Q/A on process for ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries: ‘We want to tell stories in different ways’

My latest column for the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University is a Q/A with John Dahl, the executive producer for ESPN Films.

A side note: Dahl is a cousin to my best friend in the business, former Chicago Tribune sportswriter Reid Hanley, who passed away in 2010. It turns Dahl also thought very highly of Reid. In fact, it was Reid who inspired him to go into sports media.

I know Reid was and continues to be proud of John’s work.

Here’s an excerpt of the column.


ESPN’s “30 for 30” franchise is much like the Big Ten. The conference soon will have 14 schools, but it is sticking with the long-time name.

ESPN will be 35-years-old this year, and Sunday’s night latest, “Requiem for the Big East” (9 p.m. ET) will be the 47th “30 for 30” film. Yet the original label remains from Bill Simmons’ idea to do 30 documentary films to celebrate ESPN’s 30th anniversary in 2009.

ESPN actually did remove the “30 for 30” name after the initial batch of films. And the result? The ratings weren’t as strong.

So the network revived the “30 for 30” logo for subsequent films, and the viewers returned. It’s all about branding, right?

ESPN’s “30 for 30” thrives because of its unique way of storytelling. Most of them are so compelling I often find myself watching them multiple times.

To get more insights into the “30 for 30” process, I talked with John Dahl, the executive producer for ESPN Films.

ESPN isn’t 30 anymore, and you have done more than 30 documentaries. Why do you still call the films “30 for 30″?

It’s a good question. Because the brand became synonymous with documentaries for us. It became not just synonymous with documentaries but a level of quality. There was such a good reception, a good response to “30 for 30″ it had like a halo of effect of ‘that’s a ‘30 for 30.’” The translation was a great documentary.

So you had brand identification?

Yeah, it’s hard to get a brand to cut through and stick like that. That’s really tough. It stuck, so why fight it? Just embrace it and be glad that it resonates that way.

Did it surprise you that people identified with the films that strongly?

Yeah, it did. I mean, obviously we’ve got high hopes. We think they’re all great films. We’re putting everything into it in terms of our effort and whatnot, but you don’t know when a brand sometimes is going to take off like that. When we started “30 for 30,” did we think that brand would become synonymous with great documentaries? No, we thought it would just be an organizing principle of 30 films covered over a 30 year period because the original conceit was when ESPN was formed, 1979 to 2009, so we would focus on that window of time and tell these great stories and reach out to these various filmmakers to tell stories they’re passionate about and specific stories that ultimately touched on larger themes.

Let’s talk about the process. What are you looking for in a “30 for 30″ film?

I think, first of all, it is a specific story that does touch larger themes, that has a larger impact in some way. I think that makes it stand out.

I think in terms of the story, it can be something lesser known, but it also can be something more well known. If we have a fresh take on it, I think that’s the key. We don’t want to just bring what you already know. We want to bring something new to it. That to me is a real benefit of reaching out to independent filmmakers because they come in with their own point of view, their own passions, their own level of expertise, and it keeps it fresh. By doing that, by having different filmmakers, it doesn’t get ever feeling like it’s a formula. This is the way ESPN Films does a doc. We don’t ever want anybody thinking that. We want to tell stories in different ways. That to me is what keeps it vibrant.


Here is the link to the entire column.


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