Thursday, September 20, 2012

Wilt Chamberlain Biopic Turns Into Contentious Indie

This is rather unfortunate. Even though Kansas University film professor Kevin Willmott went ahead and shot these past two months his indie period drama Jayhawkers, it was without the blessing of the family of one-time KU basketball star Wilt Chamberlain.

As reported recently by the Lawrence World-Journal (and then widely picked up by everyone from ESPN to, the one-time Laker superstar's sister Barbara O. Chamberlain-Lewis claims Willmott reneged on a negotiated rights deal. In response, the filmmaker and his attorneys say that the new, less Wilt-centric direction the project took (it's now as much about KU basketball in the 1950s, breaking down racial barriers and legendary coach Forrest "Phog" Allen) means they no longer need family permission.

Still, for a movie that will represent the first time Chamberlain is portrayed on film, it's a sad sideline show. According to the LW-J article, the plan in 2003 was to make a full-fledged Chamberlain biopic. Willmott says he started with a $12 million budget, trimmed it to $5 million and still couldn't rustle up financing.

KU forward Justin Wesley as Wilt

He made two payments to Chamberlain-Lewis totaling $20,000 as part of a larger rights agreement, before moving on to his lower-budgeted indie feature ($250,000). Although in Hollywood the lawsuits over something like this would be flying, it sounds like Wilt's sister is resigned to the situation:

Reached at the Las Vegas home she shares with husband Elzie Lewis, Chamberlain-Lewis said, “What shocks me is back in 2003 Kevin was so respectful of the rights we have. I’m so disappointed he has completely ignored his lack of rights to do this...”
In a July 12 letter to Willmott, Chamberlain-Lewis wrote, “I think we both know that the main character and focus in this proposed movie will be Wilt.” Asked on the phone if she would pursue legal action to stop the making of the film, Chamberlain-Lewis said, “I’ve already tried to stop him with sending the letter.”

Public sentiment seems evenly split. Some believe Willmott's new film did indeed vault him over the previous agreement and that Chamberlain-Lewis is simply chasing the extra cash, while others debate whether he violated the realm of good faith. Perhaps a reduced rights settlement could have and should have been negotiated?

Jayhawkers successfully raised part of its budget ($50,000) via Kickstarter.



  1. What's more amusing... is that Wilt actually made a deal for his bio-pic to be made prior to his passing in '99 with Ian Ng Cheng Hin of Northern Cinema House/Hundred Point Films!!!

    And when everybody found out about the actual legal paperwork and rights ownership, they all ran for cover. Kevin made his "adapted" movie and Barbara didn't have a leg to stand on, or anybody to sue.

    Go look it up. "WILT". IMDB even has it.

    1. Interesting, thanks.

      Looks like Hin has enlisted an actor by the name of Reo Logan to play Wilt. IMDb page for the 2013-filming drama is here:

    2. This is a great basketball project that's been a long time in coming together. Wilt's input and Ian's methodical process of creating a work of art will certainly shine. It's not easy to find a 7ft person to act and shoot hoops these days!