Sean Crosson is Program Director of the MA in Film Studies at the Huston School of Film in Galway, Ireland.
How did this project come about for you and what was the subject’s appeal that made you want to write a book about it?
I have been an avid follower of sport for many years now, initially playing Gaelic football here in Ireland but also following sport internationally including soccer, rugby and golf. As a film academic my personal interest in sport eventually began to cross over with my professional work through the many sports films I was encountering in my work.
I began actually looking at Gaelic games in film and I have published several articles on this subject to date and am currently working on a larger study on the topic. But during that research I was approached by the series editor of the Routledge Frontiers of sport series to contribute a book on sport and film and I was delighted to take the opportunity to do so. I was intrigued by the growing popularity particularly over the past ten years of the genre internationally and wanted to examine the reasons for it as well as to understand more fully the historical context for the development of the genre.
Through your research, screenings and interviews what findings surprised you most about the topic?
I suppose what surprised me most was to realize how long the association between sport and film has existed, really from the very beginnings of cinema itself and in some respects mainstream cinema in its earliest incarnations depended quite heavily on sport for its popularity. It has also been one of the most enduring of all the film genres, arguably as popular today, as recent box office and Oscar-winning successes Million Dollar Baby, The Blind Side and The Fighter indicate, as at any time in its history.
What I also found fascinating was how, particularly in American film, the vast majority of these films reveal a recurring trajectory which takes an often marginalized individual from challenging or difficult circumstances to enjoy some degree of success or recognition via sporting prowess and how this trajectory connects with a central belief in American life, that of the American Dream.
You offer examples of the British questioning the “familiar utopian trajectory” of the underdog overcoming challenges to find success, but aren’t heroes and to some extent national pride (their own version of the American Dream) at the core of films from India (i.e. Lagaan), Australia, Germany and most other nations?
Absolutely and I do acknowledge both the influence and shared themes found between Hollywood film and films found in other national contexts within the book. Given that Hollywood film has produced by far the most numerous and commercially successful of all sports films internationally, its not surprising to find a similar trajectory appearing within many of the films emerging from other nations be they made in Germany, Australia or indeed India.
We could also extend the influence beyond the cinematic to the cultural and indeed ideological influence of American culture, particularly through the influence of popular cultural forms such as films which have repeatedly reiterated across an array of popular genres (and this by the way does not apply just to film) the trajectory of the marginalized individual overcoming the odds to enjoy success through individual effort and achievement.
It is a seductive message that has resonance across the world. However, the concern I raise within the book is that such a recurring trajectory often obscures or elides entirely the real and complex difficulties that marginalized individuals may face, whether in terms of race, class, gender or sexual orientation, to progress.
Indeed, more problematically still, it may encourage individuals to believe that sport is a realistic (or indeed the principal) avenue to overcome marginalization when in the vast majority of cases it fails to do so and may actually be responsible for the further marginalization of individuals, as writers such as Henry Louis Gates and Earl Smith have identified with respect to African Americans.
Many critics of the genre continue to call it “box office poison’, so why do sports movies endure and in fact continue to increase in the number of releases?
Sport provides an appealing and popular cultural form for film content; it is a practice with a huge and enthralled audience internationally. Film producers and directors are aware that if they can at least to some degree recreate the hope and enthusiasm that sport evokes in millions in their work, then they will likely have a successful film on their hands.
In contemporary popular culture where film and television is increasingly engaged with ‘true’ stories, biopics, films based on actual events, sport provides ideal material. Furthermore, at a time when American society and many other societies across the world are living through a period of great uncertainty with political, financial and economic threats surrounding us, audiences seek escape and hope and sport can provide this for many.
Sport is the ideal form to encapsulate the American Dream ideology and film is one of the most effective and seductive mediums for communicating this message.
Clearly Hollywood has dominated the genre, what nations do you see going forward with the ability to produce cinematic sports stories that succeed ACROSS borders?
It is really difficult for smaller nations to produce films that have the type of huge international appeal that Hollywood sports films have had. There have been rare examples of British films – Chariots of Fire, Bend it Like Beckham – that have managed to succeed across borders though most have not enjoyed this success.
While India has one of the largest and most successful film industries in the world, with the exception of a film like Lagaan, Indian sports films have enjoyed limited success internationally. Probably the one film culture that has enjoyed the most success, outside of Hollywood, with a sports related genre is that of Hong Kong and the Kung Fu movie which has enjoyed popular success internationally since the 1970s.
However, there are various reasons – industrial, linguistic, and indeed the distinctiveness of national sports that may not appeal outside of their home countries – why sports films made in other national contexts may not succeed internationally.
The reality is that for reasons of budget, star names, and the general infrastructure – distribution, promotion, exhibition – required to have a successful film in many territories, few sports films from other national contexts will succeed commercially across borders in the manner of Hollywood sports films.