Soccer fever gives Hollywood a big kick

The film business has caught soccer fever. With the 1998 World Cup history, a slew of movies with soccer themes are aiming to buck the conventional wisdom that the beautiful game simply doesn’t play on the bigscreen.

Perhaps predictably, most of these projects originate from the U.K., the country that invented the game and exported it around the globe. More surprising is that several have significant American backing, even though the U.S. remains largely immune to the world’s No. 1 sport.

Propaganda Films, Mike Medavoy’s Phoenix Pictures, Robert Duvall’s Butcher’s Run and Miramax-backed HAL Films all have soccer films in the works. So does Working Title, the British production company that has repeatedly proved its instinct for international tastes.

These projects have been encouraged by the unprecedented levels of intensity and marketing hype to which the global obsession with soccer has risen in recent years.

Nonetheless, there remains a considerable wariness about the commercial viability of the subject matter. Indeed, most filmmakers are anxious to avoid the label “soccer movie,” which they regard as box office poison, preferring to emphasise the more conventional elements of romance, comedy or drama with the sport merely as a backdrop.

“It’s not a film about soccer,” insists BBC film chief David Thompson about his John Duigan project “Calcio” (Italian for soccer), which is likely to be co-produced by HAL. “This is a very funny script with good characters that just happens to have soccer as its background.”

“Films that have soccer right at their heart are difficult to make work financially,” Thomspon argues. “The received wisdom in the international marketplace is that a film with too much soccer, indeed too much sport in general, is a problem.”

But he also believes that the resistance of American financiers to soccer themes is showing signs of weakening. “Soccer still isn’t terribly popular in the U.S., but there’s a bigger openness to the resonance of the idea, they can see that it works on a metaphorical level. And American distributors can’t be blind to the fact that large chunks of the world are obsessed with the game.”

“Calcio,” due to shoot later this summer, is the stow of a young English man who tries to escape his father’s pressure to make him a goalkeeper by running away to Sardinia. He falls in love with a local girl who is engaged to a player in the hopeless village team, and gets drawn into helping whip them into shape.

These soccer movies fall into two categories — those which are actually about the professional game and its history, and those, such as “Calcio,” in which soccer is an amateur pastime used as the focus for the passions of ordinary characters.

The first group includes Working Title’s “Busby’s Babes,” to be directed by John Roberts, about the Munich air crash that wiped out the great young Manchester United team of the 1950s.

Then there’s “Best,” a biopic of the troubled Irish soccer genius George Best who played for Manchester in the ’60s, co-written by director Mary McGuckian and actor John Lynch, who will play the lead role. Tim Roth and Ian Hart are among those being lined up to play Best’s teammates.

In the same category comes Duvall’s untitled project in which he will direct himself as the coach of a second-division Scottish professional club — an extraordinarily obscure career choice for a major American actor, but perhaps no more so than his decision to play a fundamentalist preacher in “The Apostle.”

Finally, “Four Weddings and a Funeral” producer Duncan Kenworthy has long been developing a spoof documentary about the fictional coach of the English national team, titled “Mike Bassett: England Manager.”

The second category is stocked entirely with films that use soccer games as a vehicle for romantic comedy and an uplifting dose of triumph against the odds. Along with “Calcio” — and, from a couple of years ago, the film of Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch,” which never found U.S. distribution — examples include John Forte’s Irish teen movie “Mad About Mambo,” which is co-produced by Phoenix and Polygram; and an untitled Scottish pic (aka “The Match”) written and to be directed by former pro soccer coach Mick Davies, which Rafford Films is producing for Propaganda.

In Forte’s film, currently shooting in Dublin, a schoolboy soccer player with dreams of turning pro decides to learn Latin dance in order to improve his skills. When he seriously injuries a rival player during a game, he inadvertently ruins the hopes of the player’s girlfriend that the couple will win a local dance contest. But that gives him the chance to step into the breach as her partner.

Forte says that Medavoy, something of a soccer fan himself, saw no problem in the fact that the plot mechanics revolved around soccer. The one stricture is that there will be no mention of soccer (or dance, for that matter) in the title, which is going to be changed from “Mad About Mambo.”

“They say that with romantic comedies it’s the female partner who makes the choice to go and see it, so soccerwould be a turnoff,” Forte reports.

In any case, he expects to use far less soccer in his final cut than he has actually filmed, because he has found the game to be “tricky and rather boring on film.”

Rafford’s Allan Scott points out that the advantage of making a film about hopeless amateur players is that they don’t nave to look good at the game, which is the hardest trick to achieve. “The Match” revolves around a century-old grudge fixture between the two pubs in a small Scottish village.

The issue of authenticity is central to the execution of both “Busby’s Babes” and “Best.” Mike Ryan, co-chairman of sales company J&M Entertainment, who is advising McGuekian’s Pembridge Pictures on setting up the George Best biopic, reports that the film will use innovative techniques, including footage of real-life games.

“The way soccer is shot on television now is so sophisticated, that even three, four or five 35mm cameras are not enough to make it look right in a film,” he says. An equal degree of innovation might prove necessary in the financing, given the inbuilt resistance of theatrical distribs to soccer, with options under consideration including a British pay-TV premiere before an international cinema release.

Working Title’s Eric Fellner shrugs off suggestions that the soccer subject matter may be a commercial handicap for “Busby’s Babes.” “It’s not about soccer, it’s about love, life, youth, death. It’s a great British story. Anyway, I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t matter what a movie is about, it’s about whether the script engages people.”

Significantly, in view of this attempt to engage an audience way beyond soccer’s natural constituency, the screenplay for “Busby’s Babes” is co-authored by two women, Debbie Horsfield and Shawn Slovo.

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