Back in April 2021, ESPN announced that a 30 for 30 installment was in the works on the 1980s-1990s American Gladiators reality competition series. That documentary, directed by Ben Berman (The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, An Evening With Tim Heidecker) and co-directed by Kirk Johnson, now has a title (The American Gladiators Documentary), a release date (two parts, premiering on linear ESPN on May 30 and May 31 respectively and available on ESPN+ after its linear premiere), co-production information (it’s a project of ESPN Films and Vice Studios), and a trailer:
Here’s more on the film from an ESPN release:
“ESPN will debut the next installment in the Peabody and Emmy award-winning 30 for 30 series, “The American Gladiators Documentary,” a two-part film directed by Ben Berman (“The Amazing Johnathan Documentary”), Tuesday, May 30 at 8:30p.m. ET and Wednesday, May 31 at 9p.m. ET. The film takes an unconventional approach to the epic tale of the famed reality-competition show. What begins as a traditional sports documentary soon gives way to bigger themes of greed, divergent narratives, and ultimately questions how history itself is written.
…From 1989 to 1996, American Gladiators was one of the most popular syndicated programs in television, a competition show that predated the reality TV era but used many of the same techniques to attract viewers. Every week, “amateur” contestants would go up against a cast of “professional” gladiators in a range of physical competitions, setting up David versus Goliath matchups that were popular with big television audiences but also earned considerable criticism for being “crash TV”. The show’s cast and crew look back on it all, with their memories complicated by regret over what it did to many of the gladiators’ lives. And as the behind-the-scenes story of the series is told, from the beginning of the film, the central, most compelling character of the story is clear: Johnny Ferraro, the creator of American Gladiators, a former Elvis impersonator from Erie, PA who came to Hollywood with a dream of putting the show on screen and ended up with a singular success.
“We’re very excited to finally get this story out into the world, and you can trust that it’ll take you to some weird places,” said Berman. “Come for the 90’s nostalgia, but stay for the Elvis impersonators, the burps, the mental torment, the murder plots, aliens, and of course the undeniable atrocity of America’s dark history. And sports. It’s got some sports too.”
The film features original interviews with Johnny Ferraro, Deron McBee (‘Malibu’), Michael Horton (‘Gemini’), Lynn ‘Red’ Williams (‘Sabre’), the late William Billy Smith (‘Thunder’) and Salina Bartunek (‘Elektra’). The documentary is executive produced by ESPN Films and VICE Studios and produced by Ben Berman, Kirk Johnson, Russell Wayne Groves, Danny Gabai and Andrew Freston.
There are a lot of promising interview subjects listed in there, and the focus on Ferraro and how he came up with this concept sounds interesting. From a sports broadcasting perspective, it’s a little unfortunate that some of the big names involved in calling American Gladiators aren’t specifically listed as featured interviews; Fran Tarkenton, Tim Wrightman, Joe Theismann, Mike Adamle, Todd Christensen, and Larry Csonka were all involved at points, and all but Christensen, who passed away in 2013, are still alive. But there may be some appeal to focusing on Ferraro himself and the Gladiators. And this may further boost interest in a possible revival of the show; that was tried in 2008 (with Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali hosting), and was floated again in 2014 and 2018 (with Ferraro and Seth Rogen involved in the latter attempt), but hasn’t yet come to pass. But the nostalgic 30 for 30 to league revival pathway has happened in the past.
This also adds to quite a recent run of 30 for 30s. Back in August 2018, AA’s Ben Koo discussed “a troubling lull for the series,” which had put out 98 feature-length installments (plus the OJ: Made In America miniseries) at that point, but only two that year (they would wind up with four released in calendar 2018). Since then, though, the numbers have largely risen: 2019 saw six 30 for 30s, 2020 saw six (including two two-part ones, one four-part one, and not including the 30 for 30-associated The Last Dance 10-part series), 2021 saw three (one in two parts), and 2022 saw five (one in three parts). This year has already had one (Bullies of Baltimore), and at least two more seem on the way this calendar year (I’m Just Here For The Riot, American Son), with another one (a Steve James-directed one on Bill Walton) announced but with no date yet. So there’s plenty of 30 for 30 content headed our way shortly.