China gets LeBron James' 'Game'

Basketball documentary set for November release

More Than a Game -- Film Review

BEIJING -- "More Than a Game," the documentary about the rise of NBA most valuable player LeBron James, will screen in China this year under license to Xinhua Media Entertainment and the China Film Group from Lionsgate and Harvey Mason Media.

Directed by Kristopher Belman, "More Than a Game" combines one-on-one interviews with rare news footage, home videos and family photographs to tell how James, a well-known figure to China's growing basketball fan base, overcame harsh odds on and off the court with help from four high school teammates and their coach.

The film, which opens in limited release in the U.S. on Oct. 2, could play well in China, where media regulators in the one-party government favor up-by-your-bootstraps stories of unity and the NBA estimates 300 million people play basketball.

" 'More Than a Game' will enable kids all around the world to learn that they can achieve their dreams and goals through hard work and perseverance, not just in basketball but in whatever they decide to do in life," James, who helped Team USA on its undefeated path to a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, said in a statement Monday.

To Chinese basketball fans who watch the NBA on television, James, a forward for the Cleveland Cavaliers, is nearly as well known as Houston Rockets center Yao Ming, a Chinese national hero currently on the injured list. James appears in prominent big-city China advertising campaigns for Coca-Cola and Nike.

The film is likely to release across China in late November, uncut by censors at the Film Bureau, said David Lee, managing director of XME, a subsidiary of Nasdaq-listed Xinhua Sports & Entertainment Ltd. Lee helped the film get one of the 20 licenses China awards each year to overseas films allowed to share in theatrical revenue.

Lee, who divides his time between Los Angeles and Beijing, is now working on co-marketing deals for the film. Although few documentaries get wide release in China, Lee hopes it will succeed at China's growing boxoffice, where historical dramas, comedies and action films helped push revenues up to $635 million in 2008, the fifth straight year of growth averaging 25%, according to the State Administration of Radio Film and Television.

China's moviegoers are no strangers to films about high school basketball teams. Taiwan pop idol Jay Chou starred in the successful hybrid sports-action drama, "Kung Fu Dunk," which earned more than 100 million yuan ($14.7 million) in early 2008. A sequel is now in the works.

 Of "More Than a Game," Lee said, "It's a film that transcends basketball and color. It's about working hard and being your best."

Belman's film began as a student film project that the director shot mostly in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, where James and his teammates -- known as "The Fab 5" -- first shined on the basketball court, leading their high school team to national fame.

The documentary could dovetail with the NBA's expansion plans in China, announced last year with partners such as Disney's dedicated sports network ESPN and the Bank of China Group Investments, among others. With U.S. sports marketing giant AEG, NBA China plans to build sports arenas to promote the game.

The film's soundtrack from Interscope Records features music by Kanye West, among other big names in hip-hop, a genre gaining popularity in China through its association with basketball and imported urban culture.

Belman's work also features James's Akron, Ohio, high school teammates Sian Cotton, Dru Joyce III, Willie McGee, Romeo Travis and their coach, Dru Joyce II.

In one brief portion of the film, it's revealed that James suffered an early career suspension from high school play for giving up his amateur status by accepting gifts with monetary value.

It's not addressed in depth but could be of interest to Chinese fans, who are watching closely as the government fights corruption in business and sport at home. Just last week, state media reported that a former NBA China employee was detained by Shanghai police in a bribery and kickback investigation that has already led to the arrests of two former Coca-Cola bottling plant employees.

For XME, "More Than a Game" is one of eight projects to be released in China over the next six months, said Lee. He previously served as co-executive producer on the 2008 Jackie Chan and Jet Li vehicle "The Forbidden Kingdom" from Casey Silver Prods., Huayi Brothers and Relativity Media.