One NFL Plaza
Stunning cinematography. Exclusive all-access sound. Stirring orchest ral music. Poignant storytelling. These hallmarks define the NFL Film s style ... often imitated, but never equaled.
"NFL Films is perhaps the most effective propaganda organ in the hist ory of corporate America," opined Sports Illustrated in 1999. The family-run Mount Laurel, New Jersey-based subsidiary of the Natio nal Football League (NFL) films every NFL game each year. The materia l is then packaged in a multitude of ways: providing highlight packag es for distribution on television and the Web, programming for outlet s such as ESPN, HBO, and NFL Network, and DVD and videocassette title s. Profits flow back to the clubs in the form of royalties. The winne r of more than 90 Emmy awards, NFL Films has been a pioneer on a numb er of fronts since its founding in the early 1960s. It was the first to put a microphone on coaches, referees, and players; the first to d iagram plays on the screen; the first to use a reverse-angle replay; the first to put popular music to sports footage; the first to use 60 0-mm telephoto lenses in sports; the first to produce a bloopers vide o. Moreover, NFL Films' groundbreaking presentation of action in slow -motion photography, combined with montages and driving music, has ha d a profound impact on contemporary filmmaking. The company's project s have attracted such notable stars as Orson Welles, Vincent Price, B urt Lancaster, and Roy Scheider, who have all lent their vocal talent s to the narration of NFL Films' productions. Although filming NFL fo otball games remains the company's focus, over the years it has branc hed into the filming of other sporting events, filming sports sequenc es for feature films, and providing commercial and corporate video pr oduction services. NFL Films is the largest purchaser of Kodak film i n the world.
Origins with Gift of Movie Camera in 1940
The man behind the founding of NFL Films was Ed Sabol, born in Atlant ic City, New Jersey, and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was an athlete with a theatrical bent. He lettered in football, track, a nd swimming in high school, and became an accomplished swimmer at The Ohio State University. After graduation he appeared on Broadway in o ne of Oscar Hammerstein's less successful musicals, Where Do We Go From Here, set in a college fraternity house. It closed after ju st 15 performances. Sabol then appeared as an extra with the vaudevil le comedy team the Ritz Brothers, a stint that ended his brush with s how business. Sabol found an outlet for his creativity when he receiv ed a 16-mm Bell & Howell movie camera in 1940 as a wedding presen t from his mother-in-law. The camera quickly became his hobby and pas sion, and his favorite subject became his son, Steve, whom he filmed growing up. When Steve began playing high school football, Sabol film ed all of his games. People who saw his work were impressed and asked him to film their football games as well. Other than his family life , his camera was about the only source of joy in Sabol's life. Accord ing to Fortune, "In 1962, Ed Sabol was 45 years old and misera ble. Selling overcoats in Philadelphia for his father-in-law, a tough , frugal immigrant businessman, Ed hated his job. 'It was like going to the dentist every morning,' he grumbles." Sabol learned from the n ewspapers that an area company called Telra had paid $1,500 for t he rights to film the 1961 NFL championship game. He became determine d to win the rights for the 1962 championship game and doubled the bi d to $3,000. Although he only had high school footage to show the NFL, his high offer at least accorded him a chance to sell himself t o NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. They met for lunch at "21," and acco rding to company lore, Ed Sabol the accomplished salesman won over Ro zelle by the end of the fourth martini.
From the start Sabol wanted to be innovative. Rather than just film t he championship game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Pa ckers from a single camera located high in the stands at the 50-yard line, he wanted to film up close to catch the intensity of the game. He hired free-lance cameramen and stationed them in a way that has ha rdly changed since. To the stationary camera at the 50-yard line, he added a "Mole" to film the sidelines and a "Weasel" to wander around the stadium to collect moments of opportunity. Sabol also had one of the men speed up his camera to produce slow-motion footage. His son, a college student by then, also worked the game as a "Gopher," helpin g out the cameramen but not filming himself. It was a frigid day, wit h the wind chill at 20 degrees below zero, and the cameras kept freez ing up. The film broke, and until it was developed Ed Sabol was not s ure he would have anything with which to work. The film did develop a nd the result was "Pro Football's Longest Day," which premiered at To ot Shor's restaurant in New York. Rozelle was pleased, calling it the greatest football film ever made. However, there was a limited marke t for the film, and Sabol had to travel to Kiwanis Club and Boy Scout meetings, packing his own projector and screen, to find an audience.
The NFL's Acquisition of Blair Motion Pictures in 1964
Ed Sabol called his fledgling company Blair Motion Pictures (named af ter his daughter), setting up shop above a Philadelphia delicatessen and doing some educational films during football's off-season. He fil med the 1963 championship game, again received praise and again lost money. Having proven himself, he now pestered Rozelle with the idea o f the NFL owning its own film company. Rozelle, who possessed a backg round in public relations, recognized that the epic way Sabol capture d the NFL could be used to sell tickets, and he presented the idea to the club owners. The NFL considered other companies, including Telra and New York-based producers, but Ed Sabol closed the deal. Rather t han using a slide presentation, like his rivals, he simply talked to the owners and convinced them to buy out his company for a one-time p ayment of $280,000, amounting to $20,000 each from the league 's 14 teams. His film company would become a house organ, renamed NFL Films, and he promised to produce a championship game film each year and a film for each team highlighting their past season. The teams w ere already spending that much money to produce their own highlight f ilms and, by having a single production company involved, they could control quality. Turning a profit was not an important consideration, but not losing money was. As Sabol rode down the elevator following his successful pitch, the owner of the Baltimore Colts, Carroll Rosen bloom, told him, "Good luck on your new endeavor, but if you even com e back and ask for money, we'll close you down in a second."
Blair Motion Pictures became NFL Films in 1964 and Sabol turned to St eve to help him avoid the wrath of Rosenbloom and the other owners. S teve Sabol, aside from growing up a football fan, loved movies. As a youngster he was enamored with the award-winning television documenta ry series Victory at Sea, which chronicled World War II with a n innovative score by composer Richard Rodgers and became a key influ ence on NFL Films' style. The younger Sabol also developed an eye fro m his mother, an art collector. He had been a disinterested college s tudent, however, as a varsity football player and art major at Colora do College who spent much of his free time watching movies. He return ed to Philadelphia and father and son quickly proved to be a good com bination. The elder Sabol knew how to run a business and was an accom plished schmoozer, and his son was filled with ideas about how to bri ng the reality of the game to the screen.
Over the next few years the key elements of the NFL style, and in tur n the reputation of NFL Films, was forged. A Japanese editor who did not know football but did understand film language moved the company away from the tradition of showing a football play from beginning to end. Instead, NFL Films began to break a play into parts, and as a re sult developed a montage approach that was given full expression in t he 1965 film They Call It Pro-Football, which also featured th e narration of John Facenda, a longtime Philadelphia news anchor whos e rich voice and commanding delivery elevated the material. The Ne w York Times called it the Citizen Kane of sports movies. According to Business Journal of New Jersey, the film was uniq ue because it "wasn't written in complete sentences; it was written i n sentence fragments. The music wasn't march music; it was contempora ry. The whole concept was completely new, adding a sense of drama and glory." With Facenda becoming the voice of NFL Films, a year later t he company hired composer Sam Spence to provide background music in t he manner of a Hollywood film. He provided a muscular soundtrack that became another hallmark of an NFL Films production. Spence continued to work for the company for many years despite living in Munich. Acc ording to Steve Sabol, he would hum a few bars of what he was looking for over the phone and Spence would take it from there.
With a few championship game films, dozens of team season summaries, and They Call It Pro-Football to its credit, NFL Films began f inding more ways to package all the film it shot. By this time the co mpany was spending a considerable amount of money on film because eve ry play was shot in slow motion. People loved the slow-motion shots, and Ed Sabol, who came from the school of "the customer is always rig ht," decided to give the people what they wanted. In 1967 NFL Films p roduced its first feature for a network pre-game show, CBS Countdo wn to Kickoff, and began producing a weekly highlight show, Th is Is the NFL, which premiered on television on a syndicated basi s. In the beginning it was shown late at night and other odd hours, b ut eventually moved into better time slots. Also in 1967, NFL Films f ound a way to make use of some of the film that never made it into th e highlights, especially the more unusual plays, including the fumble s and mistakes. The humorous result was called the Football Follie s, which a league official initially rejected because he thought it humiliated the players. But Rozelle decided to show the film to so me players to see what they thought. The Philadelphia Eagles players who viewed the film at training camp roared their delight. The Fol lies was released, and would one day become a video bestseller th at not only spawned Follies sequels but launched the bloopers genre that became a TV mainstay. Other firsts in the 1960s included t he use of graphics to explain strategy, the miking of the first coach (the Philadelphia Eagles' Joe Kuharich), filming inside a locker roo m before a game, and the first use of 600-mm telephoto lenses in spor ts.
NFL Films had gained a solid enough reputation in the 1960s to attrac t the attention of Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Leagues, which both approached the company about doing work for them. Ed Sabol, however, did not want to be stretched too thin, electing i nstead to continue to focus on football. By the end of the decade pro fessional football had made great strides in popularity. At the start of the 1960s it trailed baseball, college football, and boxing, but the sport flourished as perfect television programming. A major facto r in the changing perception of professional football was the way in which NFL Films portrayed it, a treatment that television would begin to emulate and that would make the game even more popular. A major s tep for both the NFL and its filmmaking subsidiary was the 1970 launc h of Monday Night Football. Not only did it bring the game to a larger, prime-time audience, it spiced up the coverage with some of the NFL Films trademarks, including an abundance of slow motion. It also dispensed with the traditional halftime fare of marching bands a nd showed highlights of the previous day's games, courtesy of NFL Fil ms, narrated off the cuff by the flamboyant Howard Cosell who was gen erous in his praise for the work of the company.
NFL Films enjoyed steady growth in the 1970s, finding new outlets for its work while retaining an innovative spirit. It also did a little work for Hollywood, shooting footage for the football film Brian's Song. In 1974 it forged a partnership with HBO, providing materi al for a weekly highlight show. The rise of cable television also bro ught another key long-term partner: all-sports channel ESPN, which be gan using NFL Films-produced content in 1978. In that same year, the company produced its first Road to the Superbowl television sp ecial. Along the way, NFL Films began using the reverse-angle play in 1971, and employed "The Way We Were" in 1973 as the first popular so ng to accompany football footage. In 1977 the first Sports Emmy Award s were held and, not surprisingly, NFL Films took home a statue, the first of dozens. The company closed the decade by moving into larger accommodations, relocating to Mount Laurel, New Jersey.
Innovations Continuing in the 1980s
NFL Films introduced the first sports home video in 1980, and also be gan to expand beyond football. In 1980, working in conjunction with N ASA, it produced a PBS documentary called Greatest Adventure: Man' s Journey to the Moon. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was so impressed he commented that if NFL Films worked for NASA full-time the agency woul d never have suffered a budget cut. NFL camera crews also began filmi ng rock concerts for Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson and produc ed MTV videos, but Ed Sabol made sure the company never placed too mu ch emphasis on projects outside its bread-and-butter football busines s. In 1987 he turned over the presidency to Steve and stayed on as ch airman of NFL Films, a post he held until 1995 when he retired.
Under Steve Sabol's leadership, little changed at NFL Films, which co ntinued to produce a staggering amount of programming each year. It a lso remained committed to taking advantage of the best equipment and technology available. In 1987, for example, the company began to log the contents of its extensive film vault in a computer database. NFL Films under Steve Sabol formed a new division in 1993, NFL Films Comm ercial Production, to take advantage of the company's state-of-the ar t production facilities. The focus of the unit was on commercials, in fomercials, corporate films, and video annual reports. Over the next two years more than 30 commercials for local and national companies w ere produced at the NFL Films facility.
By 1995 NFL Films had long since turned every available closet and co nference room into usable space and the company began making plans to relocate to a larger facility. It was a long-term project that requi red approval from the NFL, and it was not until 2002 that the company moved into a new 200,000-square-foot, 26-acre site in Mount Laurel t hat included production studios and a massive film library. NFL Films hoped to use the new facility as a launching pad for even more non-N FL work, which still only accounted for 10 percent of its revenues. T he extra space would also be necessary as NFL Films began providing p rogramming for the NFL Network, a new cable TV venture launched by th e league. In essence the company now had a Hollywood-caliber studio a t its disposal, which was soon put to use in making a pair of feature -length war dramas for the History Channel: My Father's Gun a nd Blood from a Stone.
The new facilities also positioned NFL Films to take its football fra nchise into the future. The company began the long-term project of di gitizing its massive film library, so that theoretically all of NFL F ilms' highlights could be available on the Web. Digital technology al so allowed NFL Films content to become available on a new generation of cell phones. In 2005 Sprint Nextel Corp. agreed to a five-year dea l to provide a variety of NFL programming to customers, including the "best of NFL Films."
Although NFL Films was sure to continue its evolution, for the time b eing at least it would continue to be led by Steve Sabol. "I have no line of succession," he told the New York Times in 2000. "I wi ll be taking care of this place every day when I'm 85, I assure you. I haven't gotten tired of it yet, so I can't see it ever happening. I fell into this, and I can't believe how lucky a life I've lived."
Principal Subsidiaries: NFL Films Commercial Production.