A football fairytale: The unlikely story of a new documentary from Amazon and Starbucks

The serendipitous tale behind how Starbucks helped bring to life the new Amazon Prime documentary “This is Football,” a six-part series launching Aug. 2 celebrating the passion, emotion and humanity behind the world’s most popular sport.

Every once in a while, an improbable team comes together to take the game by storm.

In the case of the new documentary series “This is Football,” presented by Starbucks and Amazon, the team was comprised not of strikers, midfielders or goalkeepers, but two documentary filmmakers, a famous writer, the founder of a global coffee company, his friend from Spain, a legendary Hollywood producer and the new-ish chief of one of the world’s most disruptive film studios.

How did it happen? Well, it’s kind of a funny story.

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the charmed journey of “This is Football,” an ambitious series highlighting powerful, human stories as told through the lens of the world’s most popular sport. The six, hour-long films take viewers from Rwanda to Iceland and Japan to Spain, sharing stories of the profound ways in which football unites humans across continents, languages, religions and cultures. Each episode has a theme based on universals of the human experience as they intersect with football -- hope, wonder, faith, redemption, chance and love.

In their own words, the far-flung team of visionaries determined to bring it to life share the story of its journey from an idea to its upcoming Amazon Prime world premiere on Aug. 2.

The Kickoff
Barcelona, 2016

Raimon Masllorens had an idea. The documentary director and chief executive officer of the Spanish production company Brutal Media wanted to combine his profession and his great love in a series about football – not just about the game, but the deep well of human emotions behind world’s most popular sport.

Masllorens had been enjoying the articles of British journalist John Carlin in the pages of the Spanish newspaper El País and decided to email him about this idea. (He had never met Carlin, mind you, but big ideas tend to go crashing through such trivialities.)

Carlin is an international correspondent for newspapers and magazines who has spent much of his career covering politics, world conflicts and sports. He’s also the author of several books, perhaps most famously, “Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation,” about the 1995 Rugby World Cup. His book became the basis for the 2009 film “Invictus” starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

Masllorens: I saw the film “Invictus.” I loved the story, because John is talking about a sport but he’s also talking about a lot of other things, and this was my idea for the football film. The most funny thing is that John was living in Barcelona and I didn’t know. I believed he was living in London. When I wrote to him, John said to me, “OK, your idea is great, we can take a coffee.” And I said, “OK, I will come to London.” And he said, “No, no, I live in Barcelona.”

Carlin: I’ve always been a madly keen football fan. That’s been kind of a constant in my life. When I was approached by Raimon, we started bandying ideas back and forth and the core thing we hit upon is that, with the possible exception of domestic matters, football is the world’s biggest subject of conversation in terms of numbers. And we wondered: why is this the case?

Carlin started talking to friends in London about the idea as well. One of these friends was the celebrated Hollywood director Paul Greengrass, who suggested Carlin contact Adam Bullmore, a longtime documentary maker and managing director of the production company October Films. Carlin introduced Bullmore to Masllorens, who was happy for the Spanish and British production companies to team up.

The three agreed their project would need to be a different kind of documentary – not the usual 50 best goals in history or football’s biggest stars type of programming, but something entirely unprecedented.

Bullmore: I mean, 50 best goals in history, we’ve made that kind of program before and it’s very popular and effective. But it doesn’t really get to the heart of what it is about football that touches the human condition – why it’s such a perfect marriage.

Carlin: We settled on the idea that it’s because within football you have all of the eternal elements of the human condition – hope, wonder, faith, redemption, chance, love. And then, of course, the great challenge was to scour the world for stories that would illustrate these themes in the most engaging way, and to try to make films that would appeal not just to the three-plus billion hardcore football fans, but to try and reach beyond that and engage the hearts and minds of people who don’t have any particular predisposition toward the sport.

One Epic Trailer
London, spring 2017

Typically, a trailer is created after a film is made – or at least during the process. But the team quickly realized to sell this very different, very ambitious kind of project to potential investors, they would need to start by making some kind of teaser to capture the essence of their idea.

Bullmore: It was blindingly obvious we needed a trailer to convince people that these kinds of topics could raise the hairs on the back of your neck just by talking about them. So we spent probably three months collecting the visuals.

Oh, what a trailer it was. It was two minutes and 36 seconds of drums, chanting, flag-waving fans, tears, sweat, agony, goals and near-misses. Set to the sound of a soaring opera aria, the trailer features a host of football players from around the world, both the game’s biggest stars and children kicking water bottles around dusty sandlots. It closes with a quote from legendary Liverpool football coach Bill Shankly: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”

Bullmore: I don't know how many different cuts we went through, how many different bits of music, and eventually we reached something we thought was really exciting. And that's when John Carlin started sharing the trailer with his miraculous friends.

Carlin: I've got a very good friend in Madrid whose name is Plácido Arango, who at that time was heading up all the Starbucks franchises in Spain. I'd mentioned the project we were developing to him some months before, just in the kind of good buddy-type conversation you have over drinks and dinner. He said, “I’m really intrigued by what you’re doing. Keep me posted.” So, I sent him the trailer. It was really more of a friendly gesture; I didn’t expect anything from it.

Arango: The teaser captivated me. It wasn’t even three minutes, but it talked about how football has more followers than any one religion and captured the global intensity of it – it was all really well transmitted. I’m not a marketing expert, but I know Starbucks well, and my mind all of a sudden went “click.” Starbucks is growing in countries all over the world, including in many of the same countries that love football. It seemed like it could be a fit.

Carlin: Plácido phoned me very quickly after I sent the trailer and he was very excited. Plácido and Howard Schultz are buddies, and he said, “Can I send this to Howard?” And I said, “By all means,” and thought, “Well, that’s weird, but very interesting.”  

Bullmore: When John came to me and said, “My friend Plácido wants to send the trailer to Howard Schultz,” I thought, “Well, you know, how can it hurt?”

A short while later, on the other side of the world in Seattle, Howard Schultz’s phone started to ring.

Schultz: Plácido called and said he was going to send me something quite unusual and extraordinary. And then, right away, there was the email and a link to the trailer. It was just so powerful. I called Plácido back, and he told me John Carlin was involved, the writer of “Invictus.” I’ve met John before, and we have a common interest in all things Rwanda; he had spent a lot of time there, and also in South Africa with Nelson Mandela. So I had a real, immediate bond with the project, not only because of what the trailer represented and the emotion of the sport, but immediately I just kind of saw what this meant – what it could be. Even though it was an unorthodox, unconventional project for Starbucks to be involved in, I wanted to learn more.

Schultz, the Starbucks founder who at that time was the company’s executive chairman before his departure in 2018, showed Kevin Johnson, chief executive officer, and a few others, all of whom loved the trailer.

Then Schultz called his friend and colleague Joe Roth, a Hollywood producer and director whose broad cinematic catalog ranges from “The Three Musketeers” to “America’s Sweethearts.” Roth, a passionate football fan who started playing the sport in the fourth grade, is also one of the owners of the Seattle Sounders Football Club.

Roth: Howard called and asked me to watch the trailer. He said, “You’re the only person I know who knows about soccer and movies.”

Schultz: I said, “Joe, you cannot watch this on your phone. You've got to watch this on a big screen. And then call me immediately.”

Roth: The trailer was authentic. Mind-blowing. To me it was about football, but it also represented a part of the human race that we all want to know exists, which is the better nature of people and the connectedness of strangers. I think Howard saw it as well, and probably thought, “This is what we would like our company to represent, too – the better side of man.” I asked him how I could help.

Roth agreed to be a consultant for the project, and Schultz invited the whole group to join a conference call a couple of days later.

Masllorens: Can you imagine when John calls us and says the head of Starbucks would like a call to talk about the trailer? I made a hundred Googles about Howard. I discovered that I think I love the Starbucks philosophy. Even though it’s a company, it’s a very nice company.

Bullmore: Howard invited us to have a call and Joe Roth was going to join, these two kind of giants in America – I had no idea what that really meant. So we set it up, and it was one of those strange things where Raimon was in Barcelona and I was in my bedroom at home in the U.K., the only place I get reception. I don’t know where John was, but I certainly wish we’d all been in the same room so we could kick each other under the table and draw large exclamation points on our notepads to show to each other. It was disarming the way Howard and Joe were talking to us about this film trailer as if it was one of the most exciting things they’d seen in ages.

Carlin: Howard seemed excited. He said he liked the whole idea underlying the series, and how this sense of globality and universality of football converged with the image and values of Starbucks.

Bullmore: It only turned out to be about a 10-minute call, but it changed my life. We ended by making arrangements to find the soonest time we could meet in Seattle. I still had no real idea at that stage where this relationship would go, but figured we’d get on the plane and see what happened.

The Best Meeting Ever
Seattle, spring 2017

Bullmore: We all met Howard and Joe in the Starbucks board room and watched the trailer again on the big screen with the volume way up. We had a very animated conversation and there was this terrific consensus of ideas and John was sharing some possible story lines for the episodes and then Howard said, “Listen, how can I help you get this series made?” I started gently meandering in a very English kind of way until Joe Roth said, “I think you probably want Starbucks to help fund the series and to promote it however they can.” [Laughing] I would have got there in the end, but that was exactly what I wanted them to do, and I said so.

Schultz: It was a brilliant idea that had never been done before. It was an unusual project for us to take on and so different in anything we’ve been involved in before, I knew absolutely it was the thing to do, and that the equity of the Starbucks brand would be enhanced by this project. It is filled with such a deep sense of humanity, which is so consistent with everything Starbucks stands for, and I thought our partners and customers would immediately see the connection. I thought the investment was well worth the risk, because the reward was going to be extraordinary. So we told the filmmakers yes.

It was official. Starbucks would fund production of “This is Football,” and help the documentary series find a distributor once it was done.

Seattle, fall 2018

After their trip to Seattle, the team finalized planning to produce six episodes of “This is Football,” each with a different story illustrating a universal of the human condition through the lens of the game – hope, wonder, faith, redemption, chance and love. They hired researchers to scour the globe for the best and most inspiring human stories from the realm of football, and filmmakers who would be dispatched all over the planet to film those stories.

Carlin: My credit was really in terms of developing the ideas and the foundation. They called me “The Creator” – I loved that. Once we settled on the stories, teams set off around the globe to do the filming.

Schultz: Much like soccer, which is a team sport, this was a team sport and a complete team effort to make everything come together.

Masllorens: The relationships were very good. This was a good team, you know? Very complimentary. …. (Dutch football player and coach) Johan Cruyff was once asked about his teams’ good luck. He simply answered, “Coincidence is logical.” I think this statement reveals why we’re all here and what we wanted to transmit to “This is Football” audiences: passion, confidence and hard teamwork give you great chances to achieve your goals in life.

Bullmore: Everyone did an amazing job. It's a tricky brief for the filmmakers to create something they felt football fans will love and people who aren't football fans will watch and go, “Oh, now I get it.”

By the end of the summer, Roth suggested the project was far enough along to start speaking to potential distributors for the series. The team set up a series of meetings with many of the biggest online streaming companies.

Roth: We wanted a streaming service because soccer is one of those passions where people may actually watch all six hours of “This is Football” in one night. I hope they do. And I hope it goes a long way toward answering the question of why people are so wild about the game.

In the fall, the team converged in Los Angeles for a full day of meetings armed with a whole lot of hope and six, two-minute trailers – one for each episode of “This is Football.” The first meeting of the day was with a team at Amazon Studios, including studio chief Jennifer Salke.

Salke: We got a call from Joe, who said he had something really special and inspirational and he wanted to come in and show it to us. He said it was global and would be good for the streaming service, Amazon Prime Video. That was really all he told me about it. So we set the meeting.

Bullmore: I mean, I was thinking Amazon three years ago. They had just sort of announced themselves in the widest possible way to the world as shaking up almost every aspect of media, from television to film. But I also realized that was ambitious. We went into the meeting ready to show them one or two of the episode trailers, depending on how well they were received. I think we probably ended up sharing five if not all six, which is unheard of.

Salke: They showed us the sizzles they had put together on each individual documentary and we just found them to be so epic and moving. It was really such a delight to be able to see something that conceptually would be appealing to a global audience. They are important stories to tell, but also it just had so much heart in it. It felt like everything we love. It was big and original, globally and culturally relevant, and beautifully executed content. So it kind of rang all of those bells. You could feel the love and attention and passion for the project from the team and in the room – it was just palpable. And we jumped right in.

Bullmore: They were incredibly gracious. They said, “We really want this for Amazon.” I started thinking to myself, “Could this be another best-ever meeting?” We took our other meetings, but by the end of the day, Joe and Jennifer were on the phone talking details.

Salke: To me, those stories transcend all. They’re about perseverance, the human spirit and people pulling together, and all of that is universal. What I love about it is that you don’t have to be a sports fan to totally appreciate and lean into these stories. And I thought the partnership with Starbucks was awesomely incredible. The project was really born of passion – it just had such specific intention behind it. Starbucks was thinking the same way we do, which is that we love compelling, human stories. It sort of fit the bill for both of us. You can feel the love and intention behind it, which is what I really responded to. It had a heartbeat. That’s what we look for. It’s a crowded universe out there of content. To cut through the crowd, you need to reach people where they care.

The deal was done. Amazon Prime would purchase and distribute “This is Football.” The series premieres on Aug. 2.

Bullmore: I’m nervous. And very excited. In the end, you just want as many people as possible to watch it and be moved. There’s so much choice out there – it feels like every week there’s a thousand new and amazing shows being offered. It’s a very competitive marketplace. But what I hold onto is the way people have responded to the series – the people working on finalizing various aspects of it, sound mixing or marketing or whatever, who have watched it and reached out to say they loved it and it had them in tears.

Carlin: Football is a mirror of the human condition. It is this great universal language that binds people together of all races, religions and ideologies. I think these answer big questions about why that is; they carry a strong, emotional charge. Nelson Mandela said to me once, “If you really want to convince people, don’t bother so much appealing to their brains, appeal to their hearts.” My hope is that we’ve done a good series that will reach the hearts and minds of a lot of people.

Bullmore: There are few things that can bring everyone in the world together. In exactly the same way football manages to unite billions of people, you can sit down in any country anywhere in the world and have a cup of coffee with someone and make a connection. It’s fundamental.

Schultz: Back when I first watched the trailer for “This is Football” in the spring of 2017, I knew at some point I’d be leaving Starbucks and that this project might outlast me at the company. Not everybody thought it was a risk we should take. But it still felt important to do. It was fundamentally a project about love and humanity across the globe, and to me that’s not dissimilar to what Starbucks has tried to do as a company with a footprint in 80-plus countries. My lens on all things Starbucks was “will this project or initiative make our partners and customers proud?” And if the answer was yes, these were the things we should do. And if the answer to that is not only yes, but also that it’s a project with the potential to elevate the human experience? I just had great faith that we were on to something extraordinary. It has exceeded my expectations. I’m incredibly proud.

This Is Football, from October Films, Brutal Media and Starbucks, to Premiere on Amazon Prime Video August 2

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