Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists


Reassessing “Hoosiers” in the Age of Coronavirus

Photo Credit: MGM Studios

1986’s “Hoosiers” is widely considered to be — not only the best basketball movie, but — among the best sports movies of all time. It stars Gene Hackman in one of his most winning performances. In a career filled with cantankerous a-holes, Gene Hackman’s Norman Dale stands out for his other roles for being so tender at heart.

Written by Angelo Pizzo and based on the real-life story of the 1954 Milan High School basketball team in Indiana, “Hoosiers” tells the story of a small team in a small town that makes an unbelievable run to the Indiana high school basketball state championship. The journey brings together the team, revitalizes the town, and rehabilitates the late Dennis Hopper’s town drunk — and flagging father-figure — “Shooter.”

It is a movie whose outcome is never in doubt but manages to have you cheering for it the whole way. Directed by first-timer David Anspaugh, “Hoosiers” may very well be one of the best first-feature films in history. It went on to gain critical acclaim, glowing reviews, massive DVD sales, and a never-ending rotation on cable and streaming.

“Hoosiers” was named USA Today’s best sports movie of all time. It ranks 13th on AFI’s list of the most inspirational movies ever. In 2001, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

In this article, we take a closer look at this classic sports film with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. We will break it down into four sections:

  • Elements that are COVID-19 Safe
  • Elements that are COVID-19 Risks
  • Small tweaks that increase safety
  • Major changes that maximize safety

This article is designed to help you better understand COVID-19 safety by illustrating how pandemic guidelines would have affected one of the greatest sports films ever made. Let’s begin by looking at the ways “Hoosiers” is already safe.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Safe

When Gene Hackman first came to the New Richmond, Indiana film set way back in the autumn of 1985, he never had to worry about pandemic safety. He didn’t have a cellphone, a computer, or the internet to worry about either.

Despite being filmed thirty-five years ago, “Hoosiers” does several things that decrease the chances of contamination and outbreak. We want to quickly highlight three:

  • The Sport of Basketball – Basketball teams have small rosters, which means fewer actors on set. While the crowd and the teams are in closer proximity than other sports, there is still a solid separation between the two. This allows us room to work, which we will get into shortly.
  • The Team Size – There is a famous moment in the movie when Coach Dale doesn’t have enough players on the floor. This is a movie about a tiny team. This further reduces the number of actors in a given scene.
  • The Size of the Town – The fictional town of Hickory is sparsely populated and rural. These are elements that maximize distance and safety.

This is a movie about The Little Team That Could. The smallness of both the team and the town play a central role in tilting the odds against our heroes. This is another case where what is good for the plot is good for pandemic safety too.

This is a sports movie, however, and that means that it will surely have some coronavirus risks in it. Let’s look at some of those.

Elements That Are COVID-19 Risks

As we talked about in-depth in our article on The NBA, basketball is a sport with several pandemic safety issues embedded into it. Chief among them is the fact that it is an indoor sport and that the crowd is so close to the players.

While the first half of the movie remains safe in Hickory, its pastures, and its tiny gym, the second half of the movie is an ever-increasing onslaught of outbreak opportunities. As the team keeps winning, its opponents get bigger, and so do the stadiums, the crowds, and the towns they visit.

The championship game is the most problematic location of the entire film. The indoor space is massive. The crowd is enormous. There are broadcasters and radio announcers. It is a spectacle that intimidates our little team from the sticks but it also intimidates those of us responsible for on-set safety.

Let’s take a look at how we can make a movie about basketball a little safer.

Small Tweaks That Increase Safety

When it comes to filming a basketball game as opposed to playing a real one, we have some tricks we can use to decrease the likelihood of COVID-19 transmission. We want to highlight two that would help with “Hoosiers:”

  • Safe gym selection
  • Sly camera angles

Safe Gym Selection

This is basically another way of saying “location selection,” and that has been a focus of ours since the start of the pandemic. We must think of how the location itself can help us maximize safety.

One way this can seriously help is by picking gyms that only have stands on one side of the floor. This immediately cuts down on the number of people in the scene and helps to corral all the extras in one place.

A one-sided gym goes hand-in-glove with our next tweak.

Sly Camera Angles

As we highlighted in our article on “The West Wing,” it is possible to film a crowded scene without having your actors and the crowd in the same room. “Hoosiers” could use a similar technique to maximize on-set safety and minimize the proximity between the actors and the extras.

By shooting in a one-sided gym, we can keep our cameras looking at the game from the POV of the crowd. This will allow us to film the actors playing basketball without the extras in the gym. We won’t see them when we are looking the same direction they are.

Then we can shoot the reaction shots — the cheering and jeering — form the court. This will allow us to keep the actors out of the gym when we are filming the extras.

It is important to remember that the crowd and the actors are already pretending. This is not a real game. They cheer when they are told to by the AD and the actors make-believe that their shots went it.

Granted, one of the things that makes Hoosier seem authentic is that several of the actors are filmed draining their shots in one take. This is certainly something we could strive to maintain but safety is paramount in this pandemic. If we can’t be safe and have actors sinking buckets for real, we will choose safety each and every time.

There is one major issue we have not addressed yet: The Big Game.

Major Changes That Maximize Safety

The Big Game is the one place where absolutely none of our suggestions above will be effective. For the stakes of the scene to work, we need the huge gymnasium. We need the crowd. We need the reporters and the broadcasters.

“Hoosiers” is one of the greatest—if not the greatest—sports films ever made. We are not trying to change this classic film. We are simply looking at what it would take to produce this film safely during this pandemic.

To safely shoot this climactic game today, we would make sure to highlight it during pre-production and lobby for it to be the last scene filmed during principal photography. By moving the biggest scene to the end of production, we can contain the fallout from an outbreak because it will not affect the rest of the production. The rest of the film is already in the can.

In addition to those two preliminary steps, we would also suggest that the production look at creative ways to film The Big Game. There are many options, but the two that we want to highlight here are:

  • “Moneyball” Style – The 2011 film “Moneyball” used its budget to its advantage by highlighting the isolation of the pitcher-batter duel in baseball. To achieve this, they had everything outside the batter’s box and the mound in a dark shadow. This lighting technique could be used to accentuate the isolation our small-town team feels in such a cavernous gym. It could lead to some artistic and beautiful shots.
  • Virtual Sets – If the producers want to keep things looking more conventional, the best way to do that and remain safe is to film on a virtual set. This new technology would allow the production to film this huge game surrounded by LED screens. With a well-trained creative team that is familiar with virtual sets, “Hoosiers” could have a final showdown that looks massive but remains safe.

Final Thoughts

“Hoosiers” is a heart-warming, crowd-pleasing classic that can still be made safely today. With creative location scouting and shot selection, the majority of the problematic scenes in the film could be made dramatically safer.

When it comes to The Big Game, we may have to dig deep into our bag of tricks—and budgets—to find ways the make the drama of the climactic game still feel impactful. With a talented team and a reliance on cutting-edge tech, we think it is possible. Join us next time when we will look through the COVID lens at Denzel’s Oscar Winner: “Training Day.”

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.