Analyst Ed Cunningham on producing his Oscar-nominated doc Undefeated
It’s not very common to find an on-air sports analyst who also produces feature film documentaries.
It’s less common to find ones who are successful in that role.
It’s even rarer for any of them to produce a project that would receive a nomination for an Academy Award, the industry’s most prestigious honor.
Current ESPN/ABC college football analyst Ed Cunningham is all of those.
Cunningham’s Oscar-nominated documentary Undefeated, to be released in theaters on Friday, Feb. 17, follows the Memphis Manassas high school football team in its quest for a winning season after years of losing.
It’s not Cunningham’s first foray into documentaries. He’s had numerous successes in the genre. He produced three other critically acclaimed documentaries:
• New York Doll, a film looking at the history of the New York Dolls and one of its members, Arthur Kane;
• King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, documenting rival videogame players in a quest to achieve the world’s highest score for the arcade game Donkey Kong.
• Make Believe, following six of the world’s best young magicians as they battle for the title of Teen World Champion.
Cunningham answered a few questions about his newest project, receiving an Oscar nomination — the Academy Awards air Sunday, Feb. 26 on ABC — and what it is like to see his project on the big screen.
FR: Where were you when you heard Undefeated was nominated?
EC: I was sitting at my kitchen table checking email. The announcement was just after 6 a.m. West Coast time, and by the time I logged on around 7 a.m., I had over 50 emails with subject headings ranging from “Oscars!” to “Holy S—-!” Frankly, I’d forgotten the announcements were that early, so it took me five minutes just to realize what all of the emails were really about.
FR: What were your thoughts?
EC: “Even now, it’s hard to wrap my head around it. Surreal is an understatement and I’ve had to constantly remind myself (along with prodding from family and friends) to take time and appreciate what this means. It’s very easy, especially in this business, where we spend so much time and energy thinking about and working on the next production, or game, or news cycle, to outwardly show you are thankful and appreciative of awards and accolades, but not allow it to really register. So, my main focus has been to take it one moment at a time and truly appreciate what a lot of hard work with some amazing people has brought into my life.
FR: What was it like for you when your first movie hit the theaters?
EC: The first theatrical experience I had with a film I produced was when we were lucky enough to premiere New York Doll at the Sundance Film Festival. It had been such a mad rush to finish the film. Then I had to literally drive it from Los Angeles to Park City, Utah just a few days before its premiere, so I hadn’t thought much about the actual screening. But when we got to the theatre, and saw that it was sold out, I froze. And it only got worse when the lights went down and I realized that a film that basically four guys made in a condo loft was about to be seen by 200-plus strangers. The darkness felt like it lasted an hour before the movie’s first frame, and then it became like a dream when the film was warmly received. And I still hate that moment when the lights go down for the first time. You just never know if something you’ve invested so much time and energy into is going to generate a positive reaction.
FR: Super Bowl or Oscar: If you could win just one, which would it be?
EC: This is a tough one, but I’ll go with an Oscar. I think both are equally prestigious, and take huge amounts of effort and good fortune, but at this stage of my life and career, an Oscar win would be monumental.
FR: What will you be doing on the day Undefeated is released?
EC: Attending a birthing class for our first child, who is due in April. We booked the class when the release date was earlier in the year and are now committed because there are no more classes with openings until late March. But I do plan on heading out to a few theaters over the weekend to catch the reaction of audiences. Directly seeing and hearing how the film is received by those outside of our little Hollywood bubble is incredibly gratifying for me.