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Notes from the Margins: What Football Has That Your Script Needs

So what does football have that today’s movies do not? Danny Manus breaks down the game of football to help screenwriters understand what their own script needs to succeed.

So what does football have that today’s movies do not? Danny Manus breaks down the game of football to help screenwriters understand what their own script needs to succeed.

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Every week, football games garner the largest audience on TV by far. Playoffs – even more. Superbowl? Well over 100 million viewers every year. If 100 million people were to see any one movie, even at the (low) average of $8.50 for a ticket, that would make the film $850M (that’s fancy screenwriter math). If even the weekly viewership average of 20 million people per game saw any one movie in a weekend, it would become one of biggest openings of all time.

football movies

So what does football have that today’s movies do not?

Sure, football is sometimes a family affair. It’s a chance for friends and fans to come together and have a camaraderie you certainly won’t find in a movie theater. Plus, there’s beer and food which is always a plus. Watching your football team play in a sports bar surrounded by people constantly yelling at the screen isn’t wholly unlike going to a horror movie on opening night in an urban neighborhood. But no one high-fives and drinks a shot when something cool happens in a movie.

But I don’t think it’s just about the experience. The movie-going experience is still something people cherish. I think it’s about the consistently great stories football offers that most films don’t anymore. All football games have specific things that stories need to work.

- There is someone to root for and against. Everyone watching (in their mind) has a clear good guy and a bad guy.

- They all have built-in physical conflicts and sometimes long-standing emotional conflicts driving the story of the game (is there a rivalry on film that compares with Packers/Bears or Giants/Patriots or Steelers/Ravens?). Plus, every game has an underdog – and everyone loves an underdog.

- The stakes in every game are high. Not only the physical stakes and the chances the players take putting their health and bodies on the line knowing what could happen with one wrong hit; the stakes are so much greater than that. There are the external stakes - people’s jobs are on the line, contracts and press coverage is on the line, BILLIONS of dollars are on the line, etc. And the internal stakes – respect, pride, bragging rights, etc.

- Every good football game is an emotional rollercoaster. Each game has obstacles the teams must face (weather, injury, bad referee calls, fans, noise, etc.). Every game has the thrill of victory and agony of defeat and we get to SEE the emotional reactions from the players, just like we should experience on screen (and on the page) from your characters.

- The game of football has a specific structure that helps build excitement and progress the game. It’s basic four-act structure, really. The 1st quarter sets a tone and gives us the first couple big plays that thrust us into the game and get us involved. From the 1st quarter, you have a basic idea for if it’s going to be a good game or a blowout not worth watching. Action builds and continues in the 2nd quarter and then half-time is the midpoint, where the players have gotten through their first major mini-climax and now must re-examine their game plan, the situation, and what they need to do. In the 3rd quarter, momentum often shifts, players and coaches dig deep to figure out a new plan that will get them to their goal (pun intended). And if they are losing and all feels lost, they try everything they can to figure out how to be the hero for their team. There are setbacks and plot twists, and it all builds to the major climax of the game in the 4th quarter which always has those major highlight reel (trailer) moments. If you can structure your story like a well-played football game, execs will never put the script down.

By the way, what do you think would happen if a rookie came into the league and said, “I don’t really want to play by these rules. I’m going to do my own thing because I’m special.” Well, they wouldn’t be playing in the pros very long, would they? But I digress…

- Every game has a time clock. With every tick, victory either gets closer or further away. Without a time clock or a play clock, games would meander and get boring and there would be nothing focusing the players or quarterback or coaches to get their big moments in at the right times. Time is also a wonderful secondary antagonist in football games. They’re not just fighting the other team – they’re fighting the clock. Your characters should be too.

- The major characters in a football game feel like real people yet larger than life at the same time. It’s so weird to me knowing that nearly every single quarterback in the NFL is younger than I am. I get the same feeling with actors, even young ones. But every game has the wise mentor/coach character pushing the protagonists forward, giving them the bits of information and guidance needed. There’s the protagonist (quarterback or famous running back), the supporting cast (rest of the team), the cameo role that totally affects the game in a major way (the Kicker) – and each player in the game is necessary to the outcome of that game’s story. Games also have a great antagonist - well, at least when the Patriots or Cowboys are playing (Go Giants!). There are also the commentators to help narrate, give context, backstory, and frame each game so you know what’s on the line and exactly what’s happening.

- Every week, watching football gives you the chance to be a part of history. Something amazing might happen that changes the landscape of the season or football in general. Every week, there’s a chance you will see the greatest play ever made. And everyone wants to be part of history, even if they are just spectators on their couches. This is also why films that get nominated for an Oscar get huge box office bumps – no one wants to be the ONE guy who didn’t see the Oscar-winning film that year. Everyone wants to be part of history. Write an iconic movie, and you can’t lose.

- The no-brainer is that every game has non-stop action and a little bit of sex (hello, cheerleaders!). There are bright colors, major visuals, and every game is an experience. And this is what people pay to see. This is what your script needs to feel like.

So why aren’t there more movies ABOUT football? Mostly because audiences would rather watch the REAL thing than a fictional, staged version of the same action. Sure, they will turn out for true stories like The Blind Side or gritty Oliver Stone films with ensemble casts like Any Given Sunday, but one would think there would be a football movie released every year given its widespread popularity.

April 2014 will see a major football film, Draft Day, released. It topped the Black List in 2012 and has been a much-loved project around town. Produced by Montecito Pictures, directed by Ivan Reitman, and starring Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Tom Welling and Frank Langella, it will be a major test film when it’s released and could spur on many more films on the sport. Personally, I can’t wait to see it.

But this isn’t about promoting a film. This is about making films as popular on a consistent weekly basis as the football business. And if screenwriters really studied what football offers, and paid a bit more attention to the things that make for great entertainment and keep audiences coming back week after week, their scripts might just have a better chance at getting produced.

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