A Weekend at NFL Films

NFL FilmsThe Pro Football Researchers Association held their biannual meeting this past weekend at NFL Films in Mount Laurel, New Jersey.  I had the opportunity to not only attend the meeting but also get a tour of NFL Films’ headquarters.  The tour gave me a rare glimpse inside where NFL Films are made and how the National Football League has carefully crafted its image as the most popular sports entity in America.

History and Concept of NFL Films

Ed SabolEd Sabol founded Blair Motion Pictures in 1962, and the company really took off when he paid $4,000 for the right to film the 1962 NFL championship game.  Blair Motion Pictures also filmed the NFL championship game the following two years, but each year, the cost to win the rights to the game skyrocketed.  Sabol pulled a brilliant maneuver at this point.  He knew he couldn’t afford the escalating fees to broadcast the championship game for much longer, so he convinced NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle that the league needed their own film studio.  The NFL bought out Sabol’s company, renamed it NFL Films, and kept Sabol to run the new studio.

NFL Films now produces television shows, specials, highlight films, and tons of other related material on the NFL.  Todd Schmidt, a senior producer at NFL Films, guided our group around their headquarters and explained the concept of NFL Films.  One of the running themes of the tour was that the people working at NFL Films are not journalists – they’re filmmakers.  They’re not reporters…they’re movie-makers trying to make the NFL look good.

One example Schmidt gave concerned the field in Buffalo.  Apparently, the Bills’ field often looks brown and dirty.  However, Schmidt told us, “The grass is always green and the sky is always blue in our world.”  They use very advanced, state-of-the-art technology to make the surroundings during the game look as good as can be.  In short, NFL Films is projecting an image, the image they want people to have of the National Football League.

Touring the Building

First of all, the NFL Films building is truly magnificent.  Ed Sabol wanted the building to look like a legitimate museum for the game of football, and it shows.  On the walls, there are posters for sports movies, vintage team pennants, reproductions of old game programs, game photos (both vintage and modern), framed sports cards, newspapers from notable games in NFL history, original sports art – everything you could possibly imagine.  I’ll be honest…I’ve been to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, and the main gallery with the busts of the Hall of Famers is a sight to behold.  But the rest of the building was a bit…underwhelming.  The NFL Films building has all the decoration that I expected from the Hall of Fame building, and Mount Laurel actually outshone Canton in that regard.  Who knew?

Ed Sabol’s son, Steve Sabol, is the current president of NFL Films, and his office is pretty amazing, which you’d expect.  But even more impressive to me was the room just outside his office.  It was filled with old football board games and lots of other great football collectibles.  This NFL Films building was really pretty incredible.  You can’t walk around the building without being reminded of their tradition.  NFL Films has won 107 Sports Emmys, which are prominently displayed along the halls.  It seems that every time you turn a corner, you are greeted by another dozen Emmy awards gleaming on the walls.

Of course, all of that is just decoration.  The real purpose of the building is to produce original NFL programming, and it’s well-equipped for the task.  We took a look inside the film vault where they store game film of basically every NFL game from 1963 forward.  The vault itself is kept very cold to preserve the film, but according to Schmidt, the film should practically last forever if it is taken care of in this way.

We then got a look at the production facilities – the control room, a massive soundstage, and all of their production machinery.  It’s truly astonishing to see everything they can do to the film in production…right down to altering the film to change the tint on players’ helmets.  They use a remarkable number of tools to present NFL football in the best light possible.  NFL Films really does look like a full-scale movie studio, which is exactly what Ed Sabol always wanted.

Many thanks to Todd Schmidt, Chris Willis, and everyone else at NFL Films for showing us around.

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