One for the jocks

Hollywood loves sports movies. Will the Chinese?

One for the jocks

Good sport: Angelababy set to star in big budget basketball film

Sports movies are a popular, if predictable, Hollywood staple, providing moments of drama, adversity and triumph. Baseball – America’s national game – has proved fertile ground for the country’s scriptwriters (think Redford in The Natural, Costner in Field of Dreams and Sheen in Major League). But other sports can figure too: American Football (Any Given Sunday, The Blindside), golf (Tin Cup, Caddyshack) and athletics (Chariots of Fire, Without Limits). Recently there was even a movie about rugby (Invictus).

But you could say it all started with boxing and Sylvester Stallone. That’s because the genre really took off as a bankable business in the late seventies when the first Rocky film scored big at the Oscars as well as the box office (it won the Best Picture in 1977).

In China, the sports genre has been surprisingly slow to catch on. The reason? It’s probably because of the dramatically uninspiring story lines that have given sports movies a bad rep with audiences.

Take the country’s first sports film – The Queen of Sports. Made in 1934, it tells the story of a gifted young woman from a rich family who is a champion jockey. Realising her success has changed her for the worse, the protagonist intentionally loses during an important competition. Hardly the triumphant ending that most sports flicks promise. (The moral of the story may have a Chinese twist, though: sports is not about individual accomplishment.)

More recent attempts have not been too successful either. The only one that has fared reasonably at the box office was 2008’s Kung-fu Dunk, starring Taiwanese pop singer Jay Chou. Critics called the plot (basketball-meets-karate) “ludicrous”.

But finally a sporting script is grabbing the headlines, and basketball is again the sport in question. Called Amazing, the film will tell the story of NBA stars coming to China to train prospective players for the local league. It began filming early this month and is a co-production of the Shanghai Film Group Corporation (SFGC) and the NBA.

To lure a wider audience, the producers have pulled in real NBA stars to participate. Chinese NBA player Yao Ming, the Orlando Magic’s Dwight Howard and the retired basketball legend Magic Johnson have all agreed to star in the film, the Shanghai Daily reports. Chinese heartthrob Huang Xiaoming and Hong Kong actor-singer Shawn Yue will play their local protégés. And Hong Kong model Angelababy (yes it’s her name – see Red Star in WiC29) is also said to have joined the star-studded cast as leading lady.

“We have also sent invitations to Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal,” says Qu Jun, a spokesman for the movie, who added that the producers are also in discussions with the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, China’s most popular basketball player. “We hope they have interest and time to be in it.”

Ren Zhonglun, Shanghai Film Group’s president, first approached the NBA commissioner David Stern last year about the film. Stern liked the idea so much that the two quickly reached agreement. It was reported that Yao and Johnson have promised to participate as a personal favour to Stern.

As reported in previous WiC issues, the NBA has made significant inroads in China, where it estimates there are 300 million people playing basketball. Since its first exhibition game nearly three decades ago, the NBA has become the country’s most-watched sports franchise. Branded NBA merchandise is now sold at more than 50,000 outlets nationwide.

“The league’s popularity in China is at an all-time high,” explains Tim Chen, the chief executive of NBA China. “A lot of people think the NBA is for younger people, but our distribution is very uniform. Basketball is easy to access and most people have played it when they are in school”.

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