Cunningham’s role as movie mogul

In 2010, Ed Cunningham officiated at Nebraska’s spring game.

For five NFL seasons as an offensive lineman with the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, Ed Cunningham had to make sense of the chaos surrounding him with every snap.

As a producer of prize-winning film documentaries such as New York Doll, The King Of Kong and Make Believe, Cunningham has found the knack for seeing things clearly comes in handy.

Cunningham balances his passion for filmmaking with working at ESPN as a college football analyst.

This week, the former University of Washington star begins another stint on College Football Live (3:30 ET, ESPN).

Front Row asked Cunningham how he got into movie-making, who his dream documentary subject is, and some details behind his award-winning films Make Believe (airing this month on Showtime) and the yet-to-be released Undefeated.

FR: How does someone learn to become a movie producer?

For me, it was about need. I graduated from the University of Washington in December and, with no more scholarship money, my best case for a real paycheck wasn’t until at least August. I needed to eat.
So I approached a producer I knew at a local cable affiliate who did the rebroadcast show of our games, and asked if he’d like to help make a video recapping our season. We’d won the national championship, so I assumed there was a market for it. We ended up with a well-made home video. Their sales team did the bigger business and retail deals while I banged on doors at the bookstores and swag marts around campus. After costs were recouped, I had enough to eat all the way to NFL training camp in July. 

I learned to produce based on a need but didn’t return to it until about a decade later, so the education was dormant. It was when I was working on New York Doll that I realized I had already run through a full “film” cycle — idea conception and development, striking the necessary deals to proceed, producing the content, and selling it into the marketplace.

FR: How do you balance the two jobs?

It’s pretty easy actually. I can’t be on an active production as a producer during the college football season, so I just make sure what we’re working on won’t have that requirement. Beyond that, the day-to-day tasks of the jobs are very complementary.

FR: Are there any similarities between producing and being an analyst?

Cunningham: At their core, both jobs are about presenting information and opinions from a clear, studied point of view. The hope is to present it in an entertaining and engaging way. And even though the formats are very dissimilar, the more I do both, the more they continue to blend together.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve done in order to get a film made, something you couldn’t imagine a producer doing?

Cunningham: It’s actually in process now, so I can’t give specific details. But it is a wild, amazing true story that I’ve been working on off and on for three years now, and part of the project is hung up in negotiations.

FR: If you could produce a documentary on any one person — alive or deceased — who would it be and why?

Cunningham: It’d probably be Lance Armstrong. I think it’d be fascinating to document such an iconic person who does so much good for others, as he goes through a process that could potentially ruin his athletic legacy. I’ve never met Lance, but I’d assume he cares deeply about his accomplishments, and has and will continue to fight very hard to protect them.

FR: What was the inspiration behind “Make Believe”? Are you a magician yourself?

I am not a magician, but the producer of the film (I served as an executive producer), Steven Klein is. We’ve known and worked with Steven for years, and he’d always talked about making a documentary in the magic world, but we couldn’t think of a good, compelling way in. The idea was starting to formulate when we met at a New York magic shop so I could get a sense of what this world was like. We’d been in the shop for about an hour talking with magicians and staff who were demonstrating tricks for us when a guy walked in with his early teenage daughter. She was incredibly shy, looking at her feet more than any other place, and it seemed like she was going through that time in all of our lives where stuff just doesn’t make much sense. 
Fifteen minutes later, this girl was laughing with her dad, asking for the tricks to be repeated so she could try to figure out how it worked, and was fully engaged in a social setting that frightened her moments before. It was a great “aha” moment, and Steven pitched the initial idea that became Make Believe on the sidewalk — it’ll be about kids, many of whom are outsiders, learning to connect to the world through performing magic.

FR: What drew you to produce the high school football documentary Undefeated?  When will it be in theatres?

I initially resisted the project, because I see a lot of football in my ESPN role, but my producing partner (Seth Gordon) kept pushing. We’d met the three filmmakers who eventually moved to Memphis to shoot the film and he was convinced they could pull off something really nice. So they were going down to meet all the main people to see if they could gain the necessary access and we asked if they could shoot some character and teaser material. As soon as they got back and cut together some selects, I was in. If you get to see the film, you’ll meet a young man named Money, and he keeps pet turtles. Money and his turtles sold me that this could be meaningful. The Weinstein Company, who is distributing the film, hasn’t set a release date yet, but it will likely be in theatres this fall.

After being an official for a spring game, do you have a burning need to do a documentary on refs?

Sports referees may qualify for a documentary. They are a unique subculture of mostly men who spend way, way too much time on something that for most is a second job or hobby, and can discuss their craft for hours upon hours down to the finest level of details imaginable.

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