In an era of instant video narrative, NFL Films’ long-form vision still reigns supreme

In the last week, two significant events put a nice bow on the 50-year run of NFL Films, the remarkable and revolutionary company started in 1962 by Ed Sabol. Last Friday, NFL Films employees gathered outside the company's enormous headquarters in Mount Laurel, N.J., to change the name of NFL Films' address. Formerly named One NFL Plaza, it's now One Sabol Way. The new name is a tribute to Ed's son Steve, who took the ball his father gave him and created a company with its own cottage industry in Emmys and an influence that goes far beyond the world of sports filmmaking. Steve passed away on Sept. 18, after fighting a brain tumor for over a year.

This past Tuesday, NFL Films released a box set containing the season recaps and Super Bowls for each of the last 46 NFL years. "The Super Bowl I-XLVI Collection" has 23 discs, over 45 hours of footage, weighs in at $250 for all you holiday shoppers out there, and has most of the NFL Films legacy in a single package. As Todd Schmidt, the producer of the box set told me, it's a compendium of "most of the greatest shots" for a company that's had more of them than most film companies could ever dream possible.

Schmidt has been with NFL Films for 16 years, and like many people with the company, this is the only job he's ever wanted.

"I grew up in the same hometown as Phil Villapiano, who played linebacker for the Raiders," he recently told me, when I asked him why this company had such a hold on him. "I went to a summer camp he put on, and they put up the 1973 Raiders highlight film. And that was it -- I just fell madly in love with the music, and the images, and the words, and John Facenda, and that whole deal. I spent many years in the advertising field, and with a few newspapers, and I decided to do what I had always wanted to do, which was to work for Films. So, I researched and studied, and I wrote Steve Sabol a detailed 10-page letter explaining why he should hire me. And he did, much to my amazement and appreciation."

But with Steve gone, the NFL Network a full-time concern of the league, and a daily explosion of immediate video hits of every possible NFL collateral hitting the wires in ways Big Ed could not have imagined in 1962, it's a question worth asking: Is the Films creed of "Story First" still relevant in an age where media is so much more prevalent and disposable? And does the NFL realize the value in the longer narrative?

Some have their doubts. In July of 2011, Paul Domovitch of wrote an article that was frightening to anyone who's grown up with NFL Films and can't imagine their football lives without it. Domovitch painted a picture of ESPN "suits" coming into Mount Laurel to create an ADD Theater, casting half a century aside in favor of quick and buzzy blasts. The article portrayed the Films side of things as an assembly line for a network that was still struggling to get off the ground, and at times, according to some, was "barely watchable."

"We would sit down in meetings with them occasionally when I was there and we'd be discussing programming for the upcoming season," former Films producer and writer Ray Didinger told Domovitch. "Every time we would propose an NFL Films-type look at something, you could kind of see them say, 'Well, ya know, we were thinking of something that was a little edgier and a little punchier and a little faster.'

"The term that we used to get kicked back at us from time to time was, 'dinosaur television.' They'd say, 'That stuff is dated. Been done before. People have seen it. We're going to change the way football is presented on television.'"

It seemed like the most typical of media wars -- quantity versus quality, and demographics versus the truth. However, the people at Films believe that there's still a realistic and robust future for true storytelling in the middle of the media churn.

"This place is fueled by people who have a tremendous passion for the game," Schmidt told me. "Not necessarily for the numbers, but for the mythology and what the game means in our hearts. Seeing [the players'] eyes -- seeing the effort and the strain -- you don't catch that Sunday afternoons on your TV. So, Films does that for me, and for a whole lot of people."

That's always been the prime goal of Films -- to take a game that seems fast, impersonal, and vicious, and give it human faces and voices. From the first time a coach was miked up in the mid-1960s to the recent biographical sketches in "A Football Life," the Sabols were able to bring the game down to a very personal level, even as they blew up the drama to histrionic levels. That's always been, and still remains a saving grace for Films -- the ability to tell a story beyond the highlights.

"The idea is to take what's truly great about the game and play it up -- the power and the glory and the strength and the speed," Schmidt said. "There's a way that the dramatic music, and a voice like John Facenda's ... we have the luxury of taking the really great stuff and playing it up to the hilt. We have the time to do that. So, yes. You can watch the Super Bowl, and see a cornerback run an interception back for the game-winning touchdown, and it's amazing. But when you see him in our stuff, and you see him dead-center in our frame, and you hear the music swelling, it really takes it to another dimension."

That dimension really came from Steve Sabol, who saw football as a vehicle for drama in ways that nobody ever had before.

"Steve always had a cinematic view of what is spectacular and wonderful -- he would always talk about 'Victory at Sea' and all these images," Schmidt said. "Wanting to capture that. So, how do we take football and turn it into that? We have an incredibly talented group of cinematographers who are amazing in what they can capture. And we've always been brave enough financially to let the film run like water -- to be able to shoot a football game in 96 frames, which is not a cheap thing to do.

Moving forward through the future of the company, that's the (multi) million-dollar question. In an NFL that's become a for-profit enterprise above all, how feasible and realistic is it to assume that those dramas, as compelling as they may be, will be seen as worthwhile by the NFL? Domovitch estimated in his piece that Films was losing up to $20 million per year at one point, and while that's a drop in the bucket to a league that makes close to $10 billion per year (and will make far more when new television deals take hold in 2014), one wonders if the new breed of owners and decision-makers see the value in maintaining that living history.

Schmidt said that there's no additional pressure at this point -- there's always been a budget, and there always will be. But when it comes to Films, you have to go all in, or you might as well not bother. Shooting highlights with a highlight mentality simply doesn't work, and Schmidt brought that into focus by remembering one of the most famous plays in NFL history.

"Someone once said to them, 'Why don't you just shoot all the touchdowns?' Obviously, you can't do that. You've got to let it roll. The 'Miracle at the Meadowlands' was a perfect example -- that was a kneel-down play! Why not pack up and go home? Our guys stayed on and kept the camera rolling, because you never know what's going to happen. Sure enough, [New York Giants quarterback Joe] Pisarcik turns and pivots, hits [running back Larry] Csonka in the thigh, there's [Philadelphia Eagles defensive back] Herm Edwards to pick up the fumble and score a touchdown, and you have an image that will live forever."

Steve Sabol used to give his employees awards for the most spectacular failures. It's a great story, and an admirable way to run a business, but is there time for spectacular failures in a marketplace where everything must literally be produced immediately? Does the narrative still matter?

"I think it's two things," Schmidt said. "First of all, there's always been TV news -- now, there's just a lot more of it. The storytelling is still vital. Are we first anymore? No. There's ESPN, there's the NFL Network -- there's a lot of people who will get you the highlights. But after a while, the highlights are the same. Spectacular catches happen every week. The story and the context -- what makes the spectacular catch special, or looking at it in a different way that the TV didn't get. That's timeless. And then, being able to tell the stories, and giving insights to the players and the coaches, still has relevance. People still like it."

As for the idea that Films is on its last legs, I didn't hear that from anyone in the company -- even those who were less than happy with the way things have gone in recent years.

"I've never heard anything about Roger Goodell shutting us down," Schmidt told me, and it's worth mentioning that he is very clearly not one of those unhappy people. "That's news to me. It's a business, and in any business, there's going to be a bottom line, and we're cognizant of that."

There are issues within the company. Some of what Domovitch wrote resonated with others I talked to. Some who would prefer to remain anonymous did wonder how the long-term future of the NFL Network and its 'ADD vision' would mesh with the NFL Films creative vision. And one person told me off the record that there are people who feel that there's a pretty heavy ceiling when it comes to getting ahead, both professionally and financially.

But for Greg Cosell, who's been with the company more than 30 years and helped invent advanced football analysis with Sabol and the still-going "NFL Matchup" show, there's more to do now than ever before.

"To talk about what Steve meant to me? That's not hard to do," Cosell said. "I started here in 1979, and he quickly recognized what my strengths and weakness were, and how I saw the game of football. It was Steve who came to me in 1984 and said, 'Hey, I have this idea, and I think you're the guy to make this idea go."

"Matchup" started in 1984 on ESPN, and became the first place where people could learn about the X's and O's of the game on a consistent basis. The technology was not what it is now, but that didn't matter. Steve Sabol found his guy, and he was going to make it go.

"He always had the philosophy that it's better to fail with a grand experiment than to never try something," Cosell told me. "And, let me tell you -- for a long time, people said, 'Who cares about the game in that way, and how are you going to present it so people care about it?' People have access to so much more information, including coaching tape now. Back then, if you watched coaching tape, it looked like a bunch of ants running around. It took a long time for that to become mainstream."

However long it took, the Sabols stuck with it. And that's what made NFL Films great. Does it still?

As Cosell told me, NFL Films simply does "too much stuff" to ever be redundant to the game so many people love. It's not just "America's Game" and "A Football Life" and "Lost Treasures" and "Playbook" and "NFL Matchup." It's the fact that the NFL Films credo and ultimate belief -- one person with a camera, another with a story, and a third with a vision -- will always be needed. That the overriding vision is time-transcendent.

Schmidt may have summed up NFL Films' true value within a single sentence when asked about the fine line between immediacy and permanence.

"We never were the fastball -- we always were the change-up."

Fortunately, the league seems to understand -- at least for now -- that both pitches are essential.

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