We talk to the producers of F1's Drive to Survive series about potential rugby documentaries

How far off is a top rugby documentary series?

“We’re speaking to people in rugby all the time,” says James Gay-Rees when asked about the prospect of a breakout rugby documentary series on a big streaming platform. The Oscar and BAFTA-winning producer behind garlanded works like Amy, Senna, and Diego Maradona, he and his colleagues at high-end sports media group Box To Box Films are preparing for the release of their third series of Formula 1: Drive To Survive in partnership with Netflix.

So when he says that he believes “there is an appetite in rugby to do something now, in the right way”, it is worth taking note of.

In the April edition of Rugby World, we have a feature entitled Rugby’s Fight For Gen Z, where we explore the sport’s approach to wooing a younger audience – and how that compares with competitors in a tough sports marketing landscape. As part of researching the piece, we spoke with the team at Box To Box about how they approached their project in F1 and if there is anything rugby can learn from the partnership.

With Drive To Survive into a third series – released on Netflix on 19 March – the team can reflect on progress made. Today they feel that they have helped the sport enact a shift in interest, bringing in younger fans who have fallen for the narrative style of the show; embracing characters brought to the forefront.

Admittedly pulling out such stories can be a happy accident. In series one of the show, without the buy-in from some of the major teams in the sport, they ended up focussing on the personalities tied up in the midfield battle as teams jostled for position. So clear was the storytelling in the run that by season two, the big dogs wanted to be a part of it.

In the last few years, others have noticed the power of sports documentaries too. But delivering something that appeals to the major global streaming brands as much as it does to bored sports fans is easier said than done.

“The problem that we’re facing in our business at the moment is that things partly like Drive to Survive but more things like The Last Dance have made a rod for everybody’s back,” Gay-Rees says. “Because they just want massive, massive pieces of IP (this can refer to ‘intellectual property’, but also anything covered by copyright or trademark). So we literally can have monthly conversations with the Amazons and Apples and Netflixes and they’re like, ‘Yeah, but can you get Tyson, can you get Federer, can you get Liverpool FC?’

How far off is a top rugby documentary series?

In the April issue we look at rugby’s fight for Gen Z

“In terms of that big global play, we’ve just done a really amazing boxing show for Showtime in the US, so there’s an appetite for things on different channels. But people are under the illusion that Netflix are going to ride into town with a massive cheque for any sporting property and they’re just not going to.”

We have of course seen rugby documentaries before. In recent times we had the All Blacks’ All or Nothing series on Amazon and SuperSport’s Chasing the Sun doc with the World Cup-winning Springboks (now available via Showmax). And then there is the Living With Lions documentary from behind the scenes of the 1997 British & Irish Lions tour, still seen by many in rugby as the gold standard.

In the summer of 2020, it was also announced that the Lions and South Africa planned to join forces for a  behind-the-scenes documentary, looking inside both teams’ camps in 2021. It has been sold as the first Lions tour film shot from both perspectives. If such a venture goes ahead, the important detail is where it can be shown – and ultimately streamed.

Gay-Rees talks about the crossover appeal of Senna and Drive to Survive, with tales of unexpected demographics becoming fans of both. As well as doing more to cater for existing fans, rugby must also want to find those new enthusiasts.

Related: Does rugby need superstar names to challenge global market?

Getting everyone to see the vision and wholeheartedly buying in is another issue entirely, though. As Gay-Rees explains: “These things are really hard to make interesting, because either you didn’t get the right access, or you’re getting spun too much. And that’s really our job.

“You don’t know what the narrative is until you get in there. Obviously there’s the sporting narrative, which is who won, but that’s kind of irrelevant. What’s really interesting is, what’s the story underneath the story? And that can be anything.

How far off is a top rugby documentary series?

The 2017 All Blacks featured in Amazon’s All or Nothing franchise (Getty Images)

“We always work that out, if we are given the tools to work that out. It’s always a leap of faith from both sides. They will let you in and you can work out what the narrative is. And then you’ve got to sell it back to them. It’s ‘So actually the series is about this,’ while they say, ‘Okay, we thought it was gonna be a highlight reel,’ you know? Well nobody wants to watch a  highlights reel because they’ve already seen it.”

Necessity is the mother of invention. Formula 1, by its very nature, can be a secretive sport. Yet in making the first series of Drive to Survive, the production team found that some of the best stuff they could get was from candid conversations being captured on radio mics. They had all the footage of the midfield battles but with broadcasters often keeping up with the lead cars, sometimes they had to stitch in some additional commentary on the characters they were following.

And while not being able to see drivers’ faces will always be an issue for the sport, they have been able to capitalise on new camera angles. As the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) moved the onboard cameras that would monitor drivers’ head and neck movements in case there was ever a crash, there was suddenly a new angle for the producers to use in the show.

How far off is a top rugby documentary series?

Rugby World Cup 2023 is beginning to loom large (Getty Images)

As we hurtle beyond the upcoming British & Irish Lions tour, perhaps the big streaming houses will see the value in covering an event like the Rugby world Cup in France. If they did, you just hope it is done properly.

“It just needs somebody to get inside and investigate it and then sell it back to an audience in a really dynamic way because it’s got it all,” Gay-Rees says. “You’ve got great characters, you’ve got real stakes, the physicality is amazing, the athleticism is amazing. It’s punchy, rugby, and it just needs to be repackaged a little.

“I want to watch that show though, which goes behind the scenes of a rugby set-piece, and you go, ‘F*** me, that’s hardcore.’”

The desire is definitely there. As the documentarian adds: “I’m definitely putting us in the frame for it.”

This piece is tied with out Rugby’s Fight For Gen Z feature in the current issue of Rugby World.

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