On Friday Disney+ released its latest sports movie, Safety, based on the life of former Clemson defensive back Ray McElrathbey, who took temporary custody of his 11-year-old brother while playing football for the school in 2006.
A feel-good drama, the film also appears, at least from the trailer, to be a two-hour endorsement of Clemson athletics and its approach to tradition, family and brotherhood.
The film’s production crew spent weeks on Clemson’s campus filming in various buildings and also shot during a Clemson football game last November, with 185 extras in front of 85,000 fans. It uses Clemson marks, logos and uniforms throughout.
That would normally cost a lot of money in licensing fees—schools are extremely protective of their intellectual property, and companies pay millions annually to use the logos of the nation’s best football teams. Clemson, however, provided all of it free of charge, according to athletics spokesman Jeff Kallin.
“The way we looked at it was as a marketing and branding opportunity,” Kallin said. “Any time you have an opportunity to work with Disney, even when it’s non-monetary, that’s something that doesn’t come up often, and can certainly be a differentiator for Clemson.”
Clemson is already seeing those benefits. The movie was hyped during Thursday’s Disney Investor Day presentation, and Disney+ paid to promote a hashtag for the film, which was trending Friday morning on Twitter. As Disney+, Netflix, AT&T’s HBO Max and Comcast’s Peacock all fight for streaming subscribers, projects are being marketed to the hilt, which should keep Safety in the advertising rotation through the holidays.
— Disney+ (@disneyplus) December 8, 2020
Beyond Kallin, it was hard to get people to talk about the film’s licensing. Producer Mark Ciardi referred questions to Disney+, which didn’t respond to direct queries or make anyone available to talk. There is a contract between the school and Two Dollar Bill Pictures, which made the film, but Clemson said it was exempt from records laws because of trade secrets contained inside.
Clemson is currently in the middle of a seven-year, $68 million marketing and licensing deal with JMI Sports. Kallin said that while JMI was aware of the movie, the marks were granted outside of that agreement.
Movies like Safety, in which the university and football team are positively portrayed, can be invaluable, according to Rick Burton, former chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic team and current sports management professor at Syracuse. He referenced the benefit that Notre Dame received from Rudy, another underdog story based on a real college football player.
“All of us at some level want family, and we want to believe that other people will be there to help us,” said Burton, who is currently co-authoring a sports movie screenplay. “Having Clemson at the heart of a movie where the institution is shown to care about one of its students, that’s the magic message. It says, ‘If you come to Clemson, this is how you’re treated.’”
One interesting part of the relationship between filmmakers and school: Clemson’s compliance department reviewed the film before it was finalized to make sure it didn’t depict inaccurate details that might be viewed as NCAA violations. McElrathbey’s brother, Fahmarr, was given rides to school by members of the Clemson community, a permissible benefit for a family member, but not larger benefits like meals that might have run afoul of NCAA rules.
Clemson knows it won’t swap the allegiances of college football fans, but Disney+ appeals to a much wider range of consumers. Plus, there’s value in people seeing the Tigers on their TV in a different setting.
“We know that Clemson is not going to be everybody’s favorite school, but would Clemson be somebody’s second-favorite school?” Kallin said. “There are people who maybe didn’t go to Clemson, or don’t know where it is. But them seeing an interesting story about Clemson, told by somebody that’s not us, is a really unique opportunity.”