Viewers gave ESPN's ambitious move into the documentary and film arena a big thumbs up with the strong ratings performance of its March college-basketball documentary Black Magic.
The documentary is the first of several film projects being created under the network's ESPN Films initiative headed by ESPN senior vice president of content development and enterprises Keith Clinkscales, who said the network will look for compelling sports stories to develop both in the scripted movie and documentary arenas across multiple distribution platforms.
The March 16 installment of Black Magic, which chronicled the history of African-American athletes and college basketball, set a network record for documentaries, averaging a 1.2 million households and 1.55 million viewers. The performance surpassed the 1.14 million households that tuned in the March 2006 documentary Through the Fire.
The second installment of Black Magic the following night averaged a 1.0 rating and 1.18 million viewers.
Clinkscales said Black Magic and its focus on college basketball's contributions to the civil-rights movement is an example of the compelling sports subjects the network will look to tackle as part of its original programming initiative.
“The bottom line is to find the best way to engage a very active and wonderful fan base of people who love sports, and to expand the storytelling paradigm to include documentaries,” said Clinkscales.
While Clinkscales would not reveal specific documentary projects in the works, he did say the network has signed several filmmakers to develop “mini-movies” in 2009 in recognition of the network's 30th anniversary. Mike Tollin (Wild Hogs, The Bronx is Burning) and Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) will each produce one of the 30 movies for the network, which will focus on a sports related topic of the producer's choice.
Clinkscales said the documentaries are just one facet of the ESPN Films initiative: the network will launch several sports-related theatrical films in partnership with the Creative Arts Agency.
“We've looked at some scripted opportunities, a lot of which are based on some things that have actually happened,” he said although he would not reveal specifics. “I don't think [theatrical films] are so much a change or a departure, but just trying to find the best way to tell sports stories.”
Scripted series, however, doesn't seem to be one of those ways. After aggressively playing in the scripted arena several years ago with the launch of the pro football-oriented Playmakers and the gambling-tinged Tilt — neither of which made it beyond their freshman runs — Clinkscales says there's no plans to resurrect the genre on ESPN.
However, he said there may be opportunities to launch short-form series on ESPN.com.
“One of the things about my area is that we have the opportunity to look across platforms,” he said. “We'll see some different things, but they won't all be on television — we might do some things on the Web or via podcast, so we can stretch the full use of every platform that we have.”