March 6, 2009 / 5:05 AM / 9 years ago

ESPN Films suits up for pair of big-screen films

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - ESPN Films is moving up the court with its theatrical features.

The movie production unit of the sports cable network is developing a pair of scripted projects inspired by true events: a story of the basketball-playing grandson of infamous cult leader Jim Jones, and the tale of Louis Mulkey, a beloved high school hoops coach who died on duty as a firefighter. Both projects derive from reporting the company undertook on its network and its Web site.

The Jones feature -- which will be written by Sang Kyu Kim, who also has written for Starz’s “Crash” series -- will center on Jim Jones Jr., the son of the reverend who lost most of his family in the 1978 Jonestown massacre. He went on to raise a family including a son, Rob, who now plays basketball for the University of San Diego.

Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen Rivele, who penned Michael Mann’s “Ali,” will write the script for “Mulkey,” while Mike Tollin, a frequent ESPN collaborator and producer of such big-screen hits as “Wild Hogs” and “Coach Carter,” will direct and co-produce. The project will look at the late coach and the South Carolina team that went to the state championship, inspired by his memory.

“What we like about both these projects is that they’re not only about sports but they’re also about the broader human condition,” ESPN Films senior vice president Ron Semiao said. “Not every sports movie has to be about a team that wins, then loses, then comes back.”

Jones Jr., an adopted son of the cult leader and just 18 at the time of the Peoples Temple tragedy, said that basketball and life’s larger lessons were intertwined. “The sound of a bouncing basketball initially hurt and then healed a family in the aftermath of Jonestown,” he said. “Our history and hope (is) that this shared story could be a new legacy to the Jonestown tragedy.”

ESPN has had several go-rounds with scripted and documentary programing, including its former ESPN Original Entertainment Unit. The company launched ESPN Films a year ago with the idea of making movies for the theatrical market and, to a lesser extent, the network.

ESPN Films already has an ambitious slate of documentaries, with 30 filmmakers, among them Richard Linklater and Spike Lee, making one-hour docs that will air on the network beginning in the fall and continuing through 2011. A Kobe Bryant doc will air in May. In December the network aired “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” about the 1958 Colts-Giants NFL championship.

Semiao said the company will talk to sibling unit Disney as well as other studios about financing and distribution of its theatrical films.

Editing by Sheri Linden at Reuters

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