« | Main | »

Steve Sabol – President of NFL Films (Part 3 of 3)

By Admin | January 29, 2008


Some people credit NFL Films for one of the key reasons, if not the key reason, that the NFL has become the dominant league in the United States, if not in the world. What’s your reaction to that?

That’s a pretty heavy statement. I mean, I think what we have done is we brought a mythology to the game. When we started, football had a tradition but we gave it a visual mythology.

When we did They Call It Pro Football and Pete Rozelle saw it in 1965 the first thing he said to me after the screening was, “Steve, that wasn’t a highlight film, that was a real movie.”

That was a real compliment to me. You’re talking about a kid who is 23 years old who had done something like that. Then, a day later Pete called up my Dad and said, “I want you to come up to the office. I want to talk to you.”

We didn’t know what that meant. Pete took us up to the office and he brought us in. That was when the NFL was one floor of offices and there were like six offices and Pete had a cubicle in the corner.

And he …showed us this sheet and it was the Neilsen ratings. I didn’t know what that was. This is for the early 60’s. It was the recent TV ratings and he said,“Now look, baseball is Number 1, college football is number 2 and here we are – the national football league is number 3.

He said, “For this game to succeed and for our league to prosper it must flourish on television and we must have an image that will appeal to people of all ages. And the film that I just saw last night is the image that we want to project to our audience.”

I didn’t understand all that because to me, I never thought of myself as an image maker or a marketer. I was a film maker and I was a young guy who loved to make movies and who loved pro football. I just wanted to convey my love of the game to my audience.

I think it was that kind of sincerity that worked in the film and that came across to the audience. The way we used the music and the photography and the way things were shot, it created a larger than life image about the game and it celebrated and distilled the things about the game that make it great.

The competition, the passion, the fierce physical nature of it and Pete Rozelle saw in that film a good marketing device.

My dad and I thought that it was a good film. We weren’t that sophisticated to think we were selling or marketing anything and to this day, I still don’t believe in that.

In fact, like I said, we’re filmmakers and we’re not marketers but in a way our style of filmmaking helped create an image that helped the league grow.

Does the League give you any type input or direction into what you do or do you just work autonomously?

Well, you know, from an artistic standpoint we’ve had the greatest possible situation because I think in order for an artist to develop to his full potential you need freedom. But you need two types of freedom. You need freedom “to” – which is freedom to come up with new ideas, to take risks, to try things that have never been done.

Then you need freedom “from” and that’s after the idea has been presented… (you need) freedom from other people changing the idea or altering your point of view or telling you to do it differently. We have had freedom” to” and freedom “from” and we’ve had the trust of the coaches and the owners.

Sure, there are times when somebody will say, “You know, I think you should have spent more time on this player or you spent too much time on this team.” But, nothing ever about the writing or cinematography.

I think we have been very fortunate. I have been through three commissioners, Pete and Paul Taglibue, and now Roger and they are all very supportive and extremely trustworthy of our judgement and our opinion.

How can you make NFL Films better. What do you need to improve on?

I think some of the technology with being able to pick up sound along the bench without hanging these big poles over the bench would be grea.

Or, if there was some sort of laser technology that you could just point almost like they used in the Bourne Ultimatum that you could just point this device and pickup some of the sound on the bench. That would be great.

What’s the biggest mistake or error you’ve made? If you could go back and change one thing what would it be?

It would be Super Bowl III. The point of view that I took being a staunch and passionate fan of the National Football League and a big belief in Johnny Unitas was the greatest quarterback that ever played. I wasn’t ready to accept that the New York Jets and Joe Namath could beat them.

So, the whole film was done in a very abstract, artistic, over-edited way, in the way it was actually cut and was slanted more toward the courage of John Unitas coming back in the last quarter, overcoming an injury to try lead his team over the upstart Jets. It should have been the total opposite.

So, you now think it was a Namath story and not a Unitas story?

Yeah, I missed it so totally and it bothered me so much that two years later I went back and recut the film. Then, a year after that I wrote a poem about that particular game and it won an Emmy, the first sports Emmy ever in the Rainbow Room at NBC.

The very first award they gave was writing and it was for this piece I did called Joe and the Magic Bean which was narrated by Sterling Holloway. It written as this combination Rudyard Kipling/Dr Seuss/Robert Service poem about this giant slayer and his Magic Bean.

I felt a little bit vindicated after that. Still, when I see that first version play on ESPN it bothers me. It is a cinematic triumph in a way, the way it was edited, the music.

But, I totally missed the boat, was totally wrong as far as the theme, the point of view, the structure of the story. I totally blew it.

I always use that when we have new producers come in. I always use that as an example of how I totally misread and abused the medium of film at the expense of the true story. But, I feel that I atoned for that and every time I see Joe Namath he always kids me about that.

Who is your all-time favorite player?

Dick Butkus.

Who do you think is the best nonsports filmmaker today? Steven Spielberg?

Oh, I love Steven Spielberg. I don’t know. I go to so many movies. I don’t remember some of the titles. My favorite movies would be On the Waterfront, the Magnificent Seven, A Man and a Woman… El Cid – greatest love story I have ever seen, Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren – and the Terminator.

The Terminator?

Oh yeah, loved it. The one where it opens with Arnold Schwarenegger naked in a biker bar.

And recently movies that I have seen that I really liked – I really liked Michael Clayton. I enjoy the Coen brothers, the sense of humor that they have in their films. And also, this dates me but if I see a John Wayne movie on it is hard for me to turn that off.

Do you have any plans to retire?

No, not right now. I am 65 but I have a great staff of people here that allow me to focus on what I feel I am best at, and that is being really a creative director. I have got really able people here. Howard Katz is our chief operating officer. He ran ABC sports. He is the smartest executive that I have ever worked with.

The opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the person being interviewed and are not attributable to DailyInterview.com or the editors.

Copyright 2008 DailyInterview.com


Topics: Movie Executives, NFL Executives | No Comments »


You must be logged in to post a comment.