LeBron James Reveals Ambitious Plan to Build Hollywood Empire: "Winning Is the First Thing That Matters"
With $42 million a year in endorsements alone and 18.7 million Twitter followers, the NBA star — and most powerful brand in sports — opens up for the first time about his plan to convert his heat into a Hollywood empire: "I'm going to take full advantage of it while I can."
This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The janitor at the Akron, Ohio, office complex that houses the LeBron James Family Foundation and LRMR, the sports management company headed by the NBA superstar, eyes me warily. We're in the elevator, though I don't know what floor I'm supposed to go to. There are signs for medical offices, investment firms, a real estate company. But nothing for the foundation or LRMR. "We took it down," explains the janitor. "Too many people peeking in the windows." Having established that I am not an overzealous fan, he presses the button for the third floor. "Down here on your right," he says, gesturing at the deserted hallway. "Last door."
I see two impressionistic silk-screen portraits of James hanging in the lobby of a dark, seemingly empty office. More camouflage. When I ring the doorbell (a sign instructs: "press hard"), a cheerful woman emerges from the shadows. "Sorry," she says, after she unlocks the door. "We like to keep it dark."
James isn't even here (I am taking a tour of his office in advance of a meeting with him the next day). But several pairs of his signature Nike sneakers — his deal with the shoe giant nets him $20 million a year — sit in display cases. The nameplate on his desk reads King James. I have been talking to his adviser Adam Mendelsohn about this interview for several months. There have been multiple postponements, not least of which was the delay caused by his return last summer to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a $42.2 million, two-year deal that made global headlines.
In Akron — where the sign marking the town line announces "Home of LeBron James" — residents are likely to spot James taking in a movie at the multiplex or eating a steak at Ken Stewart's Grille with his childhood friend and business partner Maverick Carter (the M in LRMR; the Rs are for James' sports agent Rich Paul and right hand Randy Mims, also friends from the early days). Though he lives on an estate with a steel fence and multiple guard shacks, James doesn't always like to be sequestered. In better weather, he'll ride his bike to the office. Everyone here knows where James lives; when the rumors started flying last summer that he would leave the Miami Heat and return to the Cavaliers, hundreds of fans (and reporters) showed up to stake out his house. But even here in Akron — where he grew up in subsidized housing, where his mother, Gloria, and his closest friends still live, where he and his wife, Savannah, who have been together since high school, are raising their family (sons LeBron Jr., 10, and Bryce, 7, and a daughter, Zhuri, born Oct. 22) and where he is a familiar sight at his alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School — even here, his stardom is all consuming.
"I can't live anywhere normally," he tells me the next day at his office. He has just padded in wearing gray sweatpants, a white T-shirt with a gray Nike swoosh and black Nike shower shoes with socks. He folds his 6-foot-8 frame into an office chair and rests his massive tattooed arms on the table. "I do normal people stuff," he continues. "I go out to eat. It's just I'm not normal, and I know that. It's not like I'm trying to say I'm bigger than ..."
Asked if he misses anonymity, he smiles: "It's been so long, I don't remember."
At 30, James already is assured his place in basketball's pantheon of all-time greats. But even with likely many years left in his playing career, he is laying the groundwork for a business empire. Having already earned close to half a billion dollars through endorsements, investments and NBA contracts, he envisions an entertainment conglomerate that befits his one-of-a-kind stature and philanthropic, family-values, all-for-the-fans persona.
His stardom already has opened doors in Hollywood. Spring Hill Productions, named for the housing complex James moved into with his mother when he was in sixth grade, is growing a portfolio of TV and digital projects where ownership and creative control are elemental: the Disney series Becoming; the Starz scripted dramedy Survivor's Remorse; the reality show Uninterrupted for Turner's digital platform Bleacher Report; a trivia game-show pilot for NBC. Sources say the company is close to finalizing a deal for a series show on CNBC — which has had success in primetime with reruns of Shark Tank — that will have James and Carter leading the transformation of distressed businesses. And they also are talking to executives at NBCUniversal's male-targeted Esquire Network about a "bucket list" show featuring James.
James' agents at WME are notching a series of modest TV deals to gain a foothold in an industry that — at least in the unscripted space — is creatively challenged and economically lean. And though he expresses no interest in sportscasting, James' turn this summer in Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer's feature Trainwreck — playing himself as co-star Bill Hader's best friend — could be seen as a trial balloon for an onscreen career.
"We tested the movie, and he gets laughter as big as anyone," says Apatow. "The only fear you ever have with people of his stature is whether or not they're game to have fun and take chances. They'll say: 'I don't want to say that. That will sound weird. That's not good for my reputation.' LeBron is a very strong actor, and he has a fantastic sense of humor. We do a lot of improvisation, and he was really good at it. As a result, it's a really fun, wild, slightly strange performance that really scores."
James admits that he was as anxious on the New York City set of Trainwreck as he was for his very first NBA game. Last summer on a Nike promotional trip to China, he had his entourage — Carter, Mims — read the other characters. "I was just trying to stay ready," he recalls. "I was very nervous — all the way to the point where they said, 'Action.' "
Photos by Martin Schoeller
Ultimately, of course, there only is so much mileage a star athlete can get out of playing himself onscreen. Behind the camera is another story. Ari Emanuel, co-CEO of WME, which represents James in the entertainment space (Paul remains his sports agent), compares Spring Hill's approach to WME's handling of Mark Wahlberg, whose Closest to the Hole shingle has become a force in Hollywood. "One of the great things about LeBron and Maverick is they're still very curious," observes Emanuel, who signed James as a client last year but first worked with him and Carter on the 2010 ESPN special The Decision. "You can bring anything up; nothing's a bad idea."
Spring Hill is preparing to open an L.A. office, and Carter, who also lives in Akron but has been a frequent houseguest of Beats Electronics co-founder Jimmy Iovine, is looking for his own place there. "They're smart as all hell, and they have a feel for popular culture," says Iovine, also the co-founder of Interscope Records. "LeBron's got a business head about him. He doesn't breathe his own exhaust, which is very important."
Iovine has worked with James since 2008, when James became an investor in Beats and Iovine produced More Than a Game, a documentary about James' high school basketball career. "Sometimes you'll have an athlete or a star who is so talented and the manager is out of control," says Iovine. "In this case, the whole team is in lockstep. They're like a little army."
Survivor's Remorse, a scripted comedy that follows a basketball superstar navigating newfound wealth and fame, begins production this spring in Atlanta on its second season. Uninterrupted is a series of video shorts that has athletes from James to Richard Sherman to Johnny Manziel sounding off on everything from their competition to their postgame rituals (James takes an ice bath in one). It's another way for James, who has 18.7 million Twitter followers (and yes, his tweets are his own), to talk directly to fans. "Magic Johnson and Larry Bird couldn't do the type of things LeBron is doing with social media," notes Turner Broadcasting president David Levy. "He's an influencer, and he understands that he is."
Meanwhile, Disney has ordered additional episodes of Becoming, a half-hour documentary series about how top athletes got where they are that premiered in the fall on the boys-targeted network Disney XD. James was the first subject; he'd like to see Serena Williams, Tom Brady and Sherman on future installments.
"They're doing things they care about, and I think that comes through in the choices they make," says Connor Schell, vp and executive producer of ESPN Films, which produces Becoming. "There's real thought and strategy; it's not just throwing his name around."
Carter, who played basketball with James at St. Vincent and has known him since he was 8 and James was 5 (they met at a birthday party), is James' trusted point man in all of these deals. But James also is surprisingly hands-on.
Continues Schell: "We were trying to tell a pretty complicated story in 22 minutes: how hard it was growing up, how the community participated in raising him and helping him and his mother, and then how difficult it was for the community when he left. We got feedback from LeBron: 'We want this to be more relatable to kids. Can we use more animation? Can we figure out how to make the transitions more clear?' He approached it with real enthusiasm. He's doing it because he wants to, not because he's LeBron James and he can."
James and Carter also are circumspect about the projects they take on. "LeBron is one of those rare people who has a very strong sense of what's appropriate for him and what's not," says Paul Wachter, James' financial adviser. "He grew up with no money. He certainly likes to make money. But he's not driven by the check. I've seen LeBron turn down some very big checks because he didn't feel it was right."
It's why there are LeBron shoes — he's Nike's top seller; the company moved $300 million in signature LeBron shoes in 2013, according to SportsOneSource — but no LeBron cologne, LeBron restaurants or LeBron hotel chains. James has a head for numbers and an instinctual approach to business that belies the stereotypical portrait of the acquisitive superstar athlete who blows through millions. He's made a series of savvy investment moves — he purchased a 10 percent stake in bike manufacturer Cannondale in 2007, unloading it two years later for an undisclosed profit; he sold his equity stake in Sheets energy strips during his final season with the Heat, netting a low-seven-figure profit; and he pocketed a reported $30 million thanks to his stake in Beats, which was acquired by Apple for $3 billion. "He's a professional force, not just an athletic force," says Starz CEO Chris Albrecht.
If James can build a successful content company, he'll be among the exceptions. Aside from Magic Johnson, who has a sports franchise and a TV network, there are few examples of pro athletes who have gone on to achieve media mogul status. There often is a lot of hype and not much revenue. Brady, 37, has aspirations to turn his nontraditional training methods into a lifestyle business. Carmelo Anthony, 30, recently set up a tech startup investment company.
It'll be tough for them to top James, who is the NBA's top endorsement earner, pulling in $42 million a year through deals with Nike, McDonald's, Coca-Cola and others; Kobe Bryant is the runner-up at $34 million. James has absorbed the lessons of his NBA predecessors, notably Michael Jordan, who famously retired from basketball twice — once when he was 30 and for good when he was 40. But when it came to leveraging his image, Jordan had "perfect timing," notes James. "Winning is the first thing that matters. And that allowed everything else to just fall into place, from commercials to movies to appearing on TV shows to obviously his shoes. He had a gift, he knew he had a gift and he took advantage of it," says James. "We all look up to that."
While James' top priority now is basketball — or more specifically, winning a championship in Cleveland — he's keenly aware of the role timing plays for him.
"You have to diversify your image while you're hot," stresses Adam Padilla, CEO of creative branding agency BrandFire, which has worked with Run-DMC and Brady's sports therapy company, TB12. "If you try to do it when you're on the downside of your career, it just looks desperate. LeBron knows his priorities — basketball first and Hollywood second — but he's laying a foundation that's going to last beyond basketball."
As far as his own tastes go, James is partial to comedies — Seth MacFarlane's Family Guy, reruns of Martin. The classic Will Smith sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is a favorite. "Like, I hope that it's on every single day." He also likes Kurt Sutter's hyper-violent Sons of Anarchy. And the last movie he saw at the theater was American Sniper. "I'm not a guy that calls the people in Hollywood and tells them, 'Send it to my house.' I go to the movies."
James won't wade into the debate about Hollywood's racial imbalance — this latest round spurred by the Academy's snub of Selma's actors and its director, Ava DuVernay (the film did garner a nomination for best picture). But he says that generating below-the-line jobs is a goal. "For me to be able to create jobs and opportunities for people," he says, "that means a lot to me."
All of Spring Hill's projects leverage the LeBron brand — directly (Becoming, Uninterrupted) or indirectly (Survivor's Remorse). Wachter, who has a roster of Hollywood clients including Iovine and Arnold Schwarzenegger, frames this rather obvious component of James' deals around the Keynesian economic theory of comparative advantage. "I've told them, go where you add value," says Wachter. "Don't look for places where you're just like everybody else."
But one Hollywood agent notes that James' company will be considered a success when it sells a project that is not based on James' experience. "If they can do that, they've got a shot. If not, it's done as soon as his basketball career dims."
When I put this to James, he explains that his company is an extension of him and his values — and the fans will determine its success. "We brainstorm all kinds of outside-the-box ideas. You can't cheat the audience, you can't cheat your fans, they know if it's authentic. We'll see what happens. Maybe we'll have a little cooking show."
When I ask if he likes to cook, he flashes a wide grin. "No, I don't. So that ain't about me. There it is right there: cooking show!"
For all he has accomplished in the past five years — two NBA titles and four MVP trophies — James still is at least partially defined by the disastrous 2010 ESPN special that announced his "decision" to leave Cleveland for the warmer weather and better championship opportunities in Miami. Criticism came from all quarters, most angrily from Cleveland fans, who took to the streets to burn his jersey. He acknowledges the misstep but stresses that the special raised $2.5 million for Boys & Girls Clubs. "And the negative always sells," he adds. "People love the bad stories more than the good stories. But we learned from the mistake."
The average retirement age for NBA players is 36. And many pack it in after serious injuries. Asked if he's thought about how long he'll play, James nods: "Absolutely, absolutely. I look at some of my peers, Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, guys I've looked up to my whole career, and they're almost done with their careers. So you think about it for sure. You know at some point that will be you."
The return to Cleveland wasn't an instant fairy tale. In the early going, the Cavaliers' Big 3 of James, point guard Kyrie Irving and power forward Kevin Love were unable to duplicate the perfect rhythm James found with the Heat's Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. The sports world seized on a perceived rift between James and Cavs coach David Blatt, who is new to the NBA, as well as on James' failure to emerge as a mentor to his young teammates. Adding to the frustration, James, who has been remarkably healthy throughout his career, suffered a series of nagging injuries: a knee, his back. A sprained wrist during a Jan. 27 win over Detroit kept him on the bench for two games, bringing to 10 the number of games he has missed, the most during his 12 NBA seasons.
But the people of Akron never really deserted him. In Akron, he always had put his money where his mouth is. He financed a $1 million renovation of the gym and basketball court at his high school and purchased uniforms for every sport, boys and girls. Each summer, he hosts a youth basketball camp. And his I Promise and Wheels for Education initiatives have mentored hundreds of Akron schoolchildren.
Unlike some of his peers in pro sports, James strives to be a role model. And for the father of two boys, the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice — shot in November by Cleveland police while he played with a toy gun in a park — and Cleveland's part in the scourge of police shootings of African- Americans are resonant. "I have those conversations with my boys," he says. "They have tons of play guns. None of them look real. We have Nerf guns that are lime green and purple and yellow," he says. "But I don't even let them take them out of the house."
James' wife, Savannah, has been sitting with us throughout the interview. Warm and friendly (she greeted me with a peck on the cheek), she's wearing no makeup and her hair is pulled back. I ask the couple if they'll have "the talk" with their sons about what to do if the police ever stop them. "Absolutely," says James. "And the talk is, 'You be respectful, you do what's asked and you let them do their job, and we'll take care of the rest after. You don't have to boast and brag and automatically think it's us against the police.' I've had one or two encounters with the police in my life that were nothing. But sometimes you just got to shut up. It's that simple. Just be quiet and let them do their job and go on about your life and hopefully things go well." "For everybody," adds Savannah.
The Cleveland press pack stands silent in front of a seated LeBron James. It's Monday, Feb. 2, and the Cavaliers have just beaten the Philadelphia 76ers 97-84. The Cavs superstar forward has each size 15 foot in a gray plastic basin filled with ice water, his knees encased in ice with Saran wrap. He's wearing a black Imagine Dragons T-shirt and a white towel around his waist.
A large contingent of the media horde is talking to Irving, four lockers down. But there are several reporters staking out James. They stare. He looks down. As he removes his feet from the ice, his trainer releases the ice packs on his knees. And then he stands, signaling he's ready to engage.
The questions come fast. And the reporters who've been talking to Irving pivot en masse to James. He fields questions about how it feels to be on an 11-game winning streak after his team lost six straight, to be the team every other team is gunning for. And he's asked about his friend Manziel, the Cleveland Browns' rookie quarterback who that day has announced he'll be entering rehab for alcohol abuse.
At one point, Mims emerges from the inner locker room, iPhone in hand. Holding it high over his head, he snaps a picture of James in the scrum. Minutes later, the photo is on James' Instagram. The questions peter out, the pack dissipates and James finishes getting dressed. This entire ritual will be replayed in three days when the Cavs beat the L.A. Clippers, 105-99, at home.
"You definitely want a break at times," admits James a little later. "But I wouldn't change shoes with anybody. I've been put in this position for a reason; the man above has given me some unbelievable abilities, and I'm going to take full advantage of it while I can."