The NFL Tackles Tinseltown Once Again With 'Invincible'

League Was Active Steward of Its Own Brand in Upcoming Disney Movie

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NEW YORK -- At various times, the National Football League has been dubbed the "No Fun League" by some players who felt their creativity in celebrating a touchdown was stifled. For movie producers, however, the NFL has sometimes stood for something else: Notoriously Fickle Licensers.
Mark Wahlberg stars in the true-life story of a bartender who tries out for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976 and makes the team. The NFL gave its support -- and was as protective of its marketing partners as it was of its image.

Not for long.

It's been 10 years since the NFL backed a Hollywood film, allowing Sony's TriStar Pictures the rights to use its teams and logos for the Tom Cruise hit "Jerry Maguire." The Arizona Cardinals were featured prominently in the film.

Now the NFL is ready to give the movie business another try, signing off on Walt Disney Pictures' upcoming film "Invincible" and is looking to extend its brand even further on the big screen.

Rejected many scripts a month

"We're very heavily involved in product placement and we work with Davie-Brown [Entertainment], but as it comes to movies, we've reviewed, and in many cases rejected, numerous scripts each month," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. "Now we're taking a bolder look at the scripts. We greenlit 'Invincible' and we're working with a couple of projects we hope we can announce shortly. We're open for business in a much grander fashion."

"Invincible," set for an Aug. 25 release, is a true story based on the life of Vince Papale, a die-hard Philadelphia Eagles fan, bartender and substitute teacher who decided to go out for the team in 1976 when first-year coach Dick Vermeil announced an open tryout. Mr. Papale made the team at the age of 30, at the time the oldest rookie ever to play in the NFL, and remained with the Eagles for four years.

Mr. Papale is portrayed in the film by Mark Wahlberg, while Greg Kinnear plays Mr. Vermeil.

The NFL didn't just sign off on the project; it also has come on board as a marketing partner with Disney and Mayhem Productions' Gordon Gray and Mark Ciardi, the same duo who produced the feel-good sports movies "The Rookie" and "Miracle."

The league declined to disclose how much it will spend to co-promote the film, but the release comes at the end of the NFL's preseason training camps.

Active role in brand positioning

However, as part of its involvement, the NFL took an active role in how its brand was positioned in the film, working closely early on with the film's producers and writers, as well as Davie-Brown Entertainment and the William Morris Agency in Los Angeles, both of which rep the NFL's entertainment efforts.

The nuances and details of what the NFL was like in 1976, down to the look of the uniforms, were important to the league. At the request of the NFL, elements of the script were rewritten to tone down scenes of excessive gambling and drinking, even though Mr. Papale was a bartender. It also made sure to replace Coca-Cola products with Pepsi, the NFL's exclusive soft-drink sponsor.

"We're protective of our image as it relates to a movie that will appeal to a wide range of fans, and we're protective of how our brand is portrayed by others," Mr. McCarthy said. "As far as the Pepsi part of the equation, we'll always insist on protecting our sponsors. [Mr. Ciardi] understood. He's a great guy to work with."

Expect the football scenes to be realistic as well.

Mr. Ciardi -- himself a former baseball pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers' organization -- hired Columbia, S.C.-based ReelSports, a company owned by Mark Ellis, who has served as the action coordinator for "The Rookie," "Miracle" and now "Invincible," not to mention "The Longest Yard" and "The Replacements."

Success for 'Jerry Maguire'

The NFL hasn't been this cooperative with a Hollywood production since 1996's "Jerry Maguire," which earned an Academy Award for Cuba Gooding Jr., who played Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Rod Tidwell.

While the movie went on to earn $274 million worldwide and gave the NFL considerable exposure, not all of the film's partners were happy. NFL supporter Reebok International sued the filmmakers, saying it had provided more than $1.5 million in product placement and marketing support in return for a commercial it produced to appear in the film. The spot wound up on the cutting-room floor.

Lest anyone think Disney gets home-field advantage from the NFL -- the Walt Disney Co.'s ABC broadcast the NFL on "Monday Night Football" for 35 years before it shifts to sibling ESPN in the fall -- that's not the case. The NFL declined to allow its logos and uniforms to appear in another football-themed movie set up at Disney and produced by Mr. Ciardi.

But no such luck for The Rock

That film, "Game Plan," which began shooting last month, stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a pro football star who discovers he has an 8-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. In the script, the character originally played for the New England Patriots. He no longer does because the NFL said no.

"We were prepared to move forward, and unfortunately we couldn't come to an agreement with Disney, and they're moving forward without us," Mr. McCarthy said. "But we wish them luck and wish [Mr. Ciardi] luck as well."

It certainly hasn't soured any relationship between Disney and the NFL. Disney is one of several companies that will advertise in the second annual publication " Fantasy Football 2006 Preview," produced by NFL Publishing and Time Inc. Home Entertainment. Disney will be using the magazine to support the release of "Invincible."
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