On the screen, Denver Broncos nose tackle Greg Kragen, sweat dripping off his forehead, squints up at the scoreboard: San Francisco 55, Denver 10. The camera pulls in, Kragen grimaces, spits, and mutters, ”Unbelievable, un-f—ing-believable.”
”That’s great,” shouts the man in the dark booth. ”Just pull up his voice — louder, louder. And mix in the other noises.”
The other noises are the gasps, cheers, and Wagnerian crescendos that are NFL Films’ trademarks. And the voice from the darkness (actually called the audio sweetening studio) belongs to the company’s president, Steve Sabol. Along with a handful of editors and writers, he has the task of stringing together hundreds of shots from Super Bowl XXIV, adding some ”noises” and narration, and producing the unique combination of football highlights and mythic bombast that has made NFL Films famous. But trying to invest this past Super Bowl with the stuff of legend may be too much even for them.
Less than two weeks after the Super Bowl, video stores in the San Francisco area were selling Masters of the Game, a 48-minute recap of the 49ers’ road to this year’s NFL championship. The tape sells for $19.95 (or about half the price of the official Super Bowl XXIV sweatshirt) and actually $ does manage to make the game look interesting — at least compared with the real thing.
Never mind that this year’s game drew the lowest ratings in 20 years, and that viewers’ frustration with the game may have reached a new high. The object here is to capitalize on the frenzy of 49ers fans with an ”instant movie” — or what Sabol calls a ”McMovie” — much like the ”instant books” that are published immediately after every sports championship. ”Our goal is to get the film in people’s hands while they’re still celebrating,” Sabol says.
In fact, 80 percent of the tape’s sales are expected to be made in the first three weeks. The tape’s distributor, Media Home Entertainment, projects early sales of about 90,000 copies in the San Francisco area alone, though it’s also available nationally.
NFL Films has been producing such overnight movies for the past five years. The all-time king of the genre, commemorating the Chicago Bears’ 1986 Super Bowl win, sold 152,000 copies in two months. The all-time loser figures to be this year’s runner-up tape, describing the Broncos’ season and Super Bowl ordeal. The movie was conceived, researched, and even titled (Team Terrific — whoops) well before the final blowout. Now, Media Home Entertainment senior vice president Tom Burnett thinks he’ll be lucky to selll5,000 copies. ”To be honest,” he says, ”we’re worried that fans in Denver won’t want anything to do with this after their fourth Super Bowl loss.” Indeed, somewhere in Aurora, Colo., there’s a warehouse holding 6,500 copies of Rocky Mountain Magic, the video of the Broncos’ Super Bowl debacle of January 1988.
The thankless mission of making the Broncos look good this year fell largely to editor-director Dave Petrelius. After the game, he had to do some serious rewriting of the script. ”I couldn’t exactly use the line about their defense growing bigger and meaner after they gave up 55 points,” he says. Petrelius scrounged through miles of film searching for something — anything — positive from Denver’s viewpoint. How much did he find? ”Enough to fill exactct one minute of the 48-minute tape,” he says.
No such challenge befell David Plaut, who wrote and directed the 49ers’ movie. His biggest problem was squeezing all eight San Francisco touchdowns into the six-and-a-half minutes allotted for Super Bowl highlights. The rest of the video focuses on the club’s triumphant march to New Orleans.
The avuncular Plaut has rushed out the winning team’s instant film in each of the last five years. ”He’s the Orson Welles of the genre,” boasts Sabol. ”You give most directors less than a week to produce a film and they’ll rip out your eyes. But David will give you that old-fashioned high-tops, blood-on-the-turf entertainment.”
Since its origin in 1962, NFL Films has been unmatched in showing what its traditionally overblown narration would probably call the ballet and brutality of football. The camera puts the viewer in the huddle, or across the line from smoke-snorting linebacker Matt Millen. You see — and, thanks to planted microphones, hear — the scowls and smirks, the colliding bodies and howling coaches. Enhanced by editing, slow motion, and scripted narration, it’s football as the networks only dream of covering it.
For Super Bowl XXIV, the company sent 16 cameramen to New Orleans. One was assigned just to shoot the 49ers’ bench, another to focus on hands and feet. Four used slow-motion cameras.
Before the game even ended, reels of film were being flown from the Superdome to NFL Films headquarters in Mount Laurel, N.J. By Monday morning, 10 editors were breaking down 101,000 feet (about 47 hours’ worth) of 16mm film. In the end, Plaut and Petrelius would use less than 300 feet of the best highlights. ”That’s a ratio,” Sabol says, ”that even Michael Cimino would be ashamed of.”
The next day, the two directors began assembling footage and refining the script. But how does one script a rout? ”When a game is this bad, it opens up all kinds of possibilities,” Sabol says. ”You didn’t have to show much play-by-play because, really, who wants to see it again? So we can do a lot with music and sound. We can make the game more exciting than it really was.” Within three days, the master tape was finished and ready to be duplicated.
The final product should make San Francisco fans misty for years to come. At its best, Masters of the Game provides a vantage point that viewers never get on TV or at the stadium (although watching a play through Bubba Paris’ armpit might not be everyone’s idea of a great point of view). But even the fanciest editing can add only so much drama to a game that was almost devoid of conflict. Even the staunchest 49ers fan may grow weary of the endless series of touchdowns.
”Is it great art?” Sabol asks. ”No. Neither is a meal at McDonald’s great food. But it’s there fast.” After this past Super Bowl, that may be as much as football fans have any reason to expect.