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THE BIG PICTURE

Taking a shot at cinema

October 23, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

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 testament to his mega-stardom that a trio of Hollywood studios is in the midst of a bidding war over "More Than a Game," a riveting documentary about James' Akron, Ohio, high school basketball team that ended up going from obscurity to being ranked No. 1 in the country. The film premiered 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 with documentaries (it released two of Michael Moore's biggest hits). The biggest challenge for the studios, in terms of figuring out what kind of offer to make, has been in assessing the documentary's potential worth.

It's an intriguing equation. On the one hand, James is a gigantic worldwide brand, with a slew of big corporations -- led by Nike and Coke -- who are all valuable promotion partners for the film. James has also carved out several months of his schedule to promote the movie. In addition, the film 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 a theatrical release date. Ideally it should come out during basketball season, when a studio could promote it with a multimedia ad campaign. But James is, well, otherwise occupied then, playing basketball himself. Lionsgate has pushed to release it in late summer 2009, before the NBA season begins. The filmmakers like fall '09, perhaps because James has already committed to other promotional duties during the summer. Negotiations have also been slowed by the James camp's desire to possibly carve out a post-theatrical window for a TV premiere for the film, presumably for a heavily promoted showing on ESPN.

Still, I expect to see the film sell, perhaps as early as later this week. Having seen it myself, it's clear that "More Than a Game" is more than just a documentary. 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 kids is also 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," directed by Kristopher Belman, 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.

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patrick.goldstein@latimes.com

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This article and others about movies and pop culture can be found on the Big Picture blog at latimes.com/bigpicture.

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