According to internal Sony Pictures documents that were uncovered in a trove of emails leaked by hackers, the entertainment company is readying a strategy to confront the National Football League in the months prior to the release of its Will Smith NFL concussion project.
Sony Pictures is currently filming a drama based on the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repetitive brain trauma, and the NFL's attempts to deny responsibility for it being found in former players.
In "Concussion" (working title), Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the neurologist who originally discovered the disease in the brain of deceased Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster. The film is a dramatic adaptation of true events, and is based off a 2009 GQ profile of Dr. Omalu.
Among the leaked documents, which were stolen from Sony by a hacker group known as the "Guardians of Peace," was a memo sent to the Sony Pictures "Concussion Team" by Allan Mayer, head of strategic communications at 42West, a public relations firm based in New York. Smith, the lead actor, is represented by 42West. In the memo, Mayer explains the firm's plans to counter what they expect to be a strong push by the NFL to cripple the film's success:
CONCUSSION is going to piss off the NFL. We should not try to pretend otherwise. Moreover, there is no concession we could make short of agreeing to cancel the project entirely that could possibly satisfy them. Our strategy should thus be based on the assumption that we are going to be facing a powerful adversary that may try to prevent the movie from being made—and, failing that, to ensure that as few people as possible see it or take it seriously.
Mayer warns of two tactics they fear the NFL will use to push back against "Concussion". He first suggests the NFL will release information that they feel will devalue the validity of "Concussion's" portrayal of their relationship with Dr. Omalu. Next, he warns the team at Sony that the NFL might try to use its influential partnerships (ESPN, Nike, "a horde of celebrities") to derail the marketing and promotion of "Concussion."
The second approach, which Mayer calls a "pressure campaign," would not be far off from how the NFL managed to suppress the reach of a similar film: "League of Denial", a 2013 documentary about Dr. Omalu, CTE, and the NFL. Last year, ESPN backed out of partnership on the documentary with out of fear of damaging its relationship with the NFL.
Unlike ESPN, Sony does not rely heavily on access and partnerships with the NFL, but Mayer's memo supports the longheld understanding that the NFL is an enemy that even the largest competitors don't want to "piss off."
The NFL did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.
Mayer believes that for "Concussion" to stand a chance against the NFL's potential attacks, it must be airtight in its representation of the "science and history."
But Mayer also said it should be presented as a dramatic interpretation. He points out that the film's villain is not football, but "the people who thought they were protecting the game by trying to suppress the truth about CTE."
Earlier in the document, he outlines the distinction: "Having issues with the NFL doesn't automatically make you antifootball — or, converse." To enforce this idea, and protect his client, he suggests Will Smith appear in an interview and a quote along the lines of: "I love this story because I love football."
The crux of Mayer's PR strategy is to be prepared for the NFL's dissent, and "establish a clear, positive profile for 'Concussion'. He emphasizes that when promoting the film, the "David-and-Goliath aspect" should be clearly defined, citing fan loyalty to teams and the game of football, rather than the NFL. Though Mayer has a strongly defined plan in place for Sony's marketing and promotion of "Concussion", he warns that they do not need to be "purely (or even mainly) defensive."
He also notes that the NFL has "too many other issues on its plate right now" to make "Concussion" their priority.
The NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell have been under fire all season for their handling of players like Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice. Mayer specifically mentions the ongoing class-action lawsuits involving former players who are seeking compensation for injuries already or eventually incurred as a result of brain trauma.
But the NFL has the resources and support to battle them all at once. That power, and the intimidation that comes with it, is not only the cause for Mayer's PR strategy document, but echoes the entire premise of Dr. Omalu's battle against the NFL that's portrayed in "Concussion".
Lindsey Adler is a sports reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Lindsey Adler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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