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Volume 23 No. 13
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Telling the stories behind sports

We caught up with the writers, directors and producers behind some of the most memorable sports documentaries, series and films about how they approach their craft and what they are working on next.
Photo: endeavor
Photo: endeavor
Photo: endeavor

MICHAEL ANTINORO

The five-part “Being Serena” HBO documentary provided unprecedented access to Serena Williams during her pregnancy, new motherhood and marriage, with producer Michael Antinoro noting the first-person portrait speaks to the humanity of one of the greatest athletes of all time.

“She was truly authentic and truly vulnerable,” said Antinoro, who is senior vice president of programming and production for Endeavor Content. The unique perspective taken to show Williams’ journey as a woman allowed Antinoro to tell the compelling piece he wanted.

While there are no current sports projects in the works for Antinoro, he remains intrigued by the possibility of working with Colin Kaepernick if he would be willing to share his story.

Photo: marc bryan-brown photography
Photo: marc bryan-brown photography
Photo: marc bryan-brown photography

AARON COHEN

Aaron Cohen’s credits as a writer/producer include ESPN’s “30 for 30” series and HBO’s “Being Serena” and “24/7: The Road to the Winter Classic.” Cohen, who runs his own Patent Seven Productions, has a shelf full of Sports Emmys that let him prioritize the type of projects to undertake. He sees the growing trend of storytelling from the athlete’s perspective as the next wave of sports content. “If you went to a bookstore and looked at the sports shelf, you’d see a lot biographies and a lot of autobiographies,” he said. “There’s a version of that that totally works for television with the athletes telling the story.” Cohen is working as a writer and producer on the SEC Network’s “Saturdays In The South,” series on the history of the conference. It debuts Sept. 3.

Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images

JASON HEHIR

“The Fab Five” is one of ESPN Films’ most popular documentaries, and one that illustrates director Jason Hehir’s desire to convey sports figures’ humanity.

“I remembered them as cocky,” he said of the famous Michigan hoops team for which he now has a fond appreciation. Hehir credits Jalen Rose’s influence on the film and has enjoyed watching him parlay its success into his own career at ESPN.

Expect to see plenty of big names recalling the glory of the 1990s Chicago Bulls in Hehir’s next project, “The Last Dance.” “When Michael Jordan calls, people pick up the phone,” he said.

The 10-part documentary produced by ESPN Films and Netflix will premiere next year.

Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images

JONATHAN HOCK

Jonathan Hock strives to find the story beyond the game, which is why the director was intrigued with telling the stories of the defeated Soviet hockey team from the 1980 Olympic Games in “Of Miracles and Men,” one of his five “30 for 30” films.

“The Russian hockey players couldn’t believe that we really wanted to talk to them about what they went through,” Hock said of his work on the 2015 film.

Hock is happy to have Stephen Curry on as executive producer of his next project, “Benedict Men,” which chronicles a New Jersey prep program. “It’s harder to get people’s attention without a famous athlete attached to the project,” he conceded.

Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images

MAURA MANDT

Maura Mandt has had a front-row seat to watch the ESPYs grow over the years. As a longtime executive producer on the show, she has worked with hosts ranging from Peyton Manning to LeBron James. “Whenever we work on a comedy piece with an athlete, it’s great to see the growth in their willingness to be a part of something that’s a little outside their normal comfort zone.” Mandt, who directed the 2016 Ben Simmons documentary “One & Done” for Showtime and is working on another documentary series for a streaming service, said it’s natural for athletes to take more creative control of their media projects.

“A lot of these athletes have grown up in a digital era, where they have access to storytelling at the tip of their fingers,” she said. “That wasn’t the case a generation ago. They’re adapting like the rest of the world. They’re taking the fan and the viewer with them.”

Photo: Courtesy of Fritz Mitchell
Photo: Courtesy of Fritz Mitchell
Photo: Courtesy of Fritz Mitchell

FRITZ MITCHELL

Fritz Mitchell often looks at his documentaries for ESPN, IMG and a number of other entities through a historical lens. The 60-year-old Vermont-based freelancer is known for his “30 for 30” installments “Ghosts of Ole Miss” and “The Legend of Jimmy The Greek,” and has won multiple Peabody and Emmy awards.

Mitchell relishes research, reading and digging up information, but he never forgets that documentaries are a visual medium.

“You try to transport yourself back to that time period,” he said recently. “I try to make people feel something a little more special than just a Wikipedia story.”

Look out for his next project, a history of SEC football called “Saturdays In The South,” which he directed and which will air on eight consecutive Tuesday nights this fall.

Photo: Courtesy of Michael Ratner
Photo: Courtesy of Michael Ratner
Photo: Courtesy of Michael Ratner

MICHAEL D. RATNER

Michael D. Ratner, whose previous works include ESPN "30 for 30 Shorts" film "Gonzo @ The Derby" and Netflix' "One in a Billion," jumped at an opportunity to merge multiple passions of his into what was then a white space in the industry — a hybrid of comedy and sports content.

With the success of the digital series “Cold As Balls” with Kevin Hart, the director/producer at OBB Pictures sees a potential shift in the way content creation is viewed.

“That the new TV show win could be in the form of a wacky, fun, interview-style show that ranges 10-15 minutes and is released online shows that technology and new media is totally changing the game,” Ratner said.

Ratner has a documentary in the works on a collegiate team that he cannot yet reveal.

Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images

KEN RODGERS

Ken Rodgers has been a staple at NFL Films since 2001, and this summer he’s filming the latest iteration of HBO’s “Hard Knocks” with Jon Gruden and the Oakland Raiders. He also directed three ESPN “30 for 30” films, as well as the “Do Your Job” documentary series on the New England Patriots for NFL Films. Where does Rodgers see sports storytelling going in the near future?

“Athletes creating media content is only good for the industry and for NFL Films,” he said. “We love the idea of partnering with them. Working with them has never been an oddity for us, and having them credited as a producer doesn’t scare us.”

Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images

ALFRED SPELLMAN

Miami is a central part of Alfred Spellman’s identity. He’s never lived more than three miles from the hospital where he was born. Two hit documentaries that Spellman made with childhood friend Billy Corben — “The U” and “Cocaine Cowboys” — don’t exactly paint their hometown in a positive light. 

“They’re twisted love letters to Miami,” Spellman said.

The duo built trust with their subjects by letting them tell their life stories on-camera, and in the first person. With 2.3 million viewers, the premiere of “The U” in 2009 set a record at that time for a documentary on ESPN.

Among Spellman’s new projects is a documentary on late WWE star Randy “Macho Man” Savage that is in post-production and is scheduled to air next spring on A&E.

Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images

MIKE TOLLIN

An increasingly critical component in Mike Tollin’s extensive body of work has been pro-social impact, best exemplified through his “Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream” documentary.

The Aaron family, MLB and former Braves owner Ted Turner helped endow a foundation named after the 1995 film, which debuted on TBS and has since given out $20 million in grants to disadvantaged kids.

“As a big baseball fan, to interview a hundred or so hall of famers and U.S. presidents to tell that story and have it still resonating, for me, that’s the gift that keeps on giving,” Tollin said.

In addition to producing the “The Last Dance,” the upcoming Netflix/ESPN series on Michael Jordan, Tollin has a few projects currently on tap, including a film adaptation of “The Art of Fielding” that is in pre-production.

Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Weiner
Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Weiner
Photo: Courtesy of Bentley Weiner

BENTLEY WEINER

If anyone can get fans excited for a big event, it’s Bentley Weiner. The HBO Sports vice president and senior producer has worked with countless superstars — Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Pacquiao, Tiger Woods — while overseeing the “24/7” series. She is intrigued by today’s media-savvy athletes becoming content creators themselves.

“It’s always great to have new storytellers,” Weiner said. “Fans are winning by having athletes be more direct and more transparent.”

HBO’s “Lindsey Vonn: The Final Season” is set for a November release, and Weiner praised the skier’s openness during the project. “She gets what was needed to make a special documentary,” she said.

Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images
Photo: getty images

MICHAEL AND JEFF ZIMBALIST

Michael and Jeff Zimbalist grew up with a social worker mother and a father who was a Latin America-focused economist. The parents’ influences are clear in the brothers’ Emmy and Peabody Award-winning body of documentary work, which includes Netflix’s music-focused series “ReMastered” and the ESPN “30 for 30” segment “The Two Escobars.” Their productions often use soccer or music to highlight marginalized South American or Caribbean communities.

“What happened inside the stadium walls was sort of an extension of what was happening in society at large, a mirror of culture and society, and we really love that,” said Michael Zimbalist. 

Jeff, 41, and Michael, 39, are writing and directing a scripted series about the Ali Summit, focused on Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Malcolm X and the FBI. The series doesn’t have a release date yet.