Thursday, April 8, 2010

Flash, Superman, and Latifah?

Several months ago my co-blogger Dr. Doughboy detailed some of his favorite NBA movies. Continuing this theme, the forthcoming Hollywood movie Just Wright, which will debut in May of this year, features rapper Common, playing a NBA star, choosing between two love interests, played by Queen Latifah and Paula Patton. Personally, I found the trailer rather captivating, not least because it portrays the player as having some semblance of maturity, able to engage in a grown-up relationship. Popular portrayals of NBA athletes generally (and not necessarily accurately) show the typical player as a backwoods brute with plenty of hops but little charm. Another mark in the favor of this flick is its depiction of Queen Latifah (née Dana Owens), who, true to her name, carries herself regally though she does not resemble a usual Hollywood "babe" or an archetypal NBA wife, as a legitimate love interest for the jock.

(I found the title somewhat lame, though, but that is a minor quibble. Titles based on punning an invented character name are way overdone. Good Will Hunting? House of Payne? Saving Grace? Yuck.)

Here is what really inspired me to flee from more quotidian tasks to my bloggin' refuge. I note from the trailer that the new Latifah movie features, at the least, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard in cameos. (The IMDB cast listing also reports Elton Brand and Rashard Lewis playing themselves.) How is every NBA movie able to secure so much participation from real pro hoopers? For example, Forget Paris (1995), which only tangentially depicted the NBA in its opening scenes, featured a host of stars including most of the mid-'90s Suns (Barkley, Majerle, KJ). The following year's Eddie (1996), a fairly forgettable movie starring Whoopi Goldberg as a rags-to-riches NBA coach, also featured NBA players, albeit B-listers such as Malik Sealy, Greg Ostertag, and Dwayne Schintzius. Films including Blue Chips (1994) and He Got Game (1998) included NBA players in serious starring roles: Shaquille O'Neal, Anfernee Hardaway, and Ray Allen all portrayed high school seniors choosing where to matriculate. The children's movie Like Mike (2002) packed seats by showing Allen Iverson, Jason Kidd, Tracy McGrady, Steve Nash, and a host of others doing their thing on the court.

(Even the odious Juwanna Mann (2002) featured cameos from WNBA stars Cynthia Cooper and Teresa Weatherspoon, but the less said about that movie, the better.)

So again, how do these NBA movies consistently score league talent for cameos (or more)? One possibility is that the director/producer of each movie happens to, idiosyncratically, have a connection to the NBA world that he exploits to recruit talent. Perhaps a director without an NBAer stored in his mobile phone would not even bother to make a hoops movie.

Alternatively, we must consider that making an NBA-themed movie requires obtaining the NBA's consent, lest the Association seek injunctive or monetary relief for infringement of its trademarks. In other words, the league gets an effective veto power over which pro hoops movies get made; they are likely somewhat circumspect in their choices of which film projects to grant IP licenses to. (How the heck did the NBA/WNBA approve Juwana Mann, then?) All NBA intellectual property is housed with NBA Properties, Inc., a corporation chartered in New York state. Most of the above movies include a special thanks to the National Basketball Association in their ending credits. With this bargaining power over would-be hoops auteurs, the league likely can insist on including any particular lineup of players in the movie.

The smoking gun is Article XXXVII, Section 2 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which allows NBA Properties to require a player to make up to four appearances annually for licensing purposes. I would not be surprised if this covers cameos in movies. Interestingly, players shall be paid $2,500 for each such appearance, but can be fined up to $20,000 for failure to comply. Additionally, Article II, Section 8 also allows teams to require players to make up to 12 promotional appearances annually, of which 2 may be assigned to NBA Properties. Pursuant to Section 8(a)(i)(A), a player may be required to make only one off-season appearance, and it must be in his town of residence or in the location where he happens to be. (Presumably, in practice, players are more pliant than to reflexively refuse a non-conforming request, but the CBA protections are probably useful for players.)

I am not privy to the convoluted negotiations between the league, movie directors, and players recruited to appear in such cinematic gold. However, if you wonder why Dwight Howard and D-Wade are in the newest Latifah movie, it is likely because Commissioner Stern (or Deputy Commissioner Silver) wanted it that way.

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