In 1962, a young filmmaker named Ed Sabol founded Blair Motion Pictures near Philadelphia and won the rights to film the 1962 NFL Championship Game. NFL Films was born. Today the company is run by Ed Sabol's son Steve and produces highlight packages, weekly programs and annual team yearbooks. It is to the NFL what Martin Scorsese is to gangster films. NFL Films turned football games into works of art with the baritone narration of John Facenda and the inspiring sound tracks composed by Sam Spence, and it continues to flourish nearly 50 years later. Steve Sabol spoke about the history of NFL Films, what makes it successful and even how the music once ended up in a porn movie.
Why does NFL Films work so well, and why haven't we seen similar concepts work in other sports?
Look at a football field. It looks like a big movie screen. This is theatre. Football combines the strategy of chess. It's part ballet. It's part battleground, part playground. We clarify, amplify and glorify the game with our footage, the narration and that music, and in the end create an inspirational piece of footage. When fans relive these thrilling moments, you get a goose bump effect.
The popularity of the NFL exploded about the same time NFL Films came into existence. How much credit should NFL Films get?
That's hard … to answer. But I can go back to 1965 and a film we made called They Call It Pro Football. I remember being with my father in the office of commissioner Pete Rozelle and Rozelle said to us, "This is exactly what we want to show to our fans, and this is going to help make football the No. 1 sport in the country.
What made They Call It Pro Football so special?
It was our Citizen Kane. We took highlights and made them into a montage with editing and slow-motion replays and did all sorts of new things. And the film holds up even today.
Back in the '60s and '70s, the only place to get highlights was from NFL Films on shows such as NFL Game of the Week, the old Sunday morning shows with Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier and the halftime highlights on Monday Night Football. Now, fans can see highlights of the games almost immediately on dozens of stations. How does NFL Films survive that?
Actually, ESPN has been great for us because they show many of our films. I remember back in the old days when our shows were syndicated and on either really late Saturday night or early Sunday morning and we were sponsored by folks like Red Devil Caulking. Our fan base was parking lot attendants and bartenders and new fathers who were up feeding their kids at 4 in the morning. But then ESPN gave us all kinds of exposure.
What's a typical Sunday like for you?
I don't go to games as much as I used to because of the NFL's Sunday Ticket. So I'll watch the games, take notes.
Will you call your people at games if you notice something on TV?
Oh, sure. But we have a tremendous staff of people. And a wide range of people. We have 250 people and I would say that 15 percent of them have been with NFL Films for more than 25 years. And then another 15 percent have been with NFL Films less than two years.
What do you do during the week?
I spend most of my time writing, reviewing the scripts and going over the music. Writing is the single most important factor in our films.
Speaking of music, can't you hear that famous Sam Spence music on certain episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants?
I heard that. (Laughs) And, apparently, our music can also be heard on Deep Throat. How about that? You can hear NFL Films music on everything from SpongeBob SquarePants to Deep Throat.
What will NFL Films do for the Super Bowl?
We will have 12 cameramen. The cameraman with the least experience will be someone who has done 16 Super Bowls. Covering a Super Bowl is actually one of the easiest things we do because our most experienced people are there. We'll have 25,000 feet of film and there's no way you're going to miss anything. And this year has a great story line. You have the NFL slumdogs on their way to becoming millionaires in the Cardinals up against a Steelers team that is royalty in terms of football as they go for their sixth win. Another great story will be told and we're the ones who get to tell it.