When Space Jam arrived in theaters in 1996, it was, in many respects, a one-of-a-kind movie. How could it not be? What other movie mixed live-action footage with animation and teamed up the biggest basketball star in the world with a bunch of classic cartoon characters? But strip away the gimmickry and you’ll find a familiar-looking sports movie, one in which a group of scrappy underdogs overcomes adversity to win the big game. It was the kind of movie they make all the time. Or used to.
The big-budget, high-concept, relentless merchandising, and sheer Jordan-ness of Space Jam assured it wouldn’t be mistaken for just another sports movie, but it was another sports movie in an era filled with sports movies. In the ’90s, basketball inspired films as varied as White Men Can’t Jump, He Got Game, and Air Bud alongside everything from Sunset Park (Rhea Perlman takes over the coaching job at a tough high school) to The 6th Man (Kadeem Hardison stars as a basketball-playing ghost). Football (Rudy, Any Given Sunday) and baseball (A League of Their Own, The Sandlot) weren’t far behind. There was even a movie about bobsledding (Cool Runnings).
But that was a while ago. When Space Jam: A New Legacy hit theaters and HBO Max Friday, it was the first major studio film about basketball since 2020’s The Way Back. That movie arrived one year after Steven Soderbergh’s Netflix-produced High Flying Bird, which in turn arrived one year after the 2018 Kyrie Irving comedy, Uncle Drew. One basketball movie a year might not sound like that unhealthy of a pace, but it’s a significant dropoff from the boom years of the ’90s. The pickings were even thinner earlier in this decade, when films like the 2012 Kevin Durant family fantasy Thunderstruck counted as highlights. All told, the number of significant, non-documentary basketball movies made in the past decade can be counted on two hands with some fingers left over. And other sports haven’t fared much better: Finding a baseball movie that received a national release means rolling the clock back to 2014’s Million Dollar Arm. After decades of Hollywood success combining sports and film, the tradition has entered a veritable slump.
The mere existence of Space Jam: A New Legacy might provide an explanation why. It’s a project that checks off the boxes that studios love to see checked in 2021: recognizable stars (in this case, LeBron James, Bugs Bunny, and an assortment of supporting players that includes Damian Lillard and Porky Pig); and a familiar title that has built-in nostalgia value (read: parents who grew up with the original Space Jam can bring their kids to the sequel). It’s like The Force Awakens but with more corny jokes and one-handed dunks. Space Jam is also a global brand, and one that contains other global brands—James, the NBA, Looney Tunes characters. Modern Hollywood is driven by internationally recognized entities, action that doesn’t need subtitles to translate to international audiences, and fare made for younger, spectacle-hungry viewers. The only way you could make Space Jam 2 a more apt film for the current movie economy is by casting Spider-Man and Dominic Toretto to be James’s teammates.
But the box-office dynamics that make the new Space Jam the first widely released sports movie we’ve seen in over a year also make it likely to be the last we’ll see for some time to come. In a recent interview, writer and director John Lee Hancock told Script magazine he doubted he’d ever make a sports movie again, despite directing The Rookie and The Blind Side, which were considerable successes in 2002 and 2009, respectively. “There is no international [return] on sports films (even soccer!),” Hancock said, “and losing that revenue source results in a lower budget to work with, which can be a challenge.” In other words, while LeBron James and Bugs Bunny playing basketball has an international audience, basketball itself does not, at least as the subject of a Hollywood movie.
Reached by phone, Hancock sounded a little bit more optimistic, but within limits. “I think when I said that it was probably half correct,” Hancock says. “I was looking like an old guy at how things were done in the past in a traditional domestic theatrical model, whether that was a studio film looking for international, where 60 percent of their money comes from. Or whether it was an independent that relied on presales to territories to gin up money to start production. In both those cases, the fact that sports movies for the most part didn’t play internationally as well as they did domestically was a factor.” Hancock sees some hope, however, in the streaming world, which has allowed him to pursue projects that couldn’t find a home in the current theatrical environment, “I, for the most part, do adult dramas and those have been on the wane as well from a traditional studio standpoint,” he says. “And yet with streaming, there’s an opportunity there.” It was Netflix, for instance, that allowed Hancock to make The Highwaymen (“a period piece about two old white guys,” in Hancock’s words) after 15 years of trying to place the film. “In the same way,” he says, “I think there’s more of an opportunity there than there was five years ago.”
The rom-com is another genre that’s largely disappeared as studios lost interest in producing and releasing mid-budget films, but has found a friendlier environment on platforms like Netflix or Amazon Prime. Sports movies can also take that route, but they present technical challenges that less action-driven genres, like the rom-com, do not not. “When I directed The Rookie, I said, ‘OK, a double play, how many setups is that?’” Hancock says. “And if you’re going to do it in a creative way, it’s like 11 setups. Which is almost a half day’s work for one play.”
It might also be that the sports movie itself is evolving, suggests Mike Rich, screenwriter of The Rookie and Secretariat and an uncredited contributor to several other sports movies. “What I think is going to happen, and it’s already happening,” Rich says, “is that our definition of what a sports movie is, is changing. I’ve been able to write movies that have basketball, baseball, football—just the American basics of sports. But The Queen’s Gambit is perhaps the modern and present definition of a sports movie.” Rich points to two elements of the Netflix miniseries, written and directed by Scott Frank, as evidence: It follows the basic pattern of a sports movie and, like all good sports movies, it’s ultimately not about sports. “When he sat down to write that thing, Scott Frank knew he was going to have to follow somewhat of the same blueprint that a lot of these films have to incorporate, Rich says. “Which is seeing the ascension of a character’s abilities, having anywhere from six to eight sporting events that have to show a natural progression, and then a setback, and then the ultimate triumph at the end.” But the sport itself doesn’t matter as much as who’s participating: “It’s character-based,” he says. “John Lee and I always took pride in saying The Rookie is not a baseball movie. It’s a story about fathers and sons.”
Like many writers, Rich also admires the space that television allows. “I wouldn’t want to make it as a two-hour film,” he says of The Queen’s Gambit. “As a writer, it’s much more attractive to realize, OK, I’ve got some elbow room here. It used to be, with television, that they would give you the dimensions of the box and you had to make the stories fit into that box. And now it’s just whatever box you need.”
Still, even as television’s current boom has opened up new creative possibilities, it’s hard not to feel like something is being lost with the withering of the feature-length sports movie. It’s probably not worth offering a list of classic sports films to support that argument. You know the names already, and probably have a sense of sports movies’ ability to capture a specific moment in history: There was the flood of baseball movies that captured the sport’s heights as a national obsession in the ’30s through the ’50s; the way Michael Ritchie immortalized the shaggy aimlessness of the ’70s via The Bad News Bears and Semi-Tough; and the feel-good stories of tragedy, triumph, and social change that appeared in the ’00s. But maybe the sports movie is slipping away for reasons beyond a changing film economy. Maybe we don’t care about sports the way we used to, broadly speaking, and sports and sports stars don’t enjoy the cultural centrality they once did. “Baseball is always running into this problem,” says Will Leitch, a writer for MLB.com and New York magazine. “I’m not sure they’ve resolved that, because the actual number of hardcore fans have become smaller, as it has with pretty much every form of entertainment. Everything has gotten fragmented. Because of that, sports by definition is niche.”
Will Hollywood ever regularly produce sports movies that don’t feature an NBA superstar and a cartoon bunny again? Will a distributor like A24 or Neon, who have figured out how to cut through the noise and get their films noticed, champion the next great sports movie? Right now, an ominous question mark hangs over the entire subgenre and so many other sorts of films that used to be multiplex fixtures. But maybe this is the scene when the sports movie turns it around, the moment when all seems lost before an unexpected turn reverses its fortune, culminating in a spectacular triumph. And maybe it’ll be a scrappy underdog sports movie, one nobody expected ever to win anything, that turns the tide, sends the reigning champs packing, and becomes an inspiration for underdogs everywhere. Maybe. But the odds seem pretty long at the moment.
Keith Phipps is a writer and editor specializing in film and TV. Formerly: Uproxx, The Dissolve, and The A.V. Club.