For Jess Atkinson, storytelling is about finding the gap.
“I’m drawn to that difference between what you think the world is and what it is really like, the gaps in expectations and reality,” said the Bethesda father of three and former pro football kicker and TV sports broadcaster.
It’s a simple strategy that has helped Atkinson, co-founder and partner in the Bethesda-based 3 Penny Films company, distinguish himself in the highly-saturated world of sports media, all-access shows, direct social networking and non-stop highlights.
In 2003, Atkinson left his job as sports director at WUSA9, picked up a camera and, with the blessing of then-Coach Ralph Friedgen, began following Maryland Terrapins football players and coaches as they practiced, studied, visited home and played the games.
Atkinson’s work, which has included productions for the football programs at Miami, Auburn and, now, Notre Dame, is focused on the personal stories of athletes and coaches that go beyond game action. That’s what has made the company’s storytelling style so compelling to athletic departments competing for attention from recruits, donors, ticket buyers and anyone else watching sports.
“You’re looking for something real. And if it’s not real, people can spot it right away,” said Joe Schreiber, a producer and partner in 3 Penny Films and the man credited with much of the success of the George Michael Sports Machine, the show many view as a major influence in the ESPN-dominated highlight shows of today.
“What you’re showing people must be real and authentic,” Schreiber said, “because with the amount of media people watch today, if it’s not real, people pass it off as some kind of propaganda message.”
A decade after Atkinson started and four years after he, Schreiber and former Under Armour executive Bill Kraus started 3 Penny Films, the company has a host of clients inside and outside of college football and now is producing shows for Notre Dame — the so-called “University of Football In America.”
Atkinson grew up in Camp Springs, got cut from the Maryland soccer team and found himself messing around kicking footballs on Frat Row in College Park. He decided he wanted to kick for the football team, pushed for an opportunity, “knocked on a few doors,” and became a record-setting kicker for the school before a few stints in the NFL, including one with the 1987 champion Washington Redskins.
It’s that experience that he said informs his priority – to “humanize the coaches and players as they struggle to get what they’re after.” Schreiber said that entails a lot of planning and a lot of refining.
There’s the Notre Dame linebacker who had to give up playing because of migraines but has remained connected to the team, engaged in team meetings and activities.
There’s Maryland kicker Brad Craddock, a sophomore from Australia who has had to adjust to a new culture while adjusting to college life and being a football kicker.
There are also non-football stories, such as Dustin Kirby, the Navy medic who got shot by a sniper about two months after saving a wounded marine who suffered the same fate. Atkinson, in conjunction with Wounded Warriors, is producing a story about Kirby’s return home, struggles with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and efforts to reconnect with his family.
Atkinson began his all-access Maryland football show, “Terrapins Rising,” in 2003 for Comcast SportsNet.
He said he was reading an article in the “MIT Technology Review” about the future of TV. The story detailed how the coming advances in cell phone and nanotechnology would mean that future was going to look vastly different from the local and national TV news model that was the standard.
“I kind of put it down and thought, ‘You mean, I’ll be able to watch what I want, when I want?’ To me, that would fundamentally change what I was doing at the time, which was local sports,” Atkinson said. “Whether those moving images were on a computer screen or a TV or an iPad, while there are different attributes to each different distribution channel, in the end, you’re telling stories across those platforms.”
In the decade since, Atkinson’s documentary storytelling style has expanded past his alma mater. With the help of Kraus, one of Under Armour’s first executives, Atkinson and Schreiber have been able to produce shows about sports programs at Auburn, Marquette, Miami and Minnesota.
Atkinson and Schreiber said the Notre Dame deal — a four-month project on the 2013 season that is airing on NBC Sports Network — is really a bigger deal to those outside the company than it is to them.
But it is significant — a client with a large national fanbase. The operation has grown from Atkinson to about seven to 12 filmmakers going out to different schools each weekend. Atkinson has been traveling between South Bend, Ind., College Park and Bethesda for the past few months. He took some time recently to watch his middle son, a linebacker, play for Colby College in Maine.
His oldest son is an art student at the Pratt Institute in New York and his youngest child just started her freshman year at Wisconsin.
Hi kids joke that Atkinson, 51, played back when football players wore leather helmets. He did play back in the era of single-bar facemasks for kickers. Nonetheless, Schreiber said Atkinson’s experience in the game is an enormous part of gaining the trust of athletic programs.
“What we sell is the ability to be trusted,” Schreiber said. “Jess being a former player is big, but also being a kicker. Kickers are always watching. They see things that are going on that other people don’t. Jess was very observant when he played.”
In 2008, Auburn hired Gene Chizik to be its new football coach. He was, to say the least, an unpopular choice. A fan famously heckled an Auburn official as he arrived at the local airport, after it became apparent Chizik would become the coach.
“Auburn understood they needed to show people that Gene Chizik was the right guy, that they couldn’t just tell people Gene Chizik was the right guy,” Schreiber said.
Auburn hired 3 Penny Films to follow the Tigers that season and the next one, in which Auburn won the national championship.
“What we really try to do is be that fly on the wall,” Atkinson said. “Being an athlete, you seek to master a skill. I’m in my 50s, yet there’s still so much to learn about life. I really try to listen first and understand who the person is and what the person is, to try to truly understand what they’re going through.”