Uni wins brawl for soccer pic

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Universal Pictures has scored a victory in an intense multistudio bidding war for the movie rights to a New York Times article revolving around a group of soccer-playing refugee kids who settled near Atlanta.

The rich deal, which sources said was $2 million against $3 million, includes the rights to the article, written by Warren St. John and published Sunday, and the life rights to the soccer team's coach, a Jordan-born woman named Luma Mufleh. St. John plans to turn the article into a book, and those rights were acquired as well.

Kennedy/Marshall is producing along with Stuber/Parent. Tom Lassally is exec producing.

The studio melee began almost as soon as the story was published, with bids coming in from DreamWorks, spearheaded by Steven Spielberg; Columbia and producer Mark Gordon; the Walt Disney Co. and Scott Rudin; Nick Movies; Sidney Kimmel; and the Weinstein Co., among others.

UTA, which reps St. John, mobilized its team, with Howie Sanders hopping on a flight to Georgia to meet with the coach, while Jeremy Zimmer manned the phones in Los Angeles. ICM, which in repping the Times finds itself in the enviable position of basically having a spec script come out each day, took calls via Todd Hoffman, who also strategized and co-ordinated with UTA.

It was Hoffman who received the first bid, which started at $25,000 against $125,000. By Sunday night, the bids had reached seven figures. The deal closed Tuesday.

The article tells the story of a group of kids from such war-torn countries as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Burundi, Congo, Cambia, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan who were placed in Clarkston, Ga., a town that resettlement agencies picked as an ideal spot for a melting pot. But in the late 1990s, the town began to turn against the new arrivals.

A few years ago, Mufleh, 31, arrived into this mix. She wanted to help by starting a soccer program and ended up as more than a coach to the kids, cracking their distrust of authority and helping their families cope with new life in the U.S. Mufleh and her players, called the Fugees after "refugees," overcame much adversity — including a mayor who this summer banned soccer from the town park where they played — and ended up squaring off against the kids of an elite Atlanta soccer academy.

A vital component in the bidding was finding tangible solutions that could help the kids and their families; to their credit, the studios did step up. Universal's deal includes funds, perhaps as much as $500,000, for a small soccer stadium and the establishment of a foundation that will benefit the refugees. The foundation will include money from the studio as well as the funds the coach had raised and funds that readers have donated since the story was published. The aim is to institutionalize the gains made by the kids.

The deal is the largest-ever film sale for a Times article and the fourth made since ICM began repping the paper six months ago.

St. John's' book about the Fugees team is being published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House. Elyse Cheney repped St. John on the publishing side.

Dylan Clark is overseeing for Universal.
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