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ESPN Films at top of its game with Oscar for ‘O.J.: Made in America’

Director Ezra Edelman and producer Caroline Waterlow pose

Director Ezra Edelman and producer Caroline Waterlow pose with the Oscar for best documentary feature for "O.J.: Made In America" in the press room, during the 89th Oscars on Feb. 26, 2017, in Hollywood. Credit: AFP/Getty Images / FREDERIC J. BROWN

Sports media executives understandably can get a little jaded when attending major sports events. It is part of the job, after all.

Then there was last Sunday night’s Academy Awards show in Hollywood. That was different.

“Remarkable,” Connor Schell said. “It’s a fairly incredible spectacle.”

Schell’s official title is senior vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films and original content. His unofficial role in the first balcony of the Dolby Theatre was a combination of head cheerleader, proud papa and awed tourist.

The occasion was a surreal moment in the less-than-a-decade-long history of ESPN Films and its signature brand, the “30 for 30” documentary series under whose umbrella director Ezra Edelman created “O.J.: Made in America.”

The 7-hour, 47-minute epic won the Oscar for best documentary feature, joining a list including some of the most storied films in the genre, after qualifying with a limited theatrical release last spring.

“It’s sort of representative of a world ESPN Films has never played in,” Schell said. “So it was really interesting.

“It was an incredible honor to be there, and I could not mean that more sincerely. And the idea that the Academy recognized Ezra’s work made it even more special.”

Sure, ESPN has deep pockets, a powerful platform and promotional muscle, advantages not every documentary project enjoys. Still . . . ESPN? Let’s just say Tinseltown is a long way from Bristol town.

“I think it’s remarkable the film Ezra made, and that it was honored in this way by the creative community is an incredible testament to the quality of the work,” Schell said. “But I also think it’s a testament to the power of the platform that ESPN Films has become . . . This division is really something that a lot of people should take a lot of pride in, I hope.

“Because to me, that piece of it is a testament to every filmmaker we ever worked with and the whole group of people who have slaved over these projects over here, as well.”

Schell more than once stopped himself to emphasize the award is Edelman’s and the team that worked directly on the film with him — many of whom he credited by name.

But he allowed himself to look back at how far all of this has come on ESPN’s end. ESPN Films launched in 2008.

“We wanted to hang up a shingle and tell people we were open to become a home for really high-quality, non-fiction sports storytelling,” he said.

The next year brought “30 for 30,” originally conceived by Schell and Bill Simmons as a way to celebrate ESPN’s 30th anniversary with 30 original documentary films by a broad variety of filmmakers.

Some look more important in retrospect, such as the third in the series, “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” which turned out largely to be (spoiler alert) former New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump.

After watching a rough cut Trump wrote (in all capital letters) to director Mike Tollin, describing it as “a third-rate documentary — and extremely dishonest.” He added in a postscript, “You are a loser,” with “loser” underlined.

“I think you can’t not look at it differently now,” Schell said. “It’s a very revealing portrait . . . It was always fun to watch. Now it’s interesting on a totally different level.”

The series always has given directors broad leeway. Said Schell, “One of the things we are immensely proud of is working with filmmakers at all stages of their careers.”

Ava DuVernay once directed a film on Venus Williams for ESPN; her “13th” was among the other documentaries nominated for an Oscar this year.

Barry Jenkins, who directed best picture winner “Moonlight,” produced an ESPN short on the history of the high-five.

The series has no end in sight. Among the “30 for 30” entries slated for this year is one on the “Mike and the Mad Dog” radio show that Schell said could have its ESPN premiere in July or in the fall.

The brand itself has become so powerful that it endures despite outliving its original meaning. There have been more than triple the original 30 films, and ESPN is far closer to its 40th anniversary than its 30th.

“Brands never make any sense until they exist and start to stand for something,” Schell said, recalling a time in 2012 when ESPN tried to leave the name behind. “It was a good lesson in understanding that we had built equity with our audience and that you don’t just walk away from that.”

Schell sat Sunday with ESPN Films executive Libby Geist and the film’s archival producer, Nina Kristic. Edelman sat with producers Caroline Waterlow and Tamara Rosenberg near the stage.

Afterward those in the theater met up with other contributors who had been watching at a nearby bar, and they celebrated together.

“Ezra made a spectacular film, so everything I just said [about ESPN] you can put aside,” Schell said. “Ezra won that award on Sunday because of the quality of the journalism and storytelling, and it was enlightening and it was entertaining. He hit a grand slam home run across the board.

“But, yes, from where we started to where we are, that feels pretty good.”

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