By STEVEN ZEITCHIK
Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK -- In its ascent up the mountain of American popular culture, the NFL has studiously protected its brand, turning down many Hollywood offers to collaborate and limiting the extent of the partnerships it has forged.
So much for all that.
The NFL's famously cautious mind-set goes the way of leather helmets on Friday when Summit Entertainment releases "Draft Day," a film from, by and about professional football. The movie -- the product of a marriage brokered by Hollywood mainstay WME -- thrusts the league into the world of big-time movies and sets a new standard for cooperation between a professional sports entity and entertainment-world heavyweights.
Directed by comedy veteran Ivan Reitman and starring sports-movie fixture Kevin Costner, "Draft Day" blurs the ideas of movie plot and league showcase to such an extent that many viewers may be unable to separate the two. NFL personalities such as Ray Lewis, Jim Brown, broadcaster Rich Eisen and even Commissioner Roger Goodell populate the fictional film, which locates scenes at various team facilities and sets and shoots its climax at the annual springtime draft of college players at Radio City Music Hall.
By doing this, "Draft Day" -- based on a script from newcomers Rajiv Joseph and Scott Rothman that topped Hollywood's coveted Black List in 2012 -- offers a level of behind-the-scenes authenticity rarely attempted in a scripted film about American pro sports. But as critics will point out, that also means the film can veer into infomercial territory and scrub out football's less savory and more controversial aspects.
Unlike most sports dramas, "Draft Day" takes the action off the field and into the war room -- think the trade scene in "Moneyball" -- as it follows Costner's fictitious Sonny Weaver, the beleaguered Cleveland Browns general manager, as he wheels and deals in the pressure-cooker hours leading up to the big event. After mortgaging the team's future in a trade with the Seattle Seahawks for the top overall pick, Weaver must grapple with questions about the player he should select (several potential draftees are characters in their own right) and manage the delicate politics of coach, owner and players.
"This is one man's story on a particularly complicated day when both personal and professional things are coming at him very fast," Reitman said. "And it's about the effect of a draft on hundreds of kids looking to fulfill a lifelong dream who must also meet the expectations of a lot of people."
That kind of stress isn't foreign to the NFL either.
In an office dotted with memorabilia at the league's sleek midtown headquarters, Tracy Perlman recounted the decision to go in on the movie. The NFL vice president for marketing and entertainment and its point person on "Draft Day," Perlman and her fellow executives decided to move well beyond the occasional placement deal of the kind it did for a Minnesota Viking-centric episode of "How I Met Your Mother" so it could serve a larger strategy.
Even with the NFL's ratings the envy of rival leagues -- playoff games can top 50 million viewers -- the NFL is looking for new avenues of growth. This coming season it will expand to Thursday night games on CBS. And it continues to try to fuel even more interest in the draft, formerly an inside-the-Beltway affair centering on arcane physical attributes but now a hotbed of analysis and drama that is covered in breathless detail on ESPN. "We believe this movie elevates the brand, it elevates the (draft) time period and it opens us up to new fans," Perlman said.
Outgoing and possessing a keen sense of the NFL's appeal (she also helms the Super Bowl halftime show), Perlman kept a watchful eye on "Draft Day." The raw footage known as dailies was sent to her from the Ohio set, and she would watch it, sometimes passing along material and questions to different league divisions for their response, sometimes coming back with questions herself. Much of this was done, as she puts it, "just to get the facts right" -- such as the way trades or picks were made, which Reitman was eager to learn.
But there was also scrutiny for other reasons. When a scene shot in Times Square showed a truck with a water brand that is not the official NFL sponsor, Perlman noticed and informed Reitman that it would need to either be dropped or altered.
When a draft of the script came in with 51 four-letter words, she made clear her feelings. "I said, 'Ivan, do you realize there are 51 F-bombs in here?'" she laughed. Most of the obscenities were taken out; the film has a PG-13 rating.
In a more fraught moment, Perlman and the league nixed a moment in which Seahawks fans can be seen, after a questionable draft move, expressing their displeasure. "We had what I thought was a pretty funny bit where this one owner looks out the window and sees he's being burned in effigy. And they just didn't want that," Costner said in an interview during CinemaCon in Las Vegas last month. "And I thought, 'Come on.'"
Perlman nodded knowingly when asked and allowed a small smile. "Yes, Kevin called me. I understood where he was coming from but we just couldn't have that in the movie." (For his part, Reitman said he thought "it would have gotten a big laugh" but "they were worried and it was a small change, so we said OK.")
The draft is not an immediately obvious cinematic subject, Joseph acknowledged. "But I was having dinner with a friend who's not a football fan and she said, 'I loved the draft. It was interesting characters, high stakes and a ticking clock,'" the writer recalled. "I went back to Scott (Rothman) and said, 'Isn't this what great drama is?'"
Producer Ali Bell said she saw the film as something more primal than which team comes out on top. "The focus of the movie is football. The backdrop is power," she said.
Written as a character piece -- the draft was not a locale until Reitman came on -- the script gained momentum when Paramount passed and Reitman developed it at Summit. Before long WME, which works with the NFL and represents Reitman, had set up a call between them, and soon after the director flew to New York to pitch in a large meeting at the league offices.
How fans will receive "Draft Day" remains to be seen. The NFL's huge level of popularity will help, and the draft comes with some built-in suspense. Still, that's generally for fans looking to take solace in -- or get morose about -- a team's future. The movie's gulf between real teams and fake players may deprive some of that investment.
Indeed, though Costner attempts to pull off coups to turn the Browns around, the actual club was not so lucky -- it gutted its front office between shooting and release.
"Everyone we worked with at the Cleveland Browns is no longer there," Reitman said. "As much as we tried to make this authentic, things can move fast in the NFL."