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Red Carpet Ready: From Football Star to Blockbuster Director


With the nominees set for the 88th Academy Awards on Feb. 28, one local university graduate will be hitting the red carpet alongside the rest of Hollywood’s stars.

Writer and director Ryan Coogler, 29, has risen from aspiring Sacramento State film student and football star to one of the most exciting young talents in the film industry. His latest film has earned the filmmaker his first trip to the Oscars.

After his provocative and heartfelt major motion picture debut, Fruitvale Station, Coogler’s sophomore effort, the highly touted Rocky sequel Creed, has been a critical and commercial blockbuster, grossing more than any other movie in the franchise while netting the young director a host of awards and a place among Hollywood’s elite young talent.

Nearly a decade since catching his last touchdown as a Hornet, the gridiron still informs Coogler’s filmmaking.

“Whenever you direct something, I learned this from football: If you get talented players, a lot of the work is done for you,” Coogler says. “If you cast the right actors, if you find talented actors who are great people to begin with, all that work is done for you.”

The man whom teammates called “Coog” on the field clearly has no reservations about directing A-list talent: Creed is nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, a category in which Sylvester Stallone has already won a Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Award. The film has garnered Coogler a host of additional accolades, including the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s “Next Generation” Award.

It has been nothing short of a meteoric rise for Coogler, who grew up in the Bay Area and graduated from St. Mary’s College High School in Berkeley. He played football for St. Mary’s College as a freshman before the university dropped its program, after which Sacramento State’s coaching staff offered Coogler a scholarship to play for the Hornets.

On the field, Coogler was an absolute force at wideout and a three-time recipient of the Big Sky Conference All-Academic award. But it was off the field where Coogler, originally a business major, started down the career path that would propel him into stardom.

After breaking his cheekbone during a seven-on-seven drill, Coogler realized that football would last only as long as his body permitted. That is when he enrolled in Sacramento State’s pilot film studies program, first got behind a camera and started learning from early mentors Roberto Pomo, a theater professor and the film studies program coordinator; and Communications Professor Steve Buss. Both played formative roles in his career.

“Dr. Pomo taught me how to watch film. In class, we saw Zoot Suit and Birth of a Nation,” Coogler says. “I brought my football teammates, and they started taking the classes. Steve Buss seemed to know everything about making a film.”

“They put me on the path and gave me the tools to be successful,” he says. “Business was helpful; they do call it the ‘film business.’ ”

After graduating from Sacramento State in 2007, Coogler enrolled in the University of Southern California’s prestigious School of Cinematic Arts, where he further honed his craft.

The rest, as they say in the business, was a wrap:

Fruitvale Station won 39 film awards and received 52 nominations while grossing $16 million worldwide; Creed cleared more than two and a half times that much in its first week. In 2016, demand for the rising star’s talents is surging, and he has already been tapped to direct Marvel’s Black Panther for 2018.

Still, no matter the project, Coogler lives by his guiding principle as a filmmaker, which he says is “not to think about making a sale, but making a film that’s true to your goal and has the impact on the audience that you desire. All the other stuff will take care of itself.”

As Coogler readies himself for his first trip to the Academy Awards, it is hard to imagine it will be his last.


About the author

John Blomster

John Blomster is a lifelong Sacramentan and graduate of San Francisco State University’s School of Journalism. He serves as a copywriter in the Office of Public Affairs for California State University, Sacramento and is one of the lead writers of the Made at Sac State campaign. He has contributed to a number of regional print and web publications in the Bay Area and Capital Region, most recently Comstocks Magazine and Sacramento Press. John is also an avid musician who has been active in the Sacramento music scene for more than a decade.

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