ESPN Films suits up for pair of theatricals

Both scripted projects are inspired by true events

ESPN Films is moving up the court with its theatrical features.

The unit is developing a pair of scripted projects inspired by true events: a story of the basketball-playing grandson of infamous cult leader Jim Jones, and the tale of Louis Mulkey, a beloved high school hoops coach who died on duty as a firefighter. Both projects derive from reporting the company undertook on its network and its Web site.

The Jones pic -- which will be written by Sang Kyu Kim, who also has written for Starz's "Crash" series -- will center on Jim Jones Jr., the son of the reverend who lost most of his family in the 1978 Jonestown massacre. He went on to raise a family including a son, Rob, who now plays basketball for the University of San Diego.

Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen Rivele, who penned Michael Mann's "Ali," will write the script for "Mulkey," while Mike Tollin, a frequent ESPN collaborator and producer of such big-screen hits as "Wild Hogs" and "Coach Carter," will direct and co-produce. The project will look at the late coach and the South Carolina team that went to the state championship inspired by his memory.

"What we like about both these projects is that they're not only about sports but they're also about the broader human condition," ESPN Films senior vp Ron Semiao said. "Not every sports movie has to be about a team that wins, then loses, then comes back."

Jones Jr., an adopted son of the cult leader and just 18 at the time of the Peoples Temple tragedy, said that basketball and life's larger lessons were intertwined. "The sound of a bouncing basketball initially hurt and then healed a family in the aftermath of Jonestown," he said. "Our history and hope (is) that this shared story could be a new legacy to the Jonestown tragedy."

ESPN has had several go-rounds with scripted and documentary programming, including its former ESPN Original Entertainment Unit. The company launched ESPN Films a year ago with the idea of making movies largely for the theatrical market as well as, to a lesser extent, the network. On the scripted side, it formed a partnership with CAA, which helped package projects and feed clients; all the names announced in the two new projects are CAA clients, though ESPN execs say its slate is not limited to them.

ESPN Films already has an ambitious slate of documentaries -- 30 filmmakers, ranging from Richard Linklater to Spike Lee, making one-hour docs that will air on the network beginning in the fall and continuing through 2011 -- and a Kobe Bryant doc that will air in May. It aired the television doc "The Greatest Game Ever Played," about the 1958 Colts-Giants NFL championship, in December.

It also is developing a scripted saga of baseball and civil rights based on the intersecting lives of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, with Robert Redford attached to star. There's no timetable for any of the projects, but scripts on both the Jones and Rickey pics, the latter of which is being written by "American X" scribe David McKenna, are expected to come in during the next few weeks.

Semiao said the company will talk to sibling unit Disney as well as other studios about financing and distribution. Theatrical-sports movies have had an uneven boxoffice record, but the exec said it was the best course for ESPN.

"What fans and viewers said to us is, 'We like your brand, but we don't necessarily want to see it pre-empting sports programming,' " Semiao said. He added, "People have been seeing movies about sports in theaters for 75 years, and we think they'll continue doing that."