Film is a Spectator Sport

By | Begun 07/11/2004 | Updated 6/14/2014
Posted in Cross Cuts | ,

For myself and my tribe (you, perhaps?), film qualifies as a spectator sport and we experience it as such. There are seven criteria an activity must meet in order to qualify and ~ perhaps surprisingly ~ film meets all seven.

aarkin-quote“Acting for me is, and always has been, a team sport.”

Alan Arkin, 2007, in his Academy Award acceptance speech for Little Miss Sunshine

The Backstory

Trinity University, San Antonio TX. I’m a college freshman with a car, in need of a passenger to split gas money on a trip home to Houston. M. has money, needs a ride, and answers my ad in the student union building. Perfect.

Just out of town, in the interest of being a good host, I ask, “How ’bout those Astros?” Oops. Three hours later, nearing our destination, he’s still talking baseball. I’m not into baseball; I’m not even into sports. M., God bless’im, is one of those folks who can tell you who pitched the eighth inning in the fourth game of the 1975 World Series. And why. And what his career stats were.

As it turned out, it was the beginning of a fast friendship. Both back home after graduation, we were discussing the abundance of good restaurants in our city (while in one, of course – Mexican), and he mentioned a pair of friends who “eat out like a sport.” I thought it a remarkable analogy, and it remained with me.

Fast-Forward 2003. When people find out what I do, the conversation invariably turns to a discussion of what I’ve seen, what I like, and what I recommend – or not. During one such conversation, my companion asked me how many films I’ve seen. The response astonished her, and out of my mouth it came: “I know – I see movies like a sport.”

Sport Defined: What Activities Qualify?

Respected philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein posits that sports are defined “not by a set of common characteristics, but by new activities sharing some common aspects with existing sports, but not necessarily sharing any common characteristics with all.” 1 Let’s look at the seven criteria for defining an activity as “sport.”

Criterion #1: “Sports are activities based around physical activity, involving use of characteristics such as strength, stamina, speed, dexterity and other physical skills.” 1

Consider the internationally-renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company – home to Academy Award® nominees Joan Allen, John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise (not to mention numerous small screen heavyweights). Students in the School at Steppenwolf study “the following acting methods, among others”:

  • Viewpoints. This method is “a set of expressions defining the philosophy of movement. These expressions then create a language shared by the whole group. The method provides actors with an opportunity to develop their own unique concept of movement, space and time.” 2
  • Meisner: This method “revolves around being fully in the moment of the character, and experiencing all sensations as the character would.” 3
  • Improv: This method teaches actors to interact seamlessly with each other in an unscripted fashion, using an understood body of gesture, vocal tone, and other physical interaction. 3 To see this physicality in action, all one need do is watch an episode of the immensely popular television show, Whose Line Is It, Anyway?
  • Feldenkrais: Feldenkrais is a physical discipline in which individuals learn the connection between movement and expression. It involves two primary aspects: Awareness Through Movement, in which students “engage in precisely structured movement explorations that involve thinking, sensing, moving, and imagining”, and Functional Integration, a “hands-on form of tactile, kinesthetic communication.” 4

Consider also the New York Film Academy, the self-described “film school of choice among many Hollywood filmmakers and their families” – and from the subsequent list of references, it’s not bragging. The NYFA offers several curricula in “Acting for Film” from one week to one year long. Even the briefest instruction includes components of Voice and Movement 5:

  • Movement. “Gesture, posture, expressive and natural movement all contribute to the actor’s palette. Movement class helps students create character and action through the use of their bodies.”
  • Voice. “Their instrument, expressive and powerful, an actor’s vocal control is essential. Voice class takes students through breath work, singing, relaxation, and posture exercises that expand their ability to use voice effectively as actors.”
Criteron 1 of 7: Check.

Criterion #2: “A sport has codified rules known to all players. These vary somewhat depending on the location, timing, and specific event (for instance, golf courses have specific local bylaws, and each tournament may have its own special conditions), but there are a core of relatively invariant, agreed rules.” 1

Codified – syn. systematized.* Just as an outfielder does not take the mound, nor a linebacker kick for a field goal, so are there particular positions in filmmaking. The cinematographer’s job is not to produce, the actor does not edit. There exists an understanding of the elements of a completed film, and the players who will bring this about.

Likewise, there are certain standards for each position; regardless of how well or how poorly executed, there are particular functions that must be performed in filmmaking. There are fundamentals that must be mastered, no matter what the level of play. One basketball practice planning guide includes six major areas of attention (including ball handling, rebounding, and shooting), each with 6-9 subskills. 7 And after that, free throws – shoot’em ’till you make’em. Golfer Lee Trevino commented once that he routinely hit 800 balls per day.

Consider then these aspects of the filmmaking curriculum of the aforementioned New York Film Academy: 6

  • Director’s Craft. Introduces students to the “language and practice of filmmaking,” teaching them the “fundamental directing skills needed.” Skills include camera placement, blocking of actors, camera movement, and composition.
  • Writing. This course is “designed to build a fundamental understanding of dramatic structure that is essential to writing an engaging film. Arc, theme, character, tension, and conflict are thoroughly explored.”
  • Editing. Students learn “basic editing skills, the language of editing and the organization of film and sound material.”

Clearly, the mastering of certain fundamentals according to generally agreed upon standards is indeed required in film. With regard to “special conditions” at certain tournament venues, etc., consider that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences posts no fewer than 27 pages of eligibility standards and criteria for its coveted awards (see them here). The Hollywood Foreign Press posts its award application rules for each type of award given (see the motion picture rules here). Similarly, actors must meet a minimum level of performance activity as a condition of Screen Actors Guild membership, just as golfers must qualify for their tour card in order to compete.8

Criteron 2 of 7: Check.

Criterion #3: A sport involves a competitive aspect, either explicitly by competing against other participants, or by means of an ordinal (usually numeric) scoring system. There are organized competitions for the sport, rather than purely ad-hoc, casual competitions.” 1

Hmm, a “competitive aspect”? The Screen Actors Guild references a statistic by the American Theatre Association estimating that 350,000 adults act each year, and that 90% of them “must rely on income outside of the acting profession for food and shelter.” It goes on to say, paraphrased, “Get used to rejection, and don’t quit your day job,” supporting this with an excerpt from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that concludes by saying that actors “face the constant anxiety of intermittent employment and regular rejections when auditioning for work.8 Ouch. I think that can be considered a competitive aspect.

Actors compete for the roles themselves (to come up from the minors, as it were), and once the role is won, they compete against actors in other films (teams). These “organized competitions” most definitely are – they’re called the Academy Awards® and the Golden Globes, to name but two.

Criteron 3 of 7: Check.

Criterion #4: “Sport is performed primarily for the enjoyment of either or both of the participants and/or any audience watching.” 1

With regard to the 350,000 adults who act each year, the Screen Actors Guild notes that “most of those number are amateurs – performers for whom acting is a passionate, lifetime avocation.” If a mere 10% can keep the lights on with their acting work, clearly the players of this sport do so because they love it. And who also loves it? We the spectators. Let’s just talk about Neflix alone (nevermind its competitors and movie theater box office ticket sales).  As of this writing (2004):

  • There are approximately 2 billion (yes, that’s a b) film ratings on the site);
  • Members average 200 ratings apiece; and
  • Over 6.7 million people subscribe to the service. 9
Criteron 4 of 7: Check.

Criterion #5: “A sport is defined as a physical and/or mental activity, played individually or in a team, with or without an opponent to win (e.g. football) or to achieve a target (e.g. mountaineering) or just for recreation and well being (e.g. swimming).” 1

Let’s just unpack this one:

  • “A physical and/or mental activity…” – We’ve already established the physical, mental, and emotional nature of acting in Criterion #1.
  • “…played individually or in a team…” – Some films use an ensemble cast (The Big Chill) while others focus on a particular character (Rudy). In both cases, as established in Criterion #2, each film itself requires a creative team effort.
  • “…with or without an opponent…” – Sometimes an actor might just plain need the work (remember that 90% in Criterion #3!), and occasionally the actor might land “The Role” (one reviewer – sorry, the name escapes me – said of Love, Liza that it “would do for Philip Seymour Hoffman what Leaving Las Vegas did for Nicolas Cage”).
  • “…to win…”A Map of the World was given a hasty release in order to make Sigourney Weaver eligible for that year’s Academy Award®.
  • “… or to achieve a target…” – Director Ed Solomon strove for 11-some years to get Levity made; Charlize Theron said of Monster that though it’s “not the kind of film that a lot of people will tap into” like she did, but she was captivated by the character; and in her Academy Award® acceptance speech for Boys Don’t Cry, Hilary Swank thanked the filmmakers for how hard they worked to get the film made and tell that story.
  • “…or just for recreation and well-being…” – Consider just the first three Pink Panther films (the first Clouseau film didn’t involve the PP, and the other four were just sad attempts the recreate the glory I’m about to mention): in the United States alone, box office receipts and rentals total over one. billion. dollars10 And they’re worth every single penny. They don’t make a Statement, they’re no one’s Serious Contribution To Humanity, they don’t win Best Picture Oscars®, they’re just unabashed fun. If you’re looking to enhance your health with laughter, rent these.
Criteron 5 of 7: Check.

Criterion #6: “The primary goal of competition is to win according to the rules of the competition, rather than as a subsidiary to aesthetic, artistic, or financial achievements in the performance of the sport (thus excluding the “battle of the bands” or a sheep-shearing competition).” 1

Roger Clemens works hard to pitch well – but he does this in order to win the World Series. Tiger Woods works hard to putt well – but he does this in order to win the Masters. Nicole Kidman works hard to master the aforementioned acting fundamentals – but she does this in order to deliver an award-worthy performance.

All such individuals take pride in the way they perform, and I’ve often heard them express the sentiment that whether or not they win, the quality of their performance in their own eyes is what truly matters. Nevertheless, whether head-to-head with Barry Bonds, Ernie Els, or Julianne Moore, the desire is to prevail according to the requirements of the particular contest (I’ve also heard them say, “Don’t believe the ‘I was just happy to be nominated’ line – it’s true to an extent, but you want to win.”)

In Screen Actors Guild Award acceptance speeches, actors often acknowledge the exceptional honor of its having been bestowed by the peer group. When accomplished actors recognize the individual’s work, it gives them an additional sense of validity in their field, their sport.

Being able to command larger fees and land commercial endorsements are immensely desirable results, but it’s the professional and artistic recognition that gets them up at four in the morning for makeup.

Criteron 6 of 7: Check.

And finally,

Criterion #7: “Sport is unscripted and the results of competitions not prearranged. Sports such as gymnastics involve set routines, but the scoring of those routines is judged entirely on the performance of that day.” 1

My heart still bleeds for Ralph Fiennes in 1997 and Annette Bening in 2000. Both richly deserved Academy Awards® for their performances in The English Patient and American Beauty.  Both watched their film sweep the field with multiple nominations. Both lost their own competition to an individual who had a particular breakout, once-in-a lifetime, award-sympathetic, perfectly actualized role: Geoffrey Rush for Shine, and Hilary Swank for Boys Don’t Cry, respectively.

In the former, Shine lost four times to The English Patient; in the latter, Boys Don’t Cry wasn’t even a contender in the other five categories that American Beauty won. 10

Put bluntly, the timing stunk. Were Rush and Swank not in the running that year, Fiennes and Bening would’ve had it, hands down. World class performers. World class performances. But on that day, the judges nodded toward another.  

Criteron 7 of 7: Check!

First conclusion: Film is a sport.

Spectator Sport Defined: What Do We Watch?

So we’ve established that film is sport. What, then, qualifies a particular sport to be considered a spectator sport? Let’s look a some common elements of a spectator sport: 11

  • The event itself is judged on objective criteria. This element was satisfied in Criterion #2. Check.

  • An industry of professional commentators surrounds the evaluation of the event and its players [actors] and coach [director]. Good grief, where to begin? Arguendo, I’ll nod to the late greats Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel and Pauline Kael, leaving it at that. Open your local newspaper, go online, or turn on your television for further evidence.  Check.

  • The event has a legion of enthusiasts, ranging from occasional observers to outright fanatics who can quote facts and figures for the past 50 years, and/or on their favorite players. Referring back to the ACNeilsen statistics cited in Criterion #4, we definitely satisfy the term “legion.” As for those of us who can quote facts and figures, consider the games Mad About Movies, Scene It?, and Reel Delights. Companies don’t produce games without thorough market research, focus groups, and favorable sales projections.  Check.

  • Spectators gather in specially-designed venues to watch the event. Movie theatres, home theatres, VCRs and DVD players in the living room. ‘Nuff said.  Check.

  • Social conversations frequently begin with, “How about those …?” Personally, I’m frequently greeted with “What have you seen lately?” and “Have you seen… yet?” It’s also a favorite topic of dinner conversation with friends, and I was actually in a job interview once where the interviewer and I had to get back to the task at hand after about ten minutes of animated discussion. As of the moment I’m writing this, there are 202,161 messages on the IMDB film-related message boards, with most topics being posted to in just the last 30 minutes or so. The discussions on the Web are simply too numerous to count. We’re out here, and we talk.  Check.

5 Criteria of 5: Check!

Second conclusion: Film is a spectator sport.

That’s a Wrap

So far we’ve seen that film does, in fact, qualify as spectator sport. Having said that, I grant that it does not rise to this level for all filmgoers. Rather, I submit that those of us for whom it does, myself and my audience, fall into a particular niche – one which saw fit to recognize as its own topic.

Is film a sport for you?  If you’ve read this far, I’ll bet it is.
Here’s where to go next »


(Jan 2014: Since writing this article in 2004, many of the source materials have changed location or become unavailable. I’ve tracked them as closely as possible and updated the references below, but some have been lost entirely – including the foundational criteria and the Wikipedia page where I originally spotted it (inconceivable!).  There has, however, surfaced another reference work that outlines similar criteria; at some point I’m going to revamp this article entirely into a version 2.0, but for now I encourage you to trust that the source material then included at Wikipedia did, in fact, exist.)

  1. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Sport,” (accessed August 04, 2004). This page has been completely revamped since original publication.
  2. The Studio of the Archa Theatre, in describing its educational offerings. (Link updated 09/2016, page content may differ.)
  3. Method Acting, author unknown. See material at Wikipedia. Find a list of Academy Award®-winning students of this method at the Robert Epstein Acting Studio.
  4. Perlman, Ken and Athomas Goldberg. Improv: A System for Scripting Interactive Actors in Virtual Worlds.
  5. What the Feldenkrais Method is and What It Does,” author unknown. This material may be viewed at the Feldenkrais web site.
  6. The New York Film Academy. One Year Acting for Film, author unknown. This material may be viewed at the NYFA web site. Curriculum: Hands On Experience From Day One, author unknown. This material may be viewed at the NYFA web site.
  7. Winters, Coach Brad. Basketball Practice – Drills & Schedule. This material may be viewed at the Coach Like a Pro web site.
  8. How to Join SAG, SAG web site.
  9. The Netflix web site.
  10. The Internet Movie DatabaseThe Pink Panther, The Return of the Pink Panther, and The Pink Panther Strikes Again – Box Office and Business.
  11. What is a Sport?, author unknown. Article as of 2014 is no longer available at Wikipedia.
  12. (a) Carey, Amber, Dan Hodapp, and Amanda Murray. FAN CULTURE: Creation, Motivation, and Influence on Society. For Professor Richard S. Lowry’s American Studies 370 Course, Spring 2002, The College of William and Mary. This article may be viewed here (no longer available as of 2014). (b) Also Wann, Daniel L., Merrill J. Melnick, Gordon W. Russell, and Dale G. Pease. Sports Fans, The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators. New York: Routledge, 2001. Excerpted parts of the former article rely heavily on the latter, and I mention it as well for complete reference coverage.

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