I hate sports. I mean, REALLY hate them. I don’t see the point: run up a track? Unless you’re being chased by a monster, do me a favour. Kick or throw a ball? No chance. I was the kid who had “period pain” four weeks of every month rather than do PE at school. True story. (Of course, the joke’s on me now ‘cos Mr C is OBSESSED with sports … not a week goes by without some tournament, however obscure, on the telly. THANKS COSMIC JOKER).
So it may surprise you then to note I LOVE sports movies. Doesn’t matter what the sports are, either. Basketball, running, football, Formula One, whatever. I’ll watch it – and gladly. I’m also very happy to consult on sports features and always feel there are not enough of them in the spec pile, especially as good writing samples. So why?
1) Sports movies have a tangible goal
Let’s start with the obvious. As we realise, all protagonists need a goal of some kind – so what better than an ACTUAL goal, ie. winning a tournament, or turning a useless team around? Very often spec writers don’t know what motivates their characters, yet over the many years I’ve been working with writers, I’ve noticed very few writers of spec sports movies have this issue.
2) Winning/Losing is universal
Whether you enjoy them or not, nearly everyone has *some* experience of sports and/or competition. The concept of wanting to win and not wanting to lose is built in to our culture – even if we’re not competing ourselves. This of course is why sports betting is so popular, whether it’s Betway or an informal flutter between mates.
3) Secondary characters can pull their weight easily.
Most writers “get” that a protagonist must have a goal and even that an antagonist must counter that goal in a story, in order to wring the most conflict out of it.
However, very often things get confused when writers don’t realise they need to provide motivations for their secondary characters as well; they write too many secondary characters; they fail to differentiate them; and/or differentiate them too much.
Yet, in sports movies, the notion secondary characters must help or hinder the protagonist in his/her main goal is OBVIOUS. Everyone wants to win.
What’s more, especially in teams sports, those other characters have a dedicated place within that team. Even in the case of sports in which there is a single player such as tennis or boxing, there is usually a team behind that person: coaches, trainers, bank-rollers and so on.
4) Sports movies lend themselves to different genres.
Whilst sports movies are often personal, worthy, “against all odds”-type dramas like Oscar Winners/Nominated ROCKY, MILLION DOLLAR BABY or THE WRESTLER, they don’t have to be. Here are some more examples from the last ten years or so.
Consider DODGEBALL. A very silly Frat Pack comedy, it is far from a perfect movie (WTF was Steve The Pirate all about? Or the highly stereotypical, borderline offensive German character?). Yet it is nevertheless otherwise deftly written and played, with some laugh-out-loud funny moments, cast against the “usual” template of that well-known underdog story. We **know** they will win against all odds from the offset, but we watch it to see HOW, which includes those fantastic sequences in which their trainer throws wrenches at them, or when they end up playing in bondage gear. In the family genre, check out MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, which asks us to look at the origins of Mike and Sully’s friendship when they take part in the “Scare Games” on a similar basis.
In the Thriller/Action genre, we have many ways of exploring the dark sides of competition. This can be literal, in movies like DEATH RACE and THE HUNGER GAMES (which both borrow heavily from THE RUNNING MAN) or psychological, as in RUSH. Peter Morgan’s clever and intricate screenplay pits its true life rivals Niki Lauda and James Hunt against each other from the offset as dual protagonists in what becomes a (pun intended) thrilling ride. The way the story is told makes it a Thriller, rather than a drama, because we can’t be entirely sure **how** it will turn out, especially if you are unfamiliar with the story of Lauda and Hunt. What’s more, at different points in the narrative, BOTH characters are the protagonist – and both are the antagonist. It is absolutely masterly.
In other words then, it’s more than possible to take unexpected deviations with the sports movie genre; it doesn’t have to be all feel-good.
5) The structure is OBVIOUS.
If you’re dealing with the three acts, the structure couldn’t be simpler:
SET UP: Your characters realise they want to win.
CONFLICT (Part 1): They train to win, but things go wrong.
MID POINT: They think they’re never going to make it.
CONFLICT (Part 2): They begin to turn things around.
RESOLUTION: Things go wrong again, they snatch back victory from the jaws of defeat *somehow*; or don’t but gain something FAR MORE IMPORTANT … sometimes ALL of the above.
Of course, other structural methods ARE available (I’m a “if ain’t broke, why fix it?” type). And occasionally the above steps are mixed up more. But very generally speaking, it’s all about the winning/losing in sports movies, so it makes sense the BIG contest is at or towards the end.
6) You can go against expectation.
I’m always banging on (arf) about The Zeitgeist Story: that is, those similar stories by different writers, about the same subject matter. But when is a Zeitgeist movie, NOT a Zeitgeist movie??? WHEN IT BUSTS THE GENRE.
Sports movies are pretty much of muchness at grassroots level. Characters want to win and sometimes they do; sometimes they lose. In that respect, they’re very similar to Rom Coms (boy meets girl and lives happily ever after – OR NOT) or Horror (nearly/everybody dies).
Like those other two genres then, the sports movie is not setting out to SURPRISE via execution, but HOW. So if you want to bust this genre? You need to go against expectation. Don’t just write about about an underdog team, or a guy or gal struggling on alone. Instead, focus on a sport never seen before; or in a way we’ve not thought about, featuring characters that have never graced the silver screen in a sports movie before. THAT’S the way to get noticed. For example, remember STREETDANCE 3D mixed ballet and street dance. So what are you going to do?
7) Complicated themes & characters can abound.
Because the audience have essentially signed up for a story about “winning/losing” in the sports movie (and thus know this in advance), the filmmakers can get down to business and really get complicated if they want to.
If we consider a movie like BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, it introduces complicated themes of belonging, tradition and ambition, using the character of Jess rebelling against her parents’ wishes to be a “proper” Sikh girl. Throughout the entire movie, she is contrast against her family, especially her sister, who is preparing for her own wedding, like a “good” daughter should.
The ROCKY movies are not just about boxing, personal responsibility or being on the top of your game, but also about the love story between Rocky and Adrian. Rocky is played as a guy who may not be the cleverest around, but he’s one hundred per cent genuine: he says what he means and means what he says, so we know that when he declares his love for his wife he will stand by her no matter what. By that same token, Adrian’s own devotion to her husband is not in question and even though he sometimes makes the wrong decision, we don’t think of her as a doormat; we realise she trusts him enough to put it right, which of course he always does. This is why ROCKY BALBOA was in part so amazing, because they managed to pull off the film even though Adrian has since died, which was down to a masterly portrayal of Rocky’s quiet, introspective grief at the loss of his soul mate.
So, if you’re unsure what to write next and want to be in with a good chance of having a brilliant writing sample to show around those all-important contacts, consider writing a sports movie. Just remember: it’s not about the sports, or even *just* the winning/losing, but the themes and characters.