- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 19, 2002

MOUNT LAUREL, N.J. For 40 years, football fans knew presumably everything there was to know about NFL Films. The lyrical, stylized and widely copied brand of filmmaking employing heavy dollops of slow-motion footage, close-ups galore and beefy riffs of classical music. The booming voices of John Facenda, nicknamed "the Voice of God," and then Harry Kalas. The stunning success in extending the brand name of the NFL.

Within the halls of NFL Films' new $45million headquarters in this quiet Philadelphia suburb, however, a transformation is under way. What is arguably the most effective propaganda machine of any type in recent history now is actively producing films well outside of football, embracing high-definition TV and broadband Internet, forging a path in reality television and becoming a merchandising force.

In short, this is no longer your father's NFL Films.

"We really view ourselves now as a full-service [film] production company that can adapt to anything," said Barry Wolper, NFL Films' chief operating officer. "There are the obvious financial benefits of doing this. But more important, we're a creative entity here, and it's to the benefit of our producers and cameramen to be in touch with the rest of the industry and the outside world. It's an important way to stay fresh."

In a pure dollars-and-cents perspective, NFL Films is a tiny outpost in the much broader league money-making machine; NFL Films reaps about $50million per year in revenue while the league's take just in TV rights is more than $2billion per year. But in terms of influence and reach, NFL Films is a behemoth, and ventures such as the popular "Hard Knocks" series on HBO, the record-selling DVD from January's Super Bowl XXXVI and the still-going-strong "NFL Films Presents" are each strong indicators of the operation's ongoing vitality.

"I came into this league out of the TV and film industry, and I think NFL Films is now the finest creative film operation anywhere bar none," gushes Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell, the first chairman of NFL Films in the mid-1960s. "That goes for [Steven] Spielberg, and goes for anyone else, anywhere. The work is simply spectacular and the style simply hasn't been really copied, though many have tried."

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The story of NFL Films itself is nearly as well known as its brand of filmmaking. In 1962, Ed Sabol, a frustrated Philadelphia overcoat salesman and budding filmmaker, convinced then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to sell him the film rights to the 1962 NFL Championship game for $3,000. Rozelle liked Sabol's work so much, he and the NFL team owners later bought the company.

In the ensuing years, Ed Sabol, along with son Steve, quickly established the company's signature style of filmmaking. Each football game would be repackaged as an epic, emotional battle. Intimate camera angles first sought out by NFL Films and now part of standard TV production highlighted the human struggle each player experienced on the playing field. But within the inherent violence and drama, final editing brought in a loving touch that also turned the action from simply highlights to a visceral advertisement for the league. Fans ate it up.

"We love the sport. It's as simple as that. We're filmmakers, but if somebody wants to call us propaganda, that's fine," said Steve Sabol, now NFL Films' president, chief creative voice and resident front-man. "We're the mythic component of the NFL."

Major League Baseball, and particularly the NBA, have tried to replicate the feel of NFL Films. But both leagues showed neither the artistic vision nor commitment to Hollywood-level technical specifications to keep up, and their film efforts remain not nearly as extensive as the NFL's.

In the early 1980s, NFL Films began dabbling in music videos, corporate training films and other outside projects. Ed Sabol resisted the shifts, but over time, demand for the company's talents and the need to stay busy during the offseasons fueled further expansions.

Company clients are now as diverse as the History Channel and the state of New Jersey to Bruce Springsteen and the Salt Lake Olympic Committee. Non-football work now comprises 10 percent of NFL Films revenues, more than double the mark in 1996, and is still growing.

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As celebrated and diverse as NFL Films has been, however, the company has toiled a bit out of the mainstream. For its 82 Emmys, it doesn't hold a prime-time slot on network television. It holds no Oscar award despite helping work on films such as Jerry Maguire, When Harry Met Sally and Black Sunday. Its stable of weekly programming typically doesn't receive prominent reviews or pre-release hype.

Two projects during the 2001 football season, however, changed all that. NFL Films already enjoyed unrivaled access into the inner sanctums of pro football. But it took another step forward last year with the first edition of "Hard Knocks," a six-part reality series airing on HBO that took an unflinching look at the camaraderie, struggle, work, hard-won rewards and broken dreams inherent to an NFL training camp. Cameras were allowed in many off-limits areas such as coaches' meeting rooms and players' private homes.

Working with the Baltimore Ravens in Westminster, Md., the project forced Steve Sabol and his crew outside of their tried-and-true formula. Since each one-hour episode would air within a day or two of real time, there was no time to shoot in film, as usual, and the basic concept of "Hard Knocks" did not call for the usual gusto of effects and music. The storytelling became much more personal.

The series reached an average of 3million households per week and re-introduced many fans to NFL Films. A second season of "Hard Knocks" with the Dallas Cowboys, in a rebuilding mode as opposed to the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens, fared even better, drawing nearly 4million households per week.

"A lot of people say the only sequel to top the original was "The Godfather: Part II." I think we joined that list with the Cowboys," Steve Sabol said. "We refined the concept, and I think it was a real achievement, particularly when I think that if you pitched this basic idea to me 10 years ago, I would have laughed.

"Having said all that, I don't think we'll be doing another ['Hard Knocks]. I don't think we'll get other teams to do it."

Fresh with its new skills, NFL Films producers combined its old style of storytelling with the newer reality-based approach for "The Bravest Team: The Rebuilding of the FDNY Football Club." The documentary chronicled in moving fashion the struggles of the fire department's football squad on and off the field after the terrorist attacks of September11.

"It's obviously new and on top of our minds, but I'm as proud of that as anything we've ever done here," Steve Sabol said. "It was an honor to be part of that."

A more traditional project for NFL Films, the yearly official Super Bowl highlight film, represented another high-water mark for the company this year. The latest edition, of course, documents New England's heroic triumph over heavily favored St. Louis, and was the first in the line to be released on DVD. The emerging format mandated the inclusion of bonus materials such as U2's emotional halftime performance and tribute to 9/11.

But more importantly, the digital format also required NFL Films to have footage that fully took advantage of the expanded technical capabilities. NFL Films was up to the task. It continues to shoot nearly everything on film, much better looking than any form of videotape but also much more costly, and then goes through the laborious process of converting mile after mile of footage into a high-definition digital format for television airing. A similar process was conducted to prepare the Super Bowl footage for the DVD release.

"High-def is really the biggest part of our new building here," Wolper said. "We've wired everything here for high-def, and we're already looking ahead to when high-definition is the absolute standard."

The U.S. government recently mandated all new TVs be equipped for high-definition reception by 2006.

"There are challenges we're working through; high-definition doesn't always do everything we can do on film, such as some slow-motion stuff," Wolper said. "But we're working to mesh the best elements of film and high-def."

The combination of the strong production values, the game's dramatic, made-for-Hollywood storyline and the extra material helped make the Super Bowl XXXVI film the best-selling sports video ever.

"The response to that has simply been incredible," Wolper said. Sales of the film have exceeded 500,000 copies. "We knew it would be popular given the long drought the Patriots had suffered on the field and the passion of that fan base. But it's been great. The [DVD] format has been something that really lends itself to what we have here and what we can do."

NFL Films is also investing significant resources in its Web site, www.nflfilmstv.com. The high-end site now features more than 3,000 highlights available for viewing on demand, has an expanding battery of content developed specifically for the online audience and is now drawing 100,000 visitors per month.

"Whatever the future holds, what ever killer [application] or format comes out, we'll be there and we'll be prepared to capitalize," Wolper said.

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