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How Brian Grazer Helped Reimagine Sports in Film

Brian Grazer’s credits include some of the most famous sports TV shows and movies ever. And the 70 year-old producer isn’t done.

Brian Grazer’s Imagine Entertainment has produced films and TV shows that have been nominated for 45 Oscars and 202 Emmys, including Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, 24, and Arrested Development. He’s an Oscar winner, a Grammy winner, an Emmy winner, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and is still active in the industry just over three months past his 70th birthday.

Imagine’s sports movies and TV shows have revolutionized the genre, from the groundbreaking Friday Night Lights to Blue Crush, Cinderella Man and documentaries starring Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade. In an interview with Boardroom, Grazer discussed what makes sports such compelling scripted content, the impact of FNL, and an inside look at Imagine’s latest project, Swagger, premiering Oct. 29 on Apple TV+.

Making It Work

In any successful sports TV show or movie, the game clock provides stakes and causes viewers to engage with the characters who interest them.

“Basically, there’s a lot of drama that goes on behind the scenes in whatever that sport is, and we love to know how and why athletes are able to be excellent,” Grazer said. “And in the case of any competition, you are rooting for people that you really care about. And the way to know if you really care about them is to see the internal drama of their lives as they interface with their community, family and friends.”

Sports stories are rooted in themes of overcoming odds, inspiration, loss, and triumph, said the California native. These are universal themes, which is why when a sports-themed show like Ted Lasso gets it right, it becomes an Emmy-dominating smash hit.

After executive producing the short-lived TV series Sports Night, a workplace drama based off a fictional SportsCenter-esque show that was the legendary Aaron Sorkin’s first TV series, Grazer produced the surfing movie Blue Crush in 2002. Grazer liked the idea of doing a women’s empowerment film, highlighting not only how difficult the sport is but how the sport’s male-dominated tribalism made it more challenging and raised the stakes for women. Bringing in underwater photographers and safety experts to Hawaii’s famed North Shore ensured that the surfing scenes were real and visually breathtaking, aiding the movie’s narrative of three friends overcoming obstacles to pursue their passion.

The Legacy of Friday Night Lights

Two years later, the 2004 Friday Night Lights movie and subsequent TV series that ran from 2006-11 made a seismic impact on not just sports culture but about how sports films are pitched and produced. The five FNL seasons received scores of 94, 92, 100, 100 and 100 on Rotten Tomatoes, ranking 14th on a Complex list of the greatest TV dramas of all time. We learned, Grazer said, that the behind-the-scenes stories of these people living in the small town of Odessa, Texas were more interesting than we could have imagined.

“I think others were not only surprised by how captivating it was to television audiences, but others thought maybe we could do something similar.”

Brian Grazer

“Their dramas and the things that we care about in relation to the characters actually eclipsed the ticking clock and the sport itself, which is very rare,” Grazer said. “The idea of the game and their lives were so compatible to one another that I think others — people in our industry — were not only surprised by how captivating it was to television audiences, but others thought maybe we could do something similar.”

What film developer Peter Berg and executive producer Jason Katims accomplished is that, among many things, each character had their own three-dimensional, multi-faceted aspects rather than being an underdeveloped caricature or trope. So many shows never had those fully formed ancillary characters like FNL did. It helped the show, Grazer said, to have at least one character who was relatable to every kid in America in some way.

“Or conversely,” Grazer continued, “you learn about grit and determination and how that interfaces with family, community and how it all works within a population. And it seemed like that population of kids in Friday Night Lights was very relatable to the country because we’ve all sort of experienced similar things in life. That’s how you come to care about characters and their underdog stories and what they’re going through to test their human spirit to be excellent. We just find those stories really captivating.”

In the 10 years since FNL went off the air, sports show runners have used it as a model of what a great series looks like if you delve into the characters’ lives, hopes, dreams, and heartbreaks, making the viewer feel it along with them, according to Grazer. But the content won’t be compelling to audiences without casting actors like Michael B. Jordan, who played star running back Vince Howard.

“The show had its own gravitational force the audience felt once they got into it,” Grazer said.

Sports in the Pandemic Era

Imagine went on to produce other feature sports films like the 2005 boxing movie Cinderella Man, starring Russell Crowe, the 2013 Formula 1 racing flick Rush with Chris Hemsworth, and Pele: Birth of a Legend on the Brazilian footballer’s triumph in the 1958 World Cup, released in 2016. But Grazer has started producing more sports documentaries over the last few years, most notably D. Wade: Life Unexpected, which aired on ESPN last year and chronicled Wade’s life and basketball career. Grazer’s most recent sports project, The Day Sports Stood Still, was in partnership with HBO and Chris Paul about his experiences in how the sports world shut down due to COVID-19 in March 2020 and life in the NBA bubble later that summer.

“He called me when he felt this moment was happening when sports were just going to crash,” Grazer said of Paul. “And he said ‘I think we should make this a universally themed documentary, but use the model of the NBA as to what’s going on and how that’s stopped the game.'”

The documentary chronicles how Paul’s Oklahoma City Thunder had the first major sports contest canceled when Utah Jazz All-Star Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, acting as a catalyst for the halting of sports worldwide. Then we got to see how CP3 was living inside the bubble, and how that was so challenging for everyone involved in numerous ways. He was president of the NBA players union at the time, during the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Jacob Blake shooting, and when the Milwaukee Bucks decided to not play a first-round playoff game in protest. At the same time, Paul and everyone in the bubble couldn’t see their families, friends, and loved ones for months.

“What drew me to it was Chris Paul’s clear passion for what was going on,” Grazer said. “And we got to experience him and colleagues that were also going through this giant excruciating experience. The NBA ended up creating a solution so they could play, but under very limited conditions.”

What draws Grazer to a sports-related project these days is if that sport hasn’t been seen through a modern lens, and a film or show brings more depth than viewers have seen before.

“Then we’re very attracted to it,” he said, “because it just has all these compelling elements.”

Swagger

Swagger, which Grazer is executive producing alongside Kevin Durant, Rich Kleiman and Reggie Rock Bythewood, will show the world of AAU and youth basketball in a new and dynamic light. It depicts the experience of top youth basketball players pursuing their NBA dreams, their families and the agents, sponsors, marketers and potential corruptive influences that lurk at every turn in a ruthless and unregulated environment.

“I never knew that it was so important in a kid’s life if they’re actually good enough or competitive enough to play a sport at that young age, they’re sieged upon in a way by scouts, sponsors, other coaches, to recruit them and get them to their school,” Grazer said.

The idea came directly from Durant and Kleiman, one that immediately resonated with Grazer.

“I didn’t realize it was so commercial at such an early stage of a kid’s life,” Grazer said. “And only through sitting down with KD and Rich did I learn that it’s not just high school. You don’t just get drafted or move forward just in high school. Really, the priority is to play in a very important youth basketball environment.”

The show’s soundtrack will also be integral to the 10-episode first season, according to Grazer, with music used as a driver to captivate and propel the audience.

 “It’s inherent in sports shows to have anthems, and music that energizes or moves you emotionally,” he said. “And this one does that really well.”

Swagger will show the importance of youth basketball in a young athlete’s culture and the tenuous fragility of everything involved. Just like Friday Night Lights dealt with the fragility of the young football players’ minds early on, Grazer continued, Swagger will do the same by showing how much pressure is on these kids who are even younger than FNL’s iconic protagonists.

“It’s sort of how they and their parents navigate it,” Grazer said. “And in the case of Kevin Durant, he said ‘listen, what was differentiating to me is because my mom was always in for the long game.’ So she basically kept a very scrutinous and guarding eye on people that wanted to approach Kevin directly. And that was important that he had somebody who had such leadership in the case of his mom to help him through that.”

The goal, Grazer said, is to show a world we’ve never seen dramatized on television before through a fresh perspective. Swagger has a chance to be the next Friday Night Lights because of how it portrays what dominates every aspect of a player’s life at 14, 15, 16 years old and how they deal with all the social and economic variables and how things move so fast for these kids.

“Given that sports shows when they work, they really work,” Grazer said, “I think this will be one of those because of its authenticity and its priority in the culture of basketball.