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I Am American Business

Steve Sabol

Producer Notes

The NFL Films headquarters building is in New Jersey, closer to Philadelphia than New York. It's not open for tours or visits and that's a shame, because for a football fan this building is a dream. It's a living celebration of the sheer beauty of the game. And it's not just the gorgeous photos on the walls and the incredible films in their archives; it's the amazing array of 1950's football board games, the collection of signed footballs and the original art creations of Steve Sabol all throughout the building. If it isn't totally obvious in the visual poetry of his films, Steve is a true artist. In his off hours he creates collages of football and pop culture imagery. Elvis, Princess Di, old movie stars and football players all play on the same field in his imagination. If you love football you'd probably want to move in to NFL Films headquarters and just never leave.

Video Interview

The Cleat Marks in the Mud
I Wouldn't Watch the Film
It Wasn't the Score
Basketball is Armpits
The Citizen Kane of Football Movies

The "I Am" Q&A

What car do you drive?
I hate cars. Automobiles are just a mode of transportation to get from one place to another. I don't even know what kind of car I drive, I lease the car. All I care about is that it has good air-conditioning, I can adjust the seats, and I can work the windshield wipers back and forth.

What's your favorite place to go?
Flea markets.

What website do you like to visit?
Sports Illustrated, Slate, and sports pages.

What was your worst moment in business?
I've never had a bad moment in business.

What is your favorite drink?
Martini. With two olives.

What's your favorite food?
Meatloaf.

What's your idea of fun?
I like creating mixed media collages.

And at work?
In moviemaking, I enjoy setting music to picture.

What personal weaknesses do you forgive in someone?
A big ego. I think in this business, if you don't have a big ego, you're not going to be any good. You just have to be careful that it doesn't become an inflamed ego. That's bad. But, big egos to me have never been a problem. And, in an artistic community like this, in film companies, you're dealing with 300 big egos, but that's good because they care about quality, they care about what they're doing.

And what business weaknesses do you forgive in someone?
A business weakness that I forgive would be someone who spends too much time on a project because I know in their heart they want to make it better. Sometimes you have budgets and you allot a certain time to a producer. But if that producer or editor wants to come in and work late at night, and work till all hours, I don't feel that that should be added on to the budget because this is something that a person's doing because he wants to—or he or she wants to make it better. So, when somebody says, you're spending too much time on this, that's something I forgive.

What movie star do you like?
Marlon Brando. I like Burt Lancaster, and today, I like Anthony Hopkins.

Who is a business hero of yours?
My father. Without his business sense, I wouldn't be sitting here today talking to you.

What personal qualities do you admire in business?
Sense of humor. My father approached every situation as a potential source of humor. James Thurber said, that all tragedy is seen a second time as farce. And as long as it's not a life-or-death situation, most bad things that happen in business are usually learning experiences and a month, six months, a year later, you look back at them, and they're funny.

And what personal qualities do you admire in life?
A sense of humor and honesty.

And what was your greatest moment in business?
I've had so many great moments. I can't single out one.

What is your dream?
I'm living my dream.

What is your present state of mind?
Open.

Transcript

CNBC:
What was it like when you started the business?

STEVE SABOL:
When we started NFL Films, there were no focus groups, there were no demographic studies, there were no surveys. Every decision that we made, we made with our hearts, not with our heads. And, in the very beginning, we really didn’t even have a business plan.

CNBC:
Did anybody ever think that it could be a business like this?

STEVE SABOL:
No, in the beginning, it was like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can keep moving, and then, you keep your foot on the accelerator, and then in the morning you wake up and you look around and you say, boy, we’ve come a long way. But we didn’t—it was a year-by-year thing. And the only thing we were concerned about was the quality of the work. And we always felt that if the quality was good, the work would continue and regenerate itself.

CNBC:
Did you ever consider your business a marketing tool for the NFL?

STEVE SABOL:
Never. I never thought of what I was doing as a way to sell the NFL. I was making movies about a sport that I loved, about players and coaches that I respected. I wanted to convey my love of the game through film. And most artists convey their love through art. And my art and my love was expressed through film.

CNBC:
What did you study in school?

STEVE SABOL:
I was an art major. I remember when my dad got the rights for the 1962 championship game, he called me up, and I was in my fifth year of college at Colorado College. My dad said, “By looking at your grades, I can tell that the only thing you’ve been doing out there at Colorado College is going to the movies, and playing football.” But that makes you uniquely qualified for this new profession. So I came home and took some of the things that I had learned as an art major, and immediately applied them to making football films. Cézanne, the famous French Impressionistic painter, once said that all art is selected detail. And those are the things that when I was a cameraman, I wanted to focus on. The bloody hands. The cleat marks in the mud, the way the sun came through the stadium. The clouds over a practice field in Minnesota. All those different little details came together to help us tell a story. And telling a story is what NFL Films is all about. I’ve always believed that if you tell me a fact, I’ll learn. Tell me the truth, and I’ll believe, but tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever. And that’s what we do at NFL Films. We tell stories about the men who play and the men who coach in the National Football League.

CNBC:
Where do you get your marketing direction from?

STEVE SABOL:
We’ve never used focus groups or demographic studies. I’ve always made the decision with my heart, not with my head, and how I felt about it. To me, football is very personal. Even as a kid, I looked at football in dramaturgical terms. It wasn’t the score that interested me, it was the struggle. And that’s what fascinated me. I can go back to when I was in fourth grade, and I remember the smell of the leather shoulder pads that I put on, when I went out to play my first 70-pound football game. I remember the sound that my wooden cleats made on the concrete as I walked out of the gym onto the field. To me, football was something that was a dream that became a reality. It almost seems like destiny that I ended up doing what I was doing. As a little kid, I followed all the football games. I love the game, I loved to play it. And then you get the opportunity to translate that love into a movie screen, even to this day, I’m surprised by how lucky I am.

CNBC:
What has NFL Films created for the NFL?

STEVE SABOL:
When we started in the early ’60s, football had a little bit of a tradition. But, they didn’t have a mythology. And NFL Films, through our music and our scripts and our photography, created a mythology for the sport. The frozen tundra, the Ice Bowl. The Immaculate Reception. The catch, the drive. America’s Team. All live in our movies.

CNBC:
What is the power of imagery?

STEVE SABOL:
The most powerful thing in our culture is television. And football, if it hadn’t been invented, I’d feel that there would’ve been a bunch of executives in Madison Avenue, maybe after a three-martini lunch saying, what can we come up with, that combines the elements of chess, some elements of the playground, the ballet, the battlefield, and put that all into one sport. They would come up with professional football. Football is a sport of grand passions and bold gestures. And that very definition lends itself to moviemaking. And we captured those moments and those men and those emotions, and then distilled them into our movies. I think that’s what gives our films the resonance. There isn’t another sport that lends itself to film the way football does. Baseball is a sport of geometry. Basketball is armpits. All you see is armpits. But football, because of the jerseys and the spectacle of it, is made for movies.

CNBC:
How much did you pay for the rights to cover the first game?

STEVE SABOL:
My dad paid $2500 for the rights to film the first NFL championship game. And I remember being on the field, I was a runner then. This was 1962. And there were more Hall of Famers on the field for that game than in any NFL championship game in history. And what I remember most about that game, was not what happened on the field, but going into the locker room after the game. And I had played college football at Colorado College. I walked into that Packer locker room. The first person I see is Jimmy Taylor, the fullback for the Packers and he’s getting his lip stitched up. Right next to him is Bart Starr, the quarterback, he’s taking off his pads and there’s all these ugly welts on his ribs. Right over from him, was Ray Nitschke, the game’s MVP, on his face-mask was all caked blood. And I realized then, that this was a sport that I was not familiar with. This was a sport played at a whole different level. And I didn’t know then, that I would spend the rest of my life making movies about this sport. And help make it great. In the very beginning, we helped create the image of the sport. We helped promote the game. Now, I think we’re more keepers of the flame. We preserve the memories and the spirit of the sport through our films.

CNBC:
Do you think there’s a lesson about success?

STEVE SABOL:
The lesson, is to pursue what you love to do. And if you love to do it you’ll work at it, if you work at it you’ll be good at it, and if you’re good at it, then chances are, you can make some money out of it, and make a living.

CNBC:
How has the NFL grown?

STEVE SABOL:
In the mid-‘60s, there were two shows on professional football. We did a show, NFL Films did a show, and CBS had a show called “Countdown to Kickoff.” Today, there are 171 different shows on professional football. Pre-game shows, post-game shows, highlight shows, people at desks talking about the game. It’s a phenomenon to me. And I think there are things that you learn about football that can be translated to any endeavor in life. If you work hard, if you don’t care who gets the credit, if you approach your job with enthusiasm and with passion, you can be a success. And those are all things that you can learn, either playing football, or watching it.

CNBC:
What is the value of the NFL now?

STEVE SABOL:
It’s a sport that’s had great leadership. We’ve had three really outstanding commissioners. Pete Rozelle who was a visionary. Paul Tagliabue, who was the brains understood labor in television, and now we have a younger commissioner in Roger Goodell, who combines both the vision and the understanding that you have to make to move forward. He also has the business sense to realize that this is a sport but it’s still a business. So, I think that once again, we’re in really good hands. And we’ve had owners that love the game. The Jerry Joneses, the Bob Krafts. These are men who are attracted to the sport, not so much for the money, but because they love the sport. And that’s really important.

CNBC:
What is your commitment to film?

STEVE SABOL:
I think all great artists are either way ahead of their time or way behind their time. In the very beginning, we were way ahead of our time. In the way we shot, in our sound. Now, because we still use film, and everybody else shoots video, we’re way behind the time. But I think it’s important to be different, to be unique. And if you have a vision, if you can express that vision, in a unique way, or a different way, it’s like what Picasso said about art: art is just rearranging people’s previous perceptions. And that in a way is what we’ve done with football. Picasso was a big influence on me. He looked at a single subject from multiple perspectives and from different moments in time. That’s what I did with a football play, we looked at it from the end zone, from the ground, in slow motion, from the opposite side. What Picasso did with a woman’s face or a bowl of fruit, that’s something that we did with a football play.

CNBC:
So how would you contrast your use of film with the networks’ higher technology coverage?

STEVE SABOL:
Kate Smith once said that sometimes new and improved isn’t better than tried and true. We have a certain style. And that style is film. Film has a sense of romance about it, a sense of wonder, a sense of history. And that’s what we’re about, the mystique and the romance. Video to me is the 11 o’clock news. Video is like Formica. It’s smooth. Film, because it has silver in it, can be preserved longer than video. Video starts to degrade after 20 years.

CNBC:
Your headquarters is really remarkable. It’s like a football museum.

STEVE SABOL:
Yeah, the building is special because it’s not like the Hall of Fame where you have jerseys and everything, it’s a reverence to the game. I’m a big collector of kitsch and paper ephemera and being an art major, I’ve always enjoyed what I used to call, a unity of opposites. I wrote my term paper on Joseph Cornell. He does those strange little boxes with the parrots. I was always fascinated by that. And I’m a big collector of what I call incidental miscellanea. If you walked into our home, it looks like you just walked into an enormous flea market. I mean everything from old faucets, Victorian die-cuts, insect sprayers, old cigarette cards, all sorts of things that my father would call dreck. But to me it’s fun to take that and then create some sort of meaning out of all these unusual, obscure and arcane artifacts, put them together, and create one of Dr. Seuss’ figures like the Lorax. It had the body of a weasel and the tail of a lizard. That’s the way I look at my mixed-media pieces.

STEVE SABOL:
All my artwork is a self-portrait. To me, my boxes and the mixed-media collages, represent the rushed and jumbled nature of the game itself. The order and chaos blended together, but that’s really what a football game’s all about.

CNBC:
What did your father do?

STEVE SABOL:
My father was an overcoat salesman and worked for my grandfather, who was a Romanian immigrant who really didn’t speak English that well, but was a real slave-driver. I remember as a kid, going up to my grandfather’s factory and seeing the tailors make the overcoats. My dad was a salesman for him. But he hated it. And every time my grandfather would come over for dinner which was every Sunday night, we would just be watching the end of the football games. My grandfather would shut that off and grab my father to have these long discussions. I would be sitting off to the corner and my dad would be sitting there talking to my grandfather and every once in a while, he’d look at me and cross his eyes or make faces and you just knew that his heart wasn’t in it. He always wanted to make movies. As a kid, from my first pony ride, my first haircut, my first football game, there was my father, with a 16-millimeter Bell & Howell movie camera. So I don’t remember my father ever having a head. It was these arms and a pair of shoulders, and this Bell & Howell movie camera, which he had gotten as a wedding present from my grandmother. We still have that camera today. That camera’s still up in our lobby. But my dad was lucky in that he could turn his hobby into his profession. He just quit the overcoat business, took that energy, and love of moviemaking, and transferred it into this family business, which he called Blair Motion Pictures which was named after my sister. Blair Motion Pictures eventually became NFL Films. My dad didn’t start it until he was 48. We had a very unique relationship. How many people work with their fathers and hate it, and say oh, my old man’s a pain in the ass? My dad was not only a great boss, he was my best friend, he was the best man at my wedding, he’s the funniest person I’ve ever known, and he was my father, and my role model. So I was so lucky to work for one person who encompassed all these all these different personalities.

CNBC:
Was that first $2500 a financial risk?

STEVE SABOL:
No, not really. My dad always had a theory that if you like something, you always double it. If a doctor says take two, you take four. My dad was always a man of such exuberance and spirit, that when the company started and there were just four or five of us, it was his spirit and his enthusiasm that made the job fun in the beginning. Also, it was his ability to encourage us. I’ve always felt the biggest risk is not to take any risks. And in the early years, I used to give a bonus for the most spectacular failure. If the failure is spectacular enough, there’s usually a kernel, a good idea that you can build on. But more important than that is when you give a bonus or an award for the most spectacular failure, you’re creating an environment in which people want to take risks and want to try new things and aren’t afraid of failure. This business like a man on a river rowing upstream. The minute you stop rowing, fhwew! The stream’ll just sweep you right back.

CNBC:
Do you have an example of a colossal failure?

STEVE SABOL:
Not a good one. When home camcorders first came out, we decided to give one to a player and let him record it. Not only was it not in focus, but the coaches got so upset because they didn’t know if this guy was working for NFL Films or if he was going to play quarterback. So, that didn’t work, but the idea of going to a training camp, and capturing some of the things that he captured with his camera, gave us the idea to come up with a show that’s on HBO now called “Hard Knocks.” But it was a failure when it started.

CNBC:
What is your mission statement?

STEVE SABOL:
We were never created to make money, we were never like NFL Properties which is like a cash cow. We were created to create an image for the league, and to promote the game. Not to make money. What we were doing was hopefully attracting new fans. And by watching our films they would want to go to the game, they would want to buy the sweatshirts, and they would want to buy the pennants. It’s a bunch of young guys who loved to make movies and who loved pro football, and wanted to convey our love of the game to our audience. That’s the closest thing to a mission statement that I could give you.

CNBC:
How do you feel about being a subject for interviews?

STEVE SABOL:
I’m flattered that I’m a subject especially when you told me who else is on this, I mean that’s a real Hall of Fame group of entrepreneurs and businessmen and titans of industry. To be in that group, I just wish my grandfather was alive to see that because he worried about football, who’s going watch football movies? Ah, nobody. You have to get in a profession where you make something and you can feel it. Who cares about football. I wish my grandfather was alive to see what my dad and I have done with football movies.

CNBC:
Was there a moment when you knew that Blair Films was going towards football?

STEVE SABOL:
Yeah. We did a film called They Call it Pro Football, in 1965. And that was the Citizen Kane of football movies. All the things that people think about NFL Films, had its genesis in that film. John Facenda, the music. The follies. The slow motion. The sound, all came together in that one film. And we premiered that film in the Walter Reade Theater in New York. After that film was over, Pete Rozelle came up to my dad and me and said that wasn’t a highlight film, that was a real movie. I knew then, that we were onto something different. Two days later, Pete Rozelle called up my dad and said, Ed, I want you to come up to New York, I want to talk to you. So, I tagged along, and we went into Pete’s office and he was sitting behind this wooden desk. I think it’s in the Hall of Fame right now, and he pulled out a piece of paper and he said, you know what this is? My dad and I were sitting there thinking, I don’t know. This is the Neilsen ratings. And he said, the film that you just did, that film you called They Call it Pro Football, that’s going to be a big help to us, because in order for the NFL to succeed, they have to succeed on television. Now look at these Nielsen ratings. Baseball was number one. College football number two, the NFL was in third place. And Pete said, in order for us to move up to the top, we have to succeed on television, we need an image. And the film that you just produced, is going to help us create that image for us to succeed on television. Pete Rozelle saw a way to glorify the game, a way to market the game. But I never looked at it that way. To me that was just a personal expression of how I felt about the game. I didn’t know anything about marketing or selling anything or focus groups or demographics. To me, that was just a love letter to the game of football. And this has been a lifelong love affair. This is no autumn romance. And it’s been a love affair that’s been expressed through art. And my art is the art of film.

CNBC:
Do you think there’s something uniquely American about football?

STEVE SABOL:
I think when you start with the national anthem and the fly-over for three hours on a Sunday afternoon, thousands of people in stadiums and millions more on television are all connected for those three hours, all cheering, all involved in excellence on the field. The great thing about football is that it teaches us to be part of something larger than yourself, and being proud of it. All the things that are important for people to succeed in business, you can see every Sunday afternoon on the football field, the teamwork. The dedication, the passion, the planning, the attention to detail. All the things that a successful football team manifests, a successful business will manifest as well.

CNBC:
Don’t you think those businesses all want NFL Films?

STEVE SABOL:
Yeah, in 1979 NASA called us up. And they wanted to do a 10-year anniversary of man’s landing on the moon. I remember the person who called me up and he said, when Armstrong and Aldren plant that flag, I want it to be like when the Cowboys carried Tom Landry off in Super Bowl XIII. You guys can deliver that moment. And, we want to romanticize that the space program is tough—they’re having a tough time raising money. But, that’s why we want to come to you guys at NFL Films because you can take this story, and romanticize it. And we did. Orson Welles did the narration and we called it The Greatest Adventure. And it was exciting for me

CNBC:
Is NFL Films still growing?

STEVE SABOL:
I think any project that you begin, you have to start with enthusiasm and believe in it. And the desire to do it better than it’s been done before. That’s why people have asked me, why didn’t you do something in Hollywood? I still feel that we can still get better at what we’re doing. That idea of growth and getting bigger and bigger, that’s the ideology of a cancer cell. Just to get bigger and that doesn’t mean that you’re better. I’ve always felt, let’s not get bigger, let’s get better. My dad had a couple really good expressions. One of them was FLAP. Which meant finish like a pro. He was a big believer that you needed to keep your concentration. You had to be on the bit all the time. Another thing that my dad believed in was, let the film flow like water. There are no retakes in this business. So I don’t want to have somebody worried about shooting too much film or conserving film or expending too much money. Dad said let the film run like water. There are no retakes.

CNBC:
Do you have any good John Facenda stories?

STEVE SABOL:
I don’t know any specific stories but there’s a lot of things about John. He was a big opera fan, but not a real big football fan. When he would read the scripts, and I said John, this is a dramatic moment, he would write little operatic sayings on the script like, “profundo,” or if it had to be quick he would write “allegro,” or if it was lighter you would see “libretto.” I wish I saved those because they were such an insight into who John was. He never actually saw the films. He just read the script and then I understood his cadence to the extent that I could fit it exactly where he wanted. But John had such a great feeling for the weight and tone of words that I remember I went back and started rereading Rudyard Kipling because he had such lines. “I’m going down to the banks of the great gray greasy Lampopo River, all set about with fever trees to find out what the crocodile has for dinner.” I felt like Rudyard Kipling was the kind of writer that I wanted to imitate as a writer for Facenda. Words that had a balance and a cadence and we always said that if the Last Supper had ever had an after-dinner speaker, it would’ve been John Facenda.

CNBC:
Did some people think the music was a bit over the top?

STEVE SABOL:
It was the combination. John Facenda, without the music and without the photography, would’ve been overbearing. The music without Facenda and the photography would’ve almost been a parody of itself. But all of those elements fit together and that’s what makes moviemaking exciting, It’s not just the narrator, it’s not just the photography, it’s not just the music. It’s all these elements fit together to give a certain kind of a feeling. And we were lucky in the ‘60s. We had this confluence of this wonderful voice, this sport that was just beginning to catch on, a new type of music that mirrored the emotions, and complemented the emotions. Photography that brought you into the action, the sound that showed you the passion, and the intensity on the field, and all these things came in together in this one moment in time, and, that was NFL Films.

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