again,” Bell said. “It has been an incredible experience. We think we have something special with this movie.”