By Andrew Kahn
David Mickey Evans wrote and directed The Sandlot. He recently wrote a film about a Little League baseball team and has sent the script to several major studios. The message paraphrased below is emblematic of the response to a “sports” movie in 2017:
I found it charming but it’s not something the studio can support. It’s virtually impossible to get a baseball movie made today. The decline in video revenue and the increasing necessity of the international markets have pretty much killed the possibility for a movie set in the baseball world.
It seems like it’s been FOR-EV-ER since the last good baseball movie. Over a 15-month span in the mid-’90s, The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year, Little Big League, and Angels in the Outfield hit theaters. Those are just the baseball movies for kids (defined here as G or PG rated films). The ’90s also gave us classic movies about other sports, like The Mighty Ducks, Little Giants, The Big Green, and Space Jam.
Since? There have been a handful of entertaining, family-friendly sports flicks (Miracle, Remember the Titans, Glory Road) but hardly any about baseball (2002’s The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid, is perhaps the only one worth mentioning). What changed?
Lost in translation
In 2016, box office receipts in North America totaled $11.4 billion. The same films brought in $27.2 billion throughout the rest of the world, 70 percent of the total. There’s no debating that the international market is critical to the industry. The idea that moviegoers outside the United States don’t care for movies that include American sports is where writers and executives disagree.
“They’ll tell you sports movies don’t travel, especially baseball, which I think is ludicrous,” said Vince McKewin, who wrote the 2000 football comedy The Replacements (PG-13), starring Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman. McKewin is struggling to raise money for his script on a senior citizens softball league. “No matter how many statistics you throw at them regarding the Japanese market, the Australian market, China, many European countries, parts of Germany, it still doesn’t cut any ice with them. They’re looking for an excuse to say ‘no.’”
Japan, the second-largest international movie market (behind China) has a pro baseball league that is behind only Major League Baseball in talent and popularity. South Korea (sixth in film) has two top-three finishes in the four World Baseball Classic tournaments. Evans said he still receives substantial Sandlot residuals from DVD sales in those countries plus Australia and Britain, among others.
A spokesperson at Paramount Pictures declined to comment for this story. Messages to Sony Pictures were not returned.
Hitting a curveball is not a super power
Of the 10 highest-grossing films of 2016, four were superhero movies and three were animated films (the other two were Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). That’s been the approximate breakdown for many years, with no sports film even sniffing the list.
For studios, it’s simple: Spend big, earn big. This month’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 might have cost $200 million to produce, but it will likely bring in a billion. There’s less risk to put out an action blockbuster than to produce 10 to 15 family comedies or dramas.
“It’s too easy to say it’s just economics,” McKewin said of the dearth of sports films. “I think it’s a lack of imagination and effort. I know people who work for studios who shake their heads at their mandate.”
McKewin said that 20 years ago, a major studio might have 200 movies in development; today that number is closer to 20. The process is more efficient now, but doesn’t lend itself to fresh ideas.
Both McKewin and Evans acknowledged that studio folks have implied they want films with a little more “edge” than say, The Sandlot, while at the same time often requesting that scripts are politically correct. The writers said the bigger frustration, however, is the failure to recognize that most sports movies—at least the good ones—aren’t about sports. Less than a third of The Sandlot includes baseball; it’s a movie about friendship.
“If a story is about the human condition or relationships and they strike a chord, I don’t think people care what the sport is,” said Evans. Universal themes, by definition, will sell in China, France, Germany, or anywhere else.
And as many of the aforementioned movies prove, sports can certainly lend themselves to family films. Animated flicks are filling that void right now, but there’s no reason the same parents and child who see Minions wouldn’t enjoy a movie about a Little League team just as much. For fans of baseball movies, it’s disappointing studios don’t recognize that.
To quote Billy Heywood (played by Luke Edwards in Little Big League): “Baseball was made for kids; grownups only screw it up.” Sadly, that now applies not just to baseball but movies about baseball.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn