ZURICH (AP) Funded with $27 million of FIFA money, the movie ”United Passions” is acquiring almost mythical status in football circles.
Mythical in the sense that the film, which was shown at the Zurich Film Festival on Sunday, has not been seen by many, and its relationship to documentary truth about FIFA’s troubled recent history is loose.
In industry circles, ”United Passions” would easily be defined as a box office flop – even with star power from Gerard Depardieu, Sam Neill and Tim Roth.
But even in a World Cup year, a film telling the governing body’s historical story is a tough sell when it carries the toxic tag ”The FIFA Movie.”
Suspicion it is a vanity project with script approval for President Sepp Blatter, portrayed by Academy Award-nominated Roth, is fueled by on-screen lines like one spoken in 1998, soon after his first election in what was widely reported as a ballot bought by some of his supporters.
”The slightest breach of ethics will be severely punished,” Roth-as-Blatter tells FIFA marketing executives.
The one-off screening in FIFA’s home city on Sunday was introduced by a festival staffer with thanks to FIFA for making this Swiss premiere happen.
It was watched by about 120 people in a 500-capacity theater at the Arena multiplex. At a top price of 22 Swiss francs ($22.70) per ticket, including the one bought by The Associated Press, the take would be about 2,400 Swiss francs ($2,480).
That should boost the international box office takings to between $150,000 and $200,000, according to figures supplied by film industry data analyst Rentrak.
Switzerland became only the seventh country to screen ”United Passions” since its world premiere at Cannes in May, according to Rentrak, which monitors screenings and earnings in 70 countries.
Depardieu and Blatter attended the Cannes launch. But it was only in Ukraine, which had a June 5 release, that the film could be seen before the 2014 World Cup kicked off in Brazil on June 12.
Host nation distributors passed on it, even with a starring role for Neill as Joao Havelange, the most powerful Brazilian in FIFA’s 110-year history. He resigned last year as honorary president to avoid sanctions for taking million-dollar kickbacks from World Cup deals.
France also passed on the French production, albeit in English, which stars one of its most celebrated actors in Depardieu playing Jules Rimet, who founded the World Cup. In France, it went straight to DVD in July.
Russia was the main market with box office earnings topping 5.7 million rubles ($144,000), according to Rentrak. The 2018 World Cup host had 162 screens showing ”United Passions” on its July 3 release. As word of mouth spread, 73 screens showed it the second week. It then closed.
A two-week run in Portugal reaped 5,300 euros ($6,650); three weeks in Serbia brought in 254,000 dinar ($2,700); box office returns for releases in Slovenia and Hungary were not available to Rentrak.
The clear pattern of failure for ”United Passions” does not mean it is the travesty FIFA critics hoped for. It is dull rather than offensive.
FIFA did, however, encourage skeptics by handling the project like a guilty secret.
Some members of Blatter’s executive committee – with clean reputations and no reason to fear the story – said they had no idea FIFA’s money was spent this way.
Only in June did FIFA finance director Markus Kattner confirm that FIFA paid 90 percent of the film’s budget using cash approved in a vaguely worded 2009 financial report entry.
FIFA had wanted to fund a movie for its centenary in 2004, and revived the plan when French producers approached.
”FIFA then agreed to contribute,” the governing body said in June, ”considering this to be a unique opportunity to raise awareness of the breadth of FIFA’s work to develop football globally.”
Yet when Depardieu visited FIFA in October 2012 and at the Ballon d’Or gala the following January, the film project was not mentioned in news releases.
Blatter was also evasive. In an August 2013 interview with the AP, he dismissed a question about who might play him in a movie as if the thought never occurred to him. Roth was due in Zurich days later for filming.
The film is no classic, for sure. There are too many men in meetings, and not enough action – football on the field or scandal in the board room – to sustain interest.
On film industry website IMDB, 700 users have graded the movie at 3.2 out of 10.
The script is a clunker, too. Within minutes, references to the beautiful game and football being more important than life or death are spoken in a scene set in 1904, decades before Pele and Bill Shankly coined what are now tired cliches.
Unintentional comedy can also be enjoyed by viewers with basic knowledge of FIFA politics.
The film introduces Blatter in 1975, when he worked for a Swiss watch brand.
”I’m taking up football. No more watches,” says the fictional Blatter, who in reality has yet to explain what he did with his $26,000 watch presented by the Brazilian federation to football officials at the World Cup.
FIFA’s ethics committee wants them back to sell for a Brazilian charity.
The film strives for a dramatic climax with Blatter’s 2002 re-election in Seoul, South Korea. It was a time of stunning upheaval at FIFA, though the conflict is hardly hinted at.
Any tension on screen deflates in an extended slow-motion shot of a dark-suited Roth walking into the election room, in apparent homage to his celebrated ”Reservoir Dogs” role as a good cop working undercover in a criminal gang. Perhaps this is among the ironic touches ”United Passions” director and co-writer Frederic Auburtin has said he inserted.
The film points to Havelange as the cause of corruption while Blatter is the hard worker recruiting Coca-Cola as a sponsor, left alone to fend off a hostile press and, as one aide says, ”betrayed” by his colleagues.
Another curiosity of the Seoul section is Blatter not having an identified election opponent.
African football leader Issa Hayatou -routed in that 2002 ballot, now No. 2 to Blatter as FIFA senior vice president – is airbrushed from the plot. So are Jack Warner, Mohamed bin Hammam, Ricardo Teixeira, Nicolas Leoz and the rest of FIFA’s executive committee on Blatter’s 16-years-and-counting presidential watch.
Detailing Hayatou’s opposition would jar with a major ”United Passions” theme, that of Blatter as visionary supporter of African and women’s football.
It is unfortunate timing that the film landed in Zurich the same week as a discrimination lawsuit filed in Canada – and supported by the past two FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year winners, Abby Wambach and Nadine Angerer – over FIFA approving the 2015 Women’s World Cup to be played on artificial turf.
The movie ends with Roth-as-Blatter crassly imposed on actual footage of Nelson Mandela lifting the World Cup trophy at FIFA headquarters in 2004 when South Africa was chosen as 2010 host.
FIFA is unlikely to see much return on its $27 million investment, though the loss is cushioned by having $1.5 billion in the bank. Still, that $27 million represents FIFA’s entire 2013 spending on its Goal development program, which targets projects in poorer member federations.
The money could also pay, several times over, to have natural grass surfaces put in six Canadian stadiums for the world’s best female players.