Access is everything.
When a then-22-year-old film student named Kris Belman decided to shoot a project on an astonishing high school basketball team in his Akron, Ohio, hometown, media sharks were already circling.
One of the "kids," a giant teen named LeBron James, had already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
"It was a huge challenge getting access to the team and getting in front of the coach to even pitch," says Belman, director of what became the acclaimed documentary, More Than A Game.
"Finally, the public-relations person for St. Vincent-St. Mary got me a meeting with Coach Dru, and I remember her saying, 'Good luck. We just turned down 60 Minutes and LeBron just turned down Letterman.' "
Instead, the green light was given to the hometown kid with an assignment for a 10-minute film about four kids from the Akron 'hood who played together from age nine, and who insisted on attending high school together. They even had the same coach throughout -- Dru Joyce II, the father of their teammate, "Little Dru."
"Inexperience seemed to be working in my favour," says Belman. "They told me I could film one practice. And I kept coming back and nobody told me to leave.
It was a tough assignment geographically. Belman was attending L.A.'s Loyola Marymount. "All my classmates in L.A. were giving me such a hard time for being from the Midwest, y'know the assumptions were that I was a farmboy. So I decided to do something to show them that there's more to my hometown than farms and Goodyear. It was self defence in a way."
The so-called Fab Four -- James, Little Dru, Willie McGee and Sian Cotton -- had already morphed into a Fab Five with the addition of Romeo Travis, when Belman arrived on the scene.
"I picked them not so much for the LeBron factor, but for an article I'd read in the Akron Beacon-Journal that had stuck with me, where it mentioned four of the boys had played together since fourth grade." He was delighted to find a wealth of home-movie and video footage -- including archival TV coverage of their 8th grade AAU national championship final (the playground rats lost to an elite team on the final shot by LeBron).
"It's definitely a different beast now," Belman says. "Ten years ago, this movie wouldn't be the same. But in the last decade, everyone has a video camera of some sort."
Maxing out credit cards to keep flying from L.A. to Ohio, Belman rode out a turbulent championship senior season for the Fab Five, marked by constant attempts to have James stripped of his amateur status -- for driving a HumVee for example (his mom was given a loan for it, based on her son as collateral).
They finally succeeded in having him suspended for accepting a free jersey from a sporting goods store. The suspension lasted one game, leaving the team in the position of having to win a do-or-die playoff game against elite competition without their superstar.
"It's one of those things that, if this film was scripted nobody would believe it -- winning without LeBron, or Little Dru going out and hitting seven threes in a row. It would just seem cheesy or contrived, except that it actually happened."
Time passed, and Belman had little to show for his movie except a B-plus. But when it debuted at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, it became a surprise hit - finishing second to Slumdog Millionaire for the People's Choice award.
"The film itself hasn't changed since Toronto, but we got Nike and Coke aboard, and there was a soundtrack album" (with songs by the likes of Soulja Boy, T.I. and Chris Brown). "None of those songs are actually in the film, they're 'inspired by.' Except the end title song is by Mary J. Blige, from the album.
"But I want aspiring filmmakers to know those companies weren't there before Toronto. This was a grassroots, independent film. I don't want young filmmakers to think, 'I don't have Nike behind me. What chance do I have?' "
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