Why NBA Star-Fronted Films Are No Slam Dunk

Warner Bros./Photofest
'Space Jam,' starring Michael Jordan, wasn’t a hit in 1996, but Warner Bros. is gambling again, this time with LeBron James.

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.