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ESPN Brings Big Names to ’30 for 30’

John Singleton, Ice Cube will direct portions of sports documentary.

ESPN seems to be getting any filmmaker it wants for its “30 for 30” sports documentary project.


On Wednesday, the channel’s production shingle, ESPN Films, announced the addition of eight more projects to the doc collection, backed by eight more big names, including John Singleton, Alex Gibney, Morgan Freeman, Frank Marshall and Ice Cube.


On hand at TCA Wednesday with Singleton and Ice Cube, as well as several previously enlisted “30 for 30” participants, including “Friday Night Lights” creator Peter Berg, project executive producer Connor Schell wouldn’t disclose how much money is being spent on each documentary.


Suffice it to say it’s not a lot.


“The filmmakers are doing them because they want to,” he said, noting that moviemaker buzz has increased steadily since ESPN put the word out about the project last year through agents, managers and the festival circuit. “The reaction from the filmmaking community has been surprising.”


The manifestation of finished “30 for 30” projects on the ESPN schedule – the latest, Spike Lee’s “Kobe Doin’ Work” premiered last spring – has also accelerated filmmaker interest.


Certainly, ESPN has found a format that seems like the assembly-line production of passion projects.


“I’m really excited,” said Singleton Wednesday, while sitting next to his “30 for 30” subject, disgraced Olympic sprinter Marion Jones. “I’ve always been interested in docs – I’ve only done feature films – but I watch docs all the time.


This subject really got under my skin. I remember watching Marion’s press conference (where she admitted to steroid use), and I remember being emotionally shaken by what she was going through. Then I got really angry. Why should she have to go through this when the subject has been pervasive throughout athletics.”


Ice Cube, meanwhile, is in the process of shooting “Straight Out of L.A.,” a look at how the arrival of the NFL’s silver-and-black-clad Oakland Raiders in the 1980s influenced fashion and culture in inner-city Los Angeles.


“The Raiders were like when your bad cousin comes to visit and they have an influence on you that your parents don’t like,” said the former NWA denizen. “For me, being knee-deep in gangster rap at that time, that was a big influence.”


Also on hand at Wednesday’s ESPN TCA panel, exec producer Bill Simmons explained the origins of the project, which basically features the creation of 30 sports docs tied into the cable channel’s 30th anniversary this year.


“It really bothered me that HBO had cornered the sports documentary in the eyes of the average sports fan,” Simmons said. “I was trying to come up with different ways to match that and thinking, maybe we can beat the system. I knew we loved celebrating anniversaries, and I knew we had a lot of money.”


The stories, Simmons explained, are intended to examine poorly understood sports events, not necessarily the most notable ones.


“We’ve come to the conclusion that yeah, maybe a documentary about (1980s Oklahoma University running back) Marcus Dupree is more interesting than a Tiger Woods documentary.


Other newly announced “30 for 30” projects include Gibney’s “Steve Bartman," a look at the Chicago Cubs fan who inadvertently – and infamously — interfered with the catching of a foul ball in the 2003 World Series; “One Simple Gesture,” Morgan Freeman and Lori McCreary’s look at Nelson Mandela’s decision in 1995 to don a jersey for rugby team Springbok and greet the squad’s captain with a nation-healing midfield handshake; and “Birth of Big Air,” Spike Jonze and Johnny Knoxville’s look at BMX legend Mat Hoffman.


All the newly announced docs are expected to be completed and run on ESPN within the next 15 months.