When it comes to movies in the sports genre, there are films that have made an impact — “Field of Dreams,” “Hoosiers,” “Raging Bull,” “Rocky,” “Caddyshack” — and those that struck out almost from the first frame.
“When the Game Stands Tall,” which opened this past weekend, is aiming for the former. Not just on-screen with a story about the De La Salle High School (Concord, Calif.) football team, its record 151-game winning streak (1992-2004) and the bond formed among players and coaches, but in marketing and personal connections that the movie's creators are trying to make with student-athletes and their coaches and parents.
"There has been some traditional marketing, but at the core of it is word-of-mouth, social media, people talking about the movie and the story we are telling," said David Zelon of Mandalay Pictures, which produced the film."That is what really will drive the buzz and get audiences into the theater."
In addition to a TV and print campaign, certain companies were brought in to generate interest. Lead marketing partners include American Family Insurance, which via a multimedia campaign, "Long Live Dreams," is asking people to share how they were inspired to make their dreams come true; Lids sports apparel and Books-A-Million, both of which ran a sweepstakes offering private screenings of the movie in towns nationwide.
“When the Game Stands Tall”'s own Facebook site had nearly 200,000 'likes" prior to opening on Aug. 22. Word-of-mouth started in early summer when private screenings were held in conjunction with select high schools across the country, with a special screening for former De La Salle players and coaches, including those whose stories were depicted in the movie.
Zelon, whose resume also includes such sports-related movies as “Soul Surfer” (based on the story of surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack), “Into the Blue” (which deals with deep-sea divers), “Never Back Down” (mixed martial arts) and “Finish Line” (track & field), felt that it would be the strong bond formed among players, coaches and parents in dealing with success, failure and personal crisis on and off the field that would push the story well beyond the winning streak.
"When I first read the hardcover book by Neil Hayes on which the movie is based, it only covered the team through a 125-game winning streak," said Zelon. "But in a subsequent paperback version, Hayes had added a 30-page epilogue that included the murder of star player Terrence Kelly and a heart attack suffered by head coach Bob Ladouceur. The movie focuses on these events and how the players responded through faith and personal strength."
According to Zelon, "We got it right [in marketing] by showing that the story is about a group of young men who have faith in each other, who grow together under the leadership of their coaches and the guidance of their parents, who bond as a team when they are going through this amazing winning streak but who become even closer and perhaps mature even more when they are confronted with tragedy off the field and losing on the field."
Putting the winning streak itself into perspective, De La Salle's 151-game run more than doubled the previous prep football record, which was held by Hudson High School in Michigan with 72 consecutive wins from 1968 to 1975.
Ultimately, what Zelon wants audiences to take away, as the trailer to the film proclaims, "When you lose everything, how do you find your way back. It's not about sports. It's not about winning. It's all about growing up. Forgiveness. Commitment. Brotherhood. It's about standing tall."
But as Bob Ladouceur, who retired in 2013 with a career coaching record of 399-25-3, said in a recent interview in the Contra Costa Times, telling the story via Hollywood and national marketing was never part of his game plan.
"We [tried] not to call any attention to ourselves," Ladouceur said. "We [tried] not to think of ourselves as any more important than the next extracurricular activity, and all of a sudden — boom — a movie has been made."