By Steven Zeitchik
9:00 AM CST, January 16, 2013
Once relegated to a dusty corner of film festivals, shorts have started to take on a more central role in the age of digital video.
Can they get a boost from compelling sports stories?
ESPN, which has drawn plaudits for its “30 for 30” documentary series, hopes so with a new shorts spinoffs program for its Grantland website. “Ali: The Mission,” about Muhammad Ali’s oft-overlooked trip to Baghdad in the run-up to the first Iraq War, will become the program's latest offering when it debuts Wednesday morning. (You can watch it first below; the short will later appear on the Bill Simmons-led Grantland.)
"Ali's" story is an unusual one and largely unknown by even plugged-in sports fans. In December 1990, the former heavyweight champion flew to Iraq to plead for the rescue of American workers taken hostage by Saddam Hussein during the late Iraqi leader’s invasion of Kuwait.
Directed by sports documentarian Amani Martin and narrated by John Legend, the short took root when production and management company Core Media (parent to “American Idol” producer 19 Entertainment) unearthed previously unreleased footage of Ali at his Baghdad hotel facing a medical emergency. The company enlisted Martin, who had previously directed a film for HBO about subjects such the Brooklyn Dodgers.
“I was incredibly intrigued by a significant story that ends with the rescue of 15 hostages,” Martin said in an interview. “My first question was ‘Why didn’t I know the story?’”
The answer isn’t a simple one, though Ali’s complex legacy and the barrage of news before Desert Storm (the invasion began 22 years ago Wednesday) had something to do with it.
Nonetheless, it was a fearless act. Frowned upon by the Bush administration, which worried the boxer was being used as a propaganda tool, the Ali mission resulted in a happy ending.
As a family member of one hostage says in the film, “Unless [Ali] negotiated, I don’t think he would have come home.” (When a hostage thanks him, Ali coolly replies, “God works through people. It’s not me.”)
ESPN executives are hoping that shorts like this and others — recently released films include a mini-doc about Arnold Palmer and his namesake drink and one on sports novelist Alfred Slote — expand the appeal of Grantland. Since launching in 2011, the site has garnered a reputation for a kind of in-depth irreverence with its stories and posts but hasn't dabbled much in video before the shorts program.
Executives also hope the shorts offer a chance to tell the stories more quickly and easily.
"’30 for 30’ created a branded destination for quality storytelling. With ’30 for 30: Shorts’ we aspire to do the same thing in a different format,” said Connor Schell, vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films.
If the shorts can seem less substantial than the meaty “30 for 30” movies, that’s by design, Schell says. “It’s a way of telling a story on a subject that deserves 15 minutes and takes two months to make instead of 50 or 100 minutes and takes eight or nine months to make.”
Though seemingly tailor-made for an era in which informatin is digested in bite-sized chunks, serious nonfiction shorts have struggled to gain traction, seen as less substantive than a feature doc and less accessible than a scripted short. Its category at the Oscars is generally one of the least followed.
But ESPN hopes that it can help change that by marrying popular subjects with a brand known for sharp and entertaining commentary.The company aims for one short per month; the full-length “30 for 30” series continues with a new slate of nine movies. Asked what the metric for success was, Schell said ESPN was not scrutinizing views in the same way it might on-air ratings but that, for now at least, it was aiming to use the videos primarily to build Grantland's brand. (The shorts are being produced for Grantland without the intention of using them on the air, though a different Grantland short was aired during a recent installment of the network’s “Friday Night Fights.”)
Still, “30 for 30: Shorts” speak to how the lines between platforms are being broken down. Not that long ago, original film content wasn't the province of article-driven sites. But these days, even outlets like Grantland have an appetite for movies. “A lot of great filmmakers do really interesting work, but it’s lost at festivals or just out in the world," Schell said. "With Grantland they can directly reach viewers and readers.”
Follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT