By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – As the NFL readies for its annual draft of college football players, new film “Draft Day” pulls back the curtain on the high stakes of the offseason that has helped turn the United States’ most popular sport into a year-round addiction.
The film, which opens in U.S. and Canadian theaters on Friday ahead of the NFL’s three-day draft from May 8-10, stars Kevin Costner and dramatizes the backroom wheeling and dealing of football’s general managers as they jockey for the best players and try to fleece one another while trading draft picks.
But in an age of 24-hour sports networks like ESPN and HBO’s behind-the-scenes NFL reality show “Hard Knocks,” Costner said authenticity is crucial to hook a viewer who has seen countless locker-room speeches and front-office interviews.
“If you’ve ever played the sports you’re trying to depict, you don’t want people just doing it and messing up completely. People take it really personally,” said the 59-year-old Oscar winner, who built his heartland reputation with baseball films “Bull Durham” and “Field of Dreams,” and golf comedy “Tin Cup.”
Costner plays fictional Cleveland Browns team general manager Sonny Weaver Jr, who has to manage upheaval in his personal life and the dueling pressures of which player to draft from the team’s owner and its coach.
“For me, I’ve made a few (sports films), but I always thought they were literate in a sense that the writing was really exceptional, and it was set against the backdrop of each sport – and the big deal there is, ‘Can you make those moments be authentic?'” he added.
“Draft Day,” directed by “Ghostbusters” filmmaker Ivan Reitman, had the approval and participation of the NFL and several scenes were filmed during last year’s draft in New York.
It also features a cameo appearance by commissioner Roger Goodell as well as scripted footage of the fictional draft from NFL Network and ESPN anchors and analysts, and Houston Texans running back Arian Foster as football prospect Ray Jennings.
The National Football League’s annual draft, in which the teams pick newly eligible players, has become big-time viewing for television audiences hungry for football in the offseason. In 2010, the NFL moved the draft to three days from two, with the first round getting its own primetime Thursday slot.
And, of course, the NFL is the television king with the annual Super Bowl as the United States’ most-watched broadcast, drawing a record 111.5 million viewers in February.
The new film begins in Cleveland on the day of the draft with Weaver’s girlfriend, Ali, played by Jennifer Garner, telling him on one of his biggest work days that she is pregnant.
To complicate matters, Ali is one of Weaver’s top lieutenants as the Browns’ salary cap guru who makes sure certain players’ pay is structured not to violate pre-set limits.
“To be a good movie, it has to have real relationships at the center of it or the sports part of it really doesn’t matter,” said Garner, adding that she drew heavily on her character from the Browns own cap specialist, Megan Rogers.
Sonny’s problems are magnified by the recent passing of his father, a revered former Browns coach, as well as the prodding of the team’s owner to trade up to draft for a hot-shot quarterback the team does not really need, even if it costs trading away several future top draft choices.
The film has little in the way of sports-action scenes, but pulses forward with a ticking clock counting down the hours and minutes until the draft’s first pick is unveiled.
Its frenetic nature is meant to mimic the back-and-forth talks between teams, players and agents, with some decisions made at the spur of the moment or on personal hunches.
“Football is the backdrop here for what is really a heist movie and a movie about a chess game between people as well as a real romance at the center of everything and a bunch of familial relationships that are all needing to be tended to on one crazy day,” Garner said.
“Draft Day,” which is expected to gross $12 million in its opening weekend for distributor Lions Gate according to Boxoffice.com, may be limited in its ticket sales due to football’s limited appeal outside of North America.
“Will it bust out overseas?” Costner asks. “I don’t know; I don’t care. I know that we had to make this as correct for us. It’s a guy and a girl and the level of confusion that comes with relationships set against the backdrop of football.”