SHANGHAI — Basketball-crazed countries around the world tuned in to see the Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs in a tense Game 7 of the NBA Finals last week. Now, league officials are hoping audiences in China, its largest international market, will soon be enthralled by a different kind of hoops drama: a 3-D sci-fi basketball movie featuring some of the NBA's top names.
The $10-million film, "Amazing," features New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, Lakers center Dwight Howard and former Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen in supporting roles and had its world premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival last week. The film, which includes dialogue in Mandarin and English, was four years in the making and is the first such NBA effort outside of the U.S.
Helmed by U.S.-educated Chinese director Sherwood Hu, "Amazing" probably will get its full rollout in China in mid-October, timed to coincide with China's National Day holiday and the NBA Global Games, which will feature the Lakers making their first appearance in the Middle Kingdom (they'll face off against the Golden State Warriors twice: once in Beijing and again in Shanghai).
Whether U.S. audiences will ever see "Amazing" in theaters, though, remains unclear. Though outgoing NBA Commissioner David Stern gave his blessing to the production — Hu says Stern even came up with its title — NBA officials have yet to make plans for a stateside release.
"We'll take it one step at a time," said NBA China Chief Executive David Shoemaker. "I'm very excited for it and for its potential in China. It's made for a Chinese audience. But if it's as popular and successful as I think it will be, who knows, maybe we'll see it in the U.S. too."
"Amazing" centers on a video game company boss, Frank (Eric Mabius of TV's "Ugly Betty"), who is eager to rush his firm's new thought-controlled basketball game to market, despite the objections of the project leader Bingshan (popular Chinese actor Huang Xiaoming), who warns that a bug in the system could escape the computer and infect players' brains.
Along the way, Anthony shows up to coach an after-school program in China and speaks Shanghainese. Pippen materializes at the bedside of his No. 1 Chinese fan, and wakes him from a coma by massaging his legs. Howard appears in a light blue spandex superhero get-up with a cape and tries to use chopsticks.
"Think about the basketball as being a girl," Howard tells Bingshan in one memorable line of dialogue during a one-on-one pickup game. "You've got to hold her, caress her, kiss her, and when you do that, she'll make you happy."
Two former NBA players from China — Wang Zhizhi and Yi Jianlian — also turn up in bit parts in the story, which cuts between the "Tron"-like virtual world inside the game, the company drama and a love triangle. Footage from multiple NBA games is included in the film as well, courtesy of the league, though no images of Michael Jordan were allowed, Hu said, because the Bulls legend controls the rights to those.
China is the NBA's largest market outside the U.S., with a fan base estimated at 300 million; during the season multiple games are broadcast each week on state-run CCTV and streamed online. For last week's NBA Finals between the Heat and the Spurs, CCTV reporters were on site in both cities to do live commentary and landed the first postgame, on-court interview with the Heat's Chris Bosh.
The NBA has official retail stores in China (in the film, Yi plays a store manager who asks Pippen for his autograph). The league is also partnering on the $1.5-billion, 120,000-square-foot NBA Center near Tianjin, east of Beijing, which will include courts, restaurants, a fitness center and more when it opens in 2015.
"Part of our mission here in China is to do more and more things to connect our huge fan base with authentic NBA experiences," Shoemaker said, citing "Amazing" and the NBA Center as two such endeavors. "We are absolutely looking at other ventures in original programming, be it movies, be it television, be it items in the digital media, to continue to connect with our fans."
The idea for "Amazing" dates to 2009, when Shanghai Film Group approached the NBA with the basic idea for a film that would center on basketball and video games. They asked Hu to fly to New York and help them make the pitch. (This despite the fact that his previous movie was an art house Tibetan-language version of "Hamlet" and he had never actually directed a film in Mandarin.)
Hu, a Lakers fan who lived in L.A. for several years starting in the mid-1990s, jumped at the chance.
"When I came to the United States in 1987, three things had influenced my life," Hu, now 45, recalled. "First, Hollywood films. Second, Michael Jackson and MTV. Third, the NBA — I had never seen that kind of excitement."
NBA officials were enthused about the idea and arranged for Anthony, Howard and Pippen to participate. (Though Hu wanted Yao Ming to appear in the film, he was injured and unavailable; Chinese American Jeremy Lin was not yet a phenom in the league so was not initially considered.)
Filming began in fall of 2010 in Shanghai with the scenes with the NBA players, who were available only for a few days each because of training schedules, Hu said. Then production was halted for half a year while Hu polished the script and waited for some of his other actors to finish other films. Shooting resumed the following spring and wrapped in October 2011.
Language was a key issue during the production because of the multinational cast that included actors not only from the United States and China but also South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
"They had a script in Chinese. Sherwood and I would sit down every day, and he would tell me what's going on and then I would write it in English," Mabius recalled. "Then they would translate it into Korean for the Korean actress so she would know what's going on, then she would learn the English and then we would shoot it. So we had to do every scene, like, three times."
Stateside attempts by NBA stars to make movies in just one language have had mixed results. The Michael Jordan-Bugs Bunny "Space Jam" took in $230 million worldwide, for instance, but Shaquille O'Neal's "Kazaam" — in which he played an ancient genie who emerges from a magic boombox — didn't even earn back its $20-million production budget.
"Amazing" was initially slated for a 2012 release, but that was pushed back when Hu and Shanghai Film Group decided to convert the movie to 3-D.
Mabius said that of all the NBA players, Howard took his performance the most seriously.
"He has an acting coach; he really wants to be an actor," Mabius said. "He's a natural, he's got great charisma. He's very disarming. I think he's got a lot more potential than say, Shaq in 'Kazaam.'"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun