Aspen Filmfest hoops documentary about more than LeBron
October 3, 2009
ASPEN – Kristopher Belman was convinced he had the goods for a moving sports documentary, but convincing those in the film industry of the same thing was a lesson in the short-sightedness of today’s Hollywood.
For nearly two years, starting in 2004, Belman said he took meetings with producers and executives who nearly all said the same thing about the rough cut of his documentary, “More Than a Game.”
The studio types he met with were interested in Belman’s footage of a young LeBron James, the basketball prodigy from Akron, Ohio, and saw a story about James, now a global superstar, as a sure hit among basketball fans.
But there wasn’t much interest for the material as a whole. The prospective partners for whom Belman screened his film weren’t interested in the individual stories of the other four starters on James’ high school team, or the group’s charismatic coach. They weren’t feeling a story about friendship and loyalty being tested by one teammate’s exploding celebrity. They only cared about King James, not his court.
Belman said he received offers to sell the footage of James, or to be given a directing credit for a film focusing primarily on the superstar. And he kept saying the same thing: It’s not about LeBron.
That he persisted, and finally found a studio – Lionsgate – that embraced his vision is a testament to Belman’s unwavering belief in the material.
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When the film, which chronicles the journey of the “Fab Five” in their quest for a high school national championship, screened at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival, the audience responded with a five-minute standing ovation.
“I think the thing that surprises audiences the most, and very pleasantly, is that the film is about one-sixth about LeBron,” said Belman, calling from his cell phone. “You actually learn more about LeBron, while learning about these other players. You learn more about him by learning about the five kinds he grew up with.”
James, himself, said virtually the same thing in an e-mail to Belman and the film’s principals after being in the audience with his former teammates at the Toronto Festival.
“Him and the boys were there, and they were all crying, and all really touched by the film,” Belman said. “In the e-mail that he sent two days later, [LeBron] wrote, I need every kid in the country to see this film and to understand it’s about dreams.”
Belman, who will be at Sunday’s screening of the film at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, on the closing day of this year’s Aspen Filmfest, said his own story is living proof of that. He first encountered the “Fab Five” when he set out to make a 10-minute documentary for a class he was taking after transferring into the film school at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
“I was taking a lot of heat from my classmates about being from Ohio,” said Belman, an Akron native himself. “None of them had ever been to the Midwest, and they all liked to joke with me that I was a farm boy, and must have milked cows back home. I wanted to do my project back home, and I thought I could kill two birds with one stone: I could do the assignment, and show my classmates about where I came from.”
Easier said than done. When Belman approached Dru Joyce II, the coach of the Fighting Irish of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, in Akron, he didn’t receive the warmest of receptions. James, then a junior, had already turned down interview offers from “60 Minutes” and David Letterman. Belman pleaded with Joyce that he only wanted to film one practice.
“The fact that I was focusing on the five players and not just LeBron is one of the reasons I think they let me come and shoot. I just told the coach I was trying to get an ‘A,'” Belman said. “But after one practice, I decided I had to come back. I showed up the day after that. And then I just kept showing up. That one day turned into the next seven years.”