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Volume 21 No. 13
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Tribeca/ESPN link gives sports docs a home


The 11th edition of the Tribeca/ESPN Sports Film Festival starts this weekend, an event that has continued to grow in stature and relevance as ESPN Films has gained national acclaim.

“Sports storytelling and sports filmmaking should have a home,” said Connor Schell, ESPN senior vice president and executive producer for original content, reflecting recently on how the festival got its start. “There should be a place where people can go and have conversations about the movies and interact with the filmmakers.”

This year’s festival is the first following the critical success of ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America” documentary, which won an Oscar for best documentary. Among the most buzzed-about films is “Mike and the Mad Dog,” which chronicles Mike Francesa and Chris “Mad Dog” Russo’s breakthrough in becoming one of the most influential voices in New York City and sports media. That feature will later be shown nationally as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series this summer. The film will air on ESPN on July 13.

Schell said that probably less than 20 percent of the movies that have played at the festival have been ESPN Films. This year, ESPN will roll out two feature films, including “Year of the Scab,” which examines the 1987 NFL strike. Outside of ESPN’s programming, the rest of the festival is made up of independent films, as there will be five features total and a handful of short films as part of the festival’s sports programming.

ESPN’s Erin Leyden (far left) co-directed “This Magic Moment,” which played Tribeca/ESPN last year and featured Shaquille O’Neal.
Photos by: ESPN IMAGES
As well as premiering films, the Tribeca/ESPN Festival hosts panel discussions, conversations and events including audio storytelling and podcasting. The event is open to the public and credentialed media. Filmmakers and their subjects are also involved, discussing issues around making movies or trends in filmmaking.

When ESPN began exploring entering the documentary film space more than a decade ago, the network “talked a lot about the idea of how do we create a home for sports storytelling and sports filmmaking,”

Schell said. “At the time, a lot of sports filmmaking in the independent film community wasn’t taken all that seriously. That led us down a couple paths.”

The relationship with Tribeca began as ESPN Films was starting. Some of the films that premiered at the festival in the first few years of its running, like “The Two Escobars,” went on to generate critical acclaim.

The Tribeca/ESPN partnership is a slate of programming within the Tribeca Film Festival, as Tribeca handles everything related to the festival, while ESPN assists with the sports programming slate.

“The relationship with Tribeca was really important in both showing the filmmaking community that we were serious about it, but also helping us create relationships outside of those in the sports world,” Schell said. “The entire point from the beginning was never, ‘Let’s figure out a place where we can show ESPN Films.’ It was always, ‘Let’s figure out a place where ESPN can help shine a light on sports stories that may otherwise not be seen.’”

ESPN in the past has purchased and distributed films that have premiered at the festival, including “Through The Fire,” which profiled a young Sebastian Telfair and debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2004 and later was presented through ESPN Films. But for the most part, that’s not ESPN’s focus.

ESPN also partners with the Tribeca Film Institute on a grant awarded to a filmmaker each year, which includes mentorship and some assistance in financing, said Jenna Anthony, ESPN Films’ associate director for documentary development.

Meanwhile, in June, ESPN Films will debut its “30 for 30” podcasts. The podcast launch will be the subject of a panel at this year’s festival. Made up of three ESPN Films executives, the panel will preview “Dan and Dave Revisited,” which chronicles the 1990s marketing campaign around the world’s two best decathletes. “Dan and Dave Revisited” will be the first podcast to debut in ESPN Films’ new series. ESPN Films is now overseen by Libby Geist, who was recently promoted to vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films and "30 for 30."

John Bauernfeind is a staff writer for sister publication SportsBusiness Daily.