When ESPN’s highly acclaimed “30 for 30” documentary “O.J.: Made in America” won the best documentary Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards, it was the happy ending director Ezra Edelman and his crew hoped for after two years of making the film and over a year promoting its airing on ESPN and unconventional Oscar-qualifying theatrical release.
But for ESPN Films’ senior vice president and executive producer Connor Schell, it was quickly back to business. Though the network’s seven-and-a-half hour documentary that used the incredible rise and fall of football hall-of-famer O.J. Simpson to explore issues of race and class in Los Angeles garnered unanimous esteem within the industry and the network’s first-ever Oscar, ESPN Films isn’t through telling unique stories from the sports world.
“We’re trying to continue to push and evolve the genre and come up with new ways to tell stories and new voices to tell them with,” Schell told Business Insider.
ESPN Films’ newest endeavour is a podcast. The “30 for 30 Podcast” was announced at this year’s SXSW and will look at stories that don’t necessarily fit in movies or short film form.
“There have always been stories that we thought were really interesting but unable to bring to life visually,” said Schell, “and so this opens up this whole new type of story we can tell.”
Launching in June, the first season will look at topics like the landmark “Dan & Dave” advertising campaign by Reebok that focused on decathletes Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson in the lead-up to the 1992 Summer Olympics (however, the campaign had to drastically change when O’Brien failed to qualify for the Olympics), and the first all-women’s team to make it to the North Pole.
Each episode will have a run time of 30-40 minutes and will be released weekly. Season 2 should be released in the fall.
But ESPN Films’ bread and butter is still its non-fiction films, and there are some anticipated ones coming up including a documentary on Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari, “One and Not Done” (premiering on ESPN April 13), a doc on the legendary talk radio duo Mike & the Mad Dog (airing in July), and one on iconic pro wrestler Rick Flair (tentatively scheduled for September).
The Mike and the Mad Dog documentary is particularly special for Schell and many at ESPN as it’s a project they have tried to make since Schell and former ESPN columnist Bill Simmons started “30 for 30” back in 2007.
“It was something that we thought about for a long time,” said Schell. The documentary will have its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in April. “They are legendary figures in sports talk radio, in many ways they created the genre, so to be able to tell that story I think is really excited.”
Schell says there are also a few big ideas similar in scope as “O.J.: Made in America” that he has kicking around. Though he was coy about what those actually are, he did hint at one: a project with Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (who made the “30 for 30” documentary “Catching Hell” in 2011 that looked at the Steve Batman incident during Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series at Chicago’s Wrigley Field) on athletes’ obsession with physical excellence.
“This is a project we talked to Alex about for literally several years and we’ve recently moved forward,” said Schell. “It’s a multi-part series about performance and the limits of performance and the evolution of the pursuit of perfection with the human body. I think it’s a bit of a departure for us that will be less narrative storytelling and more first-person scientific journalism almost. I’m really excited about that on the horizon.”
Though Schell admits he’s up for exploring almost anything under the ESPN Films banner, one thing he has no interest in is whenever Simpson is released from prison. Simpson is currently serving a 33 year prison sentence in Lovelock, Nevada for felonies including armed robbery. He could be released as early as October.
“I think what Ezra was able to do with ‘Made in America’ was explore all of these incredibly rich and important themes about our country and the criminal justice system and race and the city of Los Angeles — O.J.’s story was a cipher to take you to all of these interesting places,” said Schell. “I’m not sure where that goes from here.”
“One of the incredible luxuries of being tied to a dynamic news organisation is that it’s covering everything that needs to be covered every single day, and that’s a key reason ESPN Films has been successful,” Schell added. “There’s no story we have to tell.”
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