Varsity Blues cast
James Van Der Beek, Tova Laiter, Paul Walker, Amy Smart on the set of "Varsity Blues" (photo courtesy of Tova Laiter)

How a 10-year-old script became NFL.com’s “best football movie”

by Tova Laiter

When NFL.com called to invite me to participate in their Varsity Blues: 15 Year Anniversary Show, gushing over its “iconic” stature among football fans, I was once again reminded of the long road for the small movie that could.

First, a 10-year-old script by Peter Iliff had to be bought back from an investor’s bankruptcy court. Then, 3 different directors were attached and detached prior to and after it landed at Paramount (one director officially turned a green-lit movie into a development deal because he didn’t want to shoot the movie before his daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah).

Later, it was rejected by everyone, including twice by Paramount, before John Goldwyn green-lit it on a Monday following a weekend submission, but only on the condition that it had to be the ‘first’. The other competing project to be ‘first’ was Imagine’s Friday Night Lights, which ironically I picked up as an executive there from my former mentor, director Alan J. Pakula. So essentially, the two football projects I originated were now competing against each other.

We finally prevailed and set out to make an entertaining little movie that shed light on America’s heartland obsession with football, to the point of absurdity and detriment. But in the process, the movie managed to break the mold in several ways:

1.“This is a one quadrant movie.” This declaration is what we kept hearing when we were trying to sell the movie. “Under 25 – male, no crossover,” they insisted. No amount of pointing to the fact that I’m female and over 25 (by a lot!) was enough to change the opinions that were so entrenched. The irony, of course, is that the released movie attracted more females (52%) than males (48%), and that doesn’t include the eager teenage girls who couldn’t get into the ‘R’ rated movie and snuck in by buying tickets to Robin Williams’ PG rated Patch Adams to the tune of $10 million.

So much for “one quadrant.”

2. “Happy set – a guarantee flop.” This observation had practically reached a status of ‘dogma’ in industry lore. As a result, as the movie progressed toward the end of the shoot with no drama, we were plenty worried. Director Brian Robbins came to the set every morning ultra prepared, the crew knew what they were suppose to do that day and whenever problems arose, he dealt with it in his calm, let’s-get-it-solved way. Everybody got along, we were making our days and the studio loved the dailies.

Bummer.

To make matters worse, the director’s cut first preview yielded an 83% “excellent” in top 2 categories. Sherry Lansing, with her experienced eye, didn’t hesitate to declare it a hit at this early stage, and the numbers kept leaping up as the editing process progressed. Worrisome!

The first opening weekend grosses ($17 million) covered the production costs ($15 million), and it went on for a couple more weekends to be the number #1 movie in America (nice marketing phrase, Paramount!). The final total on the statements is $83 million. Oh, and the soundtrack went gold.

So much for the “Happy set, troubled movie” pseudo rule.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend release date: Really? From all the weekends of the year, Paramount released this football comedy on January 15.

That weekend was considered for decades as a “dumping” ground for movies with no prospects. Paramount’s decision to release the movie on that weekend was a surprising risk, but the success of the movie in that time slot ultimately led to other sports and comedy films to be released on that weekend to great results. (Oliver Stone said that without the success of VB, he would have not been able to get Any Given Sunday made.)

So much for dead winter weekend.

4. MTV cross-promotional marathon. Before social media, MTV did an unusually glorious job of reaching the teenage/college demographic by promoting the movie 24/7 on opening weekend via rotating music videos, movie clips, TV spots, interviews and other EPK material on the MTV channel. Later on the FCC disallowed showing PG-13 TV spots for R rated movies and the party was over.

Another first and it worked.

Yes, the movie sometimes is schmaltzy and the humor a bit crude, and some lines are pure “cornball” but it managed to get its message across in an entertaining way, and had somehow touched a cord with both its female and male audience of all ages. It was voted by NFL.com readers as the “best football movie ever.” Hence their special tribute.

For me, it is a conundrum to be attracted to two football movies, since I have yet to watch a football game from beginning to end. But it was never the football, but the premise, the themes and the characters that were so American that made a foreign soccer fan like me try their luck — with the enormous help of everybody involved in this endeavor.

Happy 15!

Tova Laiter

About Tova Laiter

Tova Laiter is a producer (VARSITY BLUES) and has held executive positions at Warner Bros., Imagine Entertainment and Cinergi. She blogs for Huffington Post and Indiewire, and is curating a Q&A series for the New York Film Academy. Please follow on Twitter: @realtovalaiter

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
.