There's no sport in America as widely watched as professional football. The highest-rated show in primetime for many weeks during the season is NBC's “Sunday Night Football,” postseason games can notch 50 million viewers and the Super Bowl is, well, the Super Bowl.
So why did barely a million people turn out to see "Draft Day," Ivan Reitman's adaptation of a Black List script about real teams and fictional players that, with the significant contributions of the NFL, takes us behind the curtain of how a pro team is run?
The Kevin Costner pic, which failed to hit $10 million at the box office this weekend in losing handily to "Captain America" and other films, isn’t alone. It faces the same question that applies to "Leatherheads, "Gridiron Gang," "Invincible" and many other football movies in the last decade. Tens of millions of people tune in to the sport on TV every week, yet only a small handful of them turn out to see movies about it. When it comes to baseball and boxing -- two far less popular sports -- the hits have come with some regularity, even in recent years. Yet America’s national TV obsession has trouble drawing people to the big screen
(The notable exception, of course, is "The Blind Side," the offensive lineman-sized hit from 2009, but even that movie’s popularity seemed to stem as much from its inspirational qualities as it did anything football-related, and may as well have been able to tell a similar story to hitmaking effect in any of a number of major professional sports.)
Some of “Draft Day’s” struggles are specific to this film. Despite the NFL’s cooperation, this isn't a football movie per se, not when it comes to in-game action. Studio Summit shrewdly tried to capitalize on the NFL’s blessing, and the wealth of footage that came up with it, by showing in TV spots pieces of visceral in-game footage. But there isn’t really any on-field NFL play in the movie. It’s a board room drama cloaked in the garb of a football film, and it’s not clear the appeal of that goes beyond the most hard-core pigskin devotees.
But the challenges this film faced also tie in to larger cultural hurdles faced by football movies. The game has been amazingly successful as creating a sense of investment -- local fans are as die-hard as they come, and of course there’s the game’s real engine of popularity, fantasy play, which gives people an outsized stake in outcomes others would find prosaic. But this all makes a fictional football movie, which has none of that, a trickier proposition.
The same can’t necessarily be said of movies set in other sports. Boxing has trafficked in the kind of big-screen drama that works independent of any personal connection; you don’t, say, have to be a fan of Mickey Ward or even know who he was to love “The Fighter.” And it’s a different animal from baseball, which has a long history of great films, from “The Natural” to “The Bad News Bears,” about teams and players that are entirely made up..
“Draft Day,” on the other hand, may have told the story of the real-life Cleveland Browns, the logo and setting all very much real. But unless Chadwick Boseman is going to suit up and help you win the Super Bowl, fans of the Cleveland Browns or any other team might not exactly be motivated to see a movie about them.
The NFL took the rare step of cooperating with Hollywood in “Draft Day.” Here’s hoping the league, and studios, keep up that level of interest. Football is a sport designed for screen viewing; it's rife with cinematic drama. But the idea that it can be the stuff of a mainstream multiplex hit is shown, after weekends like this, to be something of a Hail Mary.
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