Caroline Rowland doesn’t just warm to the subject of Olympia, Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics – she positively revels in it.
Olympia, a film she has seen “many, many, many times”, stands not just as a piece of extraordinary historical testimony, she says. “I think it was extraordinary at the time. It was such a personal intimate account of athletes and their pursuit of excellence. And, of course, Leni was completely obsessed with the human form, particularly the male human form, I might add.”
In the smart West End offices of New Moon, her film production company, Caroline Rowland plots her own Olympia – minus the Nazi propaganda. New Moon, makers of bite-sized promotional sports films for cities and countries bidding to host important sporting events, is pitching to make the official film of the London Olympics.
It is a deeply mysterious selection process. The decision is in the gift of the International Olympic Committee, organiser of the Games, fierce protector of the ethos and spirit of “Olympism”. There is no structured competition, no information about who is competing, merely an indication that some kind of outcome will be determined at the end of July.
Then again, nor is Rowland saying that much about her pitch. Her ideas for the film are “conceptual at the moment”. But she and her company do know how to win over the grandees of the IOC.
In 2005, when the IOC gathered in Singapore to decide which city should stage the 2012 Olympics, the key moment came with the presentations of bidding cities. New York’s presentation included a promotional film made by Steven Spielberg. Paris rolled out a film directed by Luc Besson. London had New Moon.
Rowland’s team came up with a moving film called Inspiration, which imagines how a handful of children from different backgrounds in different parts of the world, by watching the London Olympics, are inspired to become Olympic athletes.
The film, says its creator, helped crystallise the message of sporting participation that Lord Coe, who led the bid and is now the London 2012 chairman, and his team were trying to get across to the IOC.
“People can say things a million times, but until there is visual evidence I think it is hard to accept what people are saying,” she says. “I don’t think there was ever any doubt that it was true. It’s just that pictures helped to prove it.”
Such “bid films” are now de rigueur for any city or country presenting their case for staging a leading sporting event. New Moon itself has produced films that helped Sochi secure the 2014 Winter Olympics and Qatar the 2022 World Cup. Rowland has been jetting to Korea to work on Pyeongchang’s 2018 Winter Olympics bid. New Moon will be all over the London Olympics, with a film already made on the torch relay.
New Moon must be doing something right. It has now made films for cities that went on to win three bidding contests. Or maybe it just chooses its clients shrewdly. Its one “failure” so far has been working on Tokyo’s ultimately unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics.
What they all have in common is content that jerks the tears and rends the heart. Sport is deeply emotional, Rowland argues – not something you are likely to hear from the film industry. “You go into a distributor or a studio and you say you’ve got a sports movie and they’re ushering you out the door,” she sighs.
But go back to Riefenstahl and Olympia. “She really, really did exalt the athlete and created this god-like figure, but revealing all the vulnerabilities and the challenges that athletes faced. And it was a deeply, deeply emotional film.”
The only other such film to capture this emotion was the official film for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which symbolised Japan’s restoration as a global force. “That’s a film I’ve watched several times, but you don’t necessarily remember the gold medallists. You remember the music, you remember the story of the African runner who had never left Africa and was experiencing Tokyo for the first time, who never even made the final. But that film, to me, is his story and it’s the story of athletes like him.”
We have lost touch with those individual stories of sporting fear and vulnerability partly because of the “technology treadmill” of capturing sport, she says. “It became all about the journey towards high-definition photography and broadcasters broadcasting in high def, and all about volume and high-speed photography and everything else. And I think somehow, there has been a straying from the more visceral qualities of sport.”
The other drawback is the volume of sport on television. Films that try to recreate sporting action haven’t a prayer. The sports film genre has spawned some prize turkeys, such as Escape To Victory – set in a prisoner-of-war camp and featuring Sylvester Stallone playing opposite Pelé, and Rowland’s own cringe-inducing favourite, Invictus, about the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa.
“If you are trying to recreate something that we’ve all seen on television, you know, the goal or the scrum or the try, or whatever it happens to be, we all get terribly familiar with those things,” she says.
“We saw them happen the first time, we’ve seen them in replay a million times, we’ve seen them on our phones. There’s an absence of authenticity when you try and recreate that in film.”
Such authenticity is better captured when the film is a documentary, although she acknowledges that it might not necessarily drag people to a cinema. Nonetheless, Senna, the acclaimed documentary about the life of Formula One racing driver Ayrton Senna, is on cinematic release. So, too, is Fire In Babylon, which blends the exploits of the West Indies when they ruled cricket in the 1980s with themes of black emancipation.
New Moon is stepping gingerly into the sporting film genre, and not just with a pitch to be 2012 Olympics official film-maker. The IOC has also sanctioned a feature film called 5 Rings, something of an extended version of its London bid film, about a London boy who finds a magical ring. “That ring becomes a symbol of the opportunities that he has to open up in order to achieve things he never thought possible,” Rowland says.
But the opportunity to make the film is not yet in her grasp. The project is caught up in an age-old funding hitch, involving Paramount in Hollywood, and its £6.5m budget is not attracting a distributor.
More certain is Not Out, a cricket-based romcom directed by the London bid films director Daryl Goodrich, about an Indian girl falling in love with a Pakistani boy, and the family differences being resolved through cricket.
“The truth is that sports films are not about sport, they’re about the human spirit that is expressed through sport. So, in a way, it’s our responsibility to describe these films in a way that doesn’t make them sports films. And they’re not.”