Why Hollywood is fighting over LeBron James
For years, everyone has wanted a piece of LeBron James, who is right now--sorry, Kobe--perhaps the most popular basketball player on the planet. It's a testimony to LeBron's mega-stardom that a trio of Hollywood studios are in the midst of a bidding war over "More Than a Game," a riveting documentary about LeBron's Akron, Ohio high-school basketball team that ended up going from obscurity to being the No. 1 ranked team in the country. The film debuted to glowing reviews at the Toronto Film Festival last month, sparking interest from a variety of studios.
Three studios are in the thick of the action: Lionsgate, Overture and Sony (which would release the film through one of its subsidiary labels). The most aggressive offer is from Lionsgate, which has the pole position in the bidding because of its track record, both with documentaries (it released two of Michael Moore's biggest hits) and with urban audiences, having had great success shepherding the Tyler Perry film franchise. The biggest challenge for the studios, in terms of figuring out what kind of offer to make, has been in assessing the film's potential worth.
It's an intriguing equation. On the one hand, LeBron is a gigantic worldwide brand, with a slew of big corporations--led by Nike and Coke--who are all valuable potential promotion partners for the film. LeBron has also carved out several months of his schedule to promote the movie. The film also has Interscope Records chief Jimmy Iovine on board as an executive producer, offering the tantalizing prospect of extra marketing muscle via a soundtrack album loaded up with a host of Iovine's hip-hop artists.
On the other hand, it's been a tricky proposition trying to figure out when the film should have a theatrical release. Ideally the film should come out during basketball season, when a studio could promote it with a radio and TV ad campaign. But LeBron is, well, otherwise occupied then, playing basketball himself. Lionsgate has pushed to release the film in late summer 2009, shortly before the season begins. The filmmakers seem eager for the film to come out in the fall of 2009, perhaps because LeBron has already committed to other promotional duties during the summer. Negotiations have also been slowed by the LeBron camp's desire to possibly carve out a post-theatrical window for a TV premiere for the film, presumably for a heavily promoted ESPN debut.
Still, I expect to see the film sell, perhaps as early as later this week. Having seen the film myself, it's clear that "More Than a Game" is more than just a documentary. Directed by Kristopher Belman, it's an uplifting story, almost a fable, about a close-knit group of kids who overcome adversity, survive a series of obstacles, show a lot of heart and are rewarded with a well-deserved triumph on the basketball court. It doesn't hurt that one of those Akron, Ohio kids is one of the most famous athletes in the world.
People have always said that if every documentary had Michael Moore as its publicist, we'd see a lot more money-making documentaries. "More Than a Game" is no slouch -- it has the NBA, Coke, Nike and Interscope as its promotional partners. I have a feeling that whoever ends up distributing this film isn't going to have any trouble getting our attention when it finally comes out.
Photo of LeBron James by Ethan Miller / Getty Images