A good sports documentary is a product of both judgement and luck. Finding the right subject is central to documentary filmmaking and requires an understanding of what makes a great story. But it’s also the case that sometimes you just find yourself in the right place at the right time. You find yourself with an athlete or team at a moment that ends up re-defining their career or even their sport. With the result being that what you create only becomes more and more fascinating. It’s an experience I’ve been lucky to have with a recent project, The Pioneers, a documentary we created for client HSBC featuring the USA Rugby Sevens team. As we set out to tell their story, the team was an incredibly talented group of players who were almost anonymous in their own country. As one of the team, Ben Pinkelman, describes in the documentary, “Literally no one knows who we are.” Part of our hope in setting out on this project was to help the team’s incredible talent be more widely recognized so that future generations of US athletes would want to follow in their footsteps.
That task looks like it could be about to get much easier because with just two legs left in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series the USA find themselves at the top of the table and staring at an unprecedented achievement. The USA has never won any major rugby competition anywhere in the world, and to do so now has the potential to be a defining moment for the sport in the country. Particularly as rugby sevens is just a few years removed from becoming part of the Olympic program and as the NFL continues to struggle with a player safety crisis that has parents looking for alternative pastimes for their children. The brilliant USA Sevens team have a genuine chance to re-define the trajectory of their sport.
It has cast a documentary that finished shooting eight months ago into a totally different light. As we followed the Pioneers of USA Rugby, we knew they were a team with the potential to do great things, and to break new ground for their sport. But our minds were focused on the Rugby World Cup Sevens, hosted last year in San Francisco. It was a huge opportunity for the team to impress on home soil. The USA played incredibly well but didn’t quite come through with the trophy on home soil that they, or we’d hoped for. Their story, their characters and their ambition still made the Pioneers an entertaining documentary, but it didn’t have the storybook ending you always hope for.
Since the film’s release, the USA have progressed with increasing success. They now sit ready to do what no American rugby side has done before – be crowned as the best in the world. It casts the journey we documented into a totally new light. It shows a team leaning how great they can be. Priming themselves to fulfill their potential. Experiencing the disappointment as well as the success that would set them up for a potentially historic season. Truly great stories don’t just age well, they change. They get more, not less meaningful. So, for anyone looking to find a sporting story of their own, spend the time looking for that perfect subject. Because if you do, if you find one as potent as the USA Sevens team, your story will evolve and age just as theirs does.