Brian Helgeland’s Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, made $27.5 million on its opening weekend, the highest-grossing debut for a baseball movie in Hollywood history and the second-highest for a sports drama. (The Blind Side is No. 1; it made $34 million on its opening weekend in 2009.) By all accounts, 42 is a finely crafted but pretty standard movie: inspirational hero, maudlin score, plenty of bigots that make it easy for the audience to root for the good guys. Helgeland, said the New York Times in its review, “has honorably sacrificed the chance to make a great movie in the interest of making one that is accessible and inspiring.” Three ingredients sealed its success.
1. Jackie Robinson. The man really is that inspiring. Not only did he break the color barrier that had existed in baseball since the 1880s, but he did it with a level of dignity and grace rarely exhibited by professional athletes today. And lest you think his achievement is a case of the right man with the right talent at the right time, Robinson had actually been pushing for racial equality for much of his adult life. In 1944, more than a decade before Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, he refused to move to the back of a military bus and was nearly court-martialed for it. (He was ultimately acquitted). It’s easy to root for an underdog who has the poise of a king.
2. There’s an obvious right and wrong. Audiences love stories that challenge their grandparents’ beliefs but not their own. That’s why World War II makes for such great war epics; unlike many of the military conflicts that came after it, the good guys and the bad guys are so easily defined. Racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism still exist, of course, even in sports. But year after year society inches forward. When a movie allows us to look back and see the progress we’ve made, we feel as if we’ve accomplished something. Besides, it’s a lot easier than looking forward.
3. The best sports stories aren’t really about sports. After 42, the second-highest-grossing baseball film is Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own, which on opening weekend in 1992 brought in about $22.7 million, adjusted for inflation. A League of Their Own isn’t really a baseball movie; it’s a movie about women convincing society they’re just as good and worthwhile as men. The Blind Side didn’t make $309 million worldwide and nab a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards because Americans love football. It succeeded because it used football as a way to explain poverty and race in America.
The great, sweeping Hollywood sports epic is as American as apple pie and—well, you know. But baseball films rarely capitalized on these tropes. In fact, the average opening gross for a baseball film is only $8.2 million, which is less than even Scary Movie 5 made this past weekend. “It’s an almost impossible sport to get a movie made about,” Ron Shelton, who directed Cobb, Tin Cup, and Bull Durham, told the Wall Street Journal recently. Americans love baseball, but almost nobody else does, and a lot of box office revenue is made overseas. So unless the film has a beloved hero like Jackie Robinson or tells a truly fascinating story like Moneyball, studios often pass. But as 42 proves, there is still an audience for baseball movies. If you make it, they’ll still come.