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ESPN’s ’30 for 30′ looks outside box for stories

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I go to film festivals to see the kind of idiosyncratic, personal movies big Hollywood studios rarely make anymore. But for the past 15 months, I’ve been watching a wonderfully engaging film festival with passionate and provocative movies on TV, courtesy of the most unlikely of cinematic patrons: ESPN.

Yes, the sports network is annoyingly obsessed with LeBron James. But it has quietly pulled off a stirring creative coup, bankrolling "30 for 30," a series of 30 documentaries about people who aren’t necessarily household names or "SportsCentury" icons, but who were central figures in modern-day athletic stories with wide cultural reach and social impact.

If you missed the films on ESPN, they’re available on iTunes, video on demand and DVD. The series features docs from such prominent Hollywood filmmakers as Peter Berg, Barry Levinson, Ron Shelton and Ice Cube as well as from such documentary notables as Albert Maysles, Steve James and Dan Klores.

Many of these films have packed a wallop, offering stories full of emotion, wry humor and personal reflection.

Brothers Michael and Jeff Zimbalist delivered "The Two Escobars," a fascinating look at the interconnected lives and deaths of Colombian soccer star Andres Escobar and drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Levinson’s "The Band That Wouldn’t Die" recounted the story of his hometown Baltimore Colts marching band, which stayed together even after their team left for Indianapolis under the cover of night.

Having grown up as a die-hard Raiders football fan when the team played in Los Angeles, Ice Cube used "Straight Outta L.A." to show how much the team’s bad-boy image influenced the burgeoning hip-hop culture. Steve James, who grew up in the same Virginia town as basketball star Allen Iverson, directed "No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson," an unsparingly personal portrait of the gulf between blacks and whites in Hampton, Va., after Iverson allegedly hit a woman over the head with a chair in a 1993 bowling alley brawl and was convicted of a felony (later overturned).

What makes the series worth celebrating is not just its pedigree, but also the creative autonomy ESPN gave its filmmakers. In franchise-focused Hollywood, even our best filmmakers are largely at work on sequels and remakes: Brad Bird is making "Mission: Impossible 4," Darren Aronofsky is doing "Wolverine 2" and Marc Webb, who did the indie delight "(500) Days of Summer," is directing "Spider-Man 4."

"30 for 30," which was launched in fall 2009, has gone in the opposite direction. When ESPN columnist/blogger Bill Simmons pitched ESPN executive producer Connor Schell on the idea of commemorating the network’s 30th anniversary with a series of documentaries, one key idea was embedded in the DNA of the project. "ESPN always had a vision that this would be filmmaker-driven," said Mike Tollin, a supervising producer on the series who also directed "Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?" which is included in a box set of the first 15 documentaries which is on sale now as a DVD box set.

 

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