Why NBA Star-Fronted Films Are No Slam Dunk

Space Jam (1996)  - Michael Jordan (center), Bugs Bunny (right) -Photofest - H 2018
Warner Bros./Photofest

Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are making major plays in Hollywood, but history proves they can be a longshot.

Since the earliest days of cinema, athletes have leveraged their celebrity for starring roles in studio films. Take figure skater Sonja Henie, who parlayed her gold medals into highest-paid-Hollywood-actress status, essentially playing herself in movies like 20th Century Fox's 1938 musical comedy My Lucky Star.

Today it's basketball stars: Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant are all making major Hollywood plays. WME alone reps more than a dozen current and former players, including James, O'Neal, recent Oscar winner Kobe Bryant, Uncle Drew's Reggie Miller and Lisa Leslie, and Steve Nash, who is producing a feature about the rise of ecstasy and rave culture in Reagan-era Texas.

Still, if the past is any indication, NBA MVPs don't always translate into box-office stars.

Take 1996's Space Jam, which at the time was one of Warner Bros.' most expensive projects ever, costing up to $127 million. Despite a Dream Team cast of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Charles Barkley, the film earned just $90 million domestically. O'Neal's genie-in-a-bottle comedy Kazaam fared far worse for Disney that same year, bringing in just $19 million in the U.S.

Films (and players) do seem to perform better when athletes take supporting roles, like O'Neal did with 1994's low-budget breakout Blue Chips ($23 million) and James did for the 2015 Amy Schumer comedy Trainwreck. The latter earned $110 million stateside and was a critical darling, nabbing two Golden Globe noms and positive reviews for James.

Nonetheless, Warner Bros. is ready to gamble again on Space Jam, this time with James going one-on-one with Bugs Bunny. Despite its less than stellar box office, the studio maintains the first film was a big hit on home entertainment and continues to rake in millions each year from its licensed products, primarily clothing. Add to that the growing potential of the basketball-obsessed Chinese market, and the studio feels bullish this time around — though maybe not in a hurry. James' producing partner Maverick Carter tells THR that Space Jam is "still a ways off." 

This story first appeared in the June 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.