Sporting News For Filmers: You Gotta Have Solutions

18 May 2004 Hollywood Reporter by Randy Williams
It's a whole new ballgame for actors with athletic roles: They can no longer hide behind body doubles or faked sports scenes. In a culture where audiences are often players of a given sport, where sports-themed video games are a billion-dollar industry and sporting events are on TV around the clock, the demand for authenticity has reached new levels.
 
Today's audiences are sophisticated and require a high degree of authenticity in what they see onscreen.
 
"You can't believe the tears in the locker room if you don't believe the catch in the end zone," says Reel Sports Solutions, a company that helps filmmakers come as close to reality as possible with their sports action sequences. Mark Ellis, a former all-conference football player at Guilford College in his home state of North Carolina, along with former teammate and current business partner Rob Miller, has built a comfortable niche in the film business primarily through developing athletic skills in actors.
 
"I saw an interview with Denzel Washington about his role as boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter in 'The Hurricane,' " recalls Ellis, a former football player. "When they asked him, 'Why did you train so intensely for three months when you're in the ring for just the opening minute and a half of the movie and the rest of time you're in jail?' Denzel said, 'If they didn't believe me for the first minute and a half of that movie that I was a boxing champion, I'd lose credibility with the audience right away. The rest of what happens in that jail cell would mean nothing.' "
 
Ensuring that sense of realism is at the core of what ReelSports Solutions offers its clients.
 
Dennis Quaid's laudable performance as a major league pitcher in 2002's "The Rookie" is typical of what ReelSports' services can produce. "Rookie" director John Lee Hancock brought in ReelSports to work with Quaid, who Ellis had worked with for the actor's role as a quarterback in Oliver Stone's "Any Given Sunday."
"I really wanted to get to where I looked like I knew what I was doing," Quaid said at the time. "I'm playing a real guy, and I don't want to embarrass him or myself."
 
ReelSports acknowledges that Quaid is very athletic, but "safety and keeping him healthy was the No. 1 priority. We would videotape him to make an evaluation on how long we'd need to get him to look like he had a major league delivery. The production couldn't risk blowing his arm out by throwing for hours on end," ReelSports notes. "There are also scheduling challenges, as lead actors are often already working on another project. We started three months out, working three days a week using various methods to slowly build up his arm strength, and brought in (former Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher) Jim Gott to work on his pitching form."
 
The company also was responsible for locating, casting and training ballplayers for smaller parts in the film. Filling such supporting roles is how the duo got their start in the film business in 1992.
 
It was because of their knowledge of local football talent — Miller was a strength and conditioning coach at the University of South Carolina — that the two were contacted by second unit director Allan Graf to help cast for 1993's "The Program," a football action drama starring James Caan that was to be filmed in the area.
 
The relationship proved valuable. While Miller was expanding his career by working the Olympic Games as a planning manager and TV producer, and occasionally helping on movie sets, Ellis slowly built credits by assisting Graf with the sports sequences for "Jerry Maguire," "The Waterboy" and "The Replacements."
 
Drawing on his background as a wide receiver to help Cuba Gooding Jr. to an Oscar-winning performance as NFL pass-catcher Rod Tidwell in "Jerry Maguire," Ellis and Miller saw a great opportunity to be a one-stop shop in an area of the film business that was devoid of any real organized competition save for the occasional ex-athlete or stunt worker.
 
" 'Jerry Maguire' was the turning point," they said. "Filmmakers began realizing you just can't grab a local coach and football players and tell them to go out and run some plays. You better have someone that understands (both) production and sports that can bridge that gap."
 
ReelSports does TV work as well, having just wrapped up the baseball coordination for "Clubhouse," a series pilot for CBS. It is a coming-of-age drama revolving around a New York Yankees batboy. The company's other TV credits include the WB Network's "One Tree Hill" (basketball), TNN's "SlamBall" series (basketball) and ESPN's football-themed drama series "Playmakers."
 
"We did a market analysis," Miller adds. "It's hard to find (a unique area of expertise), where there isn't a ton of organized competition, and make your mark (in it). I felt we really had the opportunity here to do that."
 
Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray of Mayhem Pictures, who worked with Reel Sports on "The Rookie," hired Ellis and Miller to help with the Kurt Russell starrer "Miracle," which is about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. "Part of what sets ReelSports Solutions apart and (has) allowed them to become the premier player in their field — besides their skills in working with lead actors, finding competent athletes that can hit their marks, and their network of coaching specialists — is their ability to develop a playbook that helps propel the story and character development in action sequences," Ciardi says.
 
"I can't imagine doing a sports movie without them," says veteran producer-director Mike Tollin on the set of the upcoming "Coach Carter," a basketball drama starring Samuel L. Jackson and the sixth collaboration between ReelSports Solutions and Tollin/Robbins Prods. "And I certainly wouldn't want to."

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