When Matthew Krentz set out six years ago to create a feature-length film in St. Louis, he had no idea that making the movie would be the easiest part of the equation. Getting his picture into theaters, on the other hand, would be the equivalent of challenging Shaquille O'Neal to a game of one-on-one.
"This is an industry that just doesn't favor the little guy," says Krentz, whose award-winning basketball flick, Streetballers, finally makes its multiscreen debut in St. Louis this weekend.
Of the thousands of independent films made in the United States each year, a mere handful actually make a theatrical run. That the 32-year-old Krentz and his friends landed a deal with Landmark and Wehrenberg theaters without the assistance of a distribution company makes the coup all the more impressive.
Streetballers has screened just twice in St. Louis, winning the Best Dramatic Feature honor last summer at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase and following it up with an Audience Choice Award at last fall's St. Louis International Film Festival. (Streetballers also netted Krentz a MasterMind Award from Riverfront Times.) The film, a Shakespearean-themed drama about two aspiring basketball players forced to deal with troubled families and the perils of street violence, stars Krentz opposite former Vashon and Mizzou basketball standout Jimmy McKinney.
Since winning praise in St. Louis, the movie has gone on to win accolades at competitions in Los Angeles, New York, Detroit and Philadelphia and earned Krentz the attention of several distribution companies. The reluctant director has turned all of them down.
"The best pitch we got was from a company that promised to take it to theaters in several cities," explains Krentz. "But then there was no guarantee they would actually follow through with their promise, and once we sign over the film, they have the right to it for years. To me that was just too scary a proposition, given how much time and energy we've put into the film."
Instead of going through the traditional channels, Krentz and fellow producers Patrick Rooney and Craig Thomas (both of whom appear in supporting roles in the film) and Vernon Whitlock III are forging it alone. Their first major hurdle was converting the film into a format that can be played at the multiplexes.
"It doesn't sound like that big of a deal, but it was a major headache," says Krentz, who shot Streetballers in a high-definition digital format that doesn't translate easily to cinema projectors. "I literally spent months working on the transition, and I'm still ironing the bugs out."
As Krentz worked the technical details, Rooney and Thomas fostered relationships in St. Louis and elsewhere to promote the movie. They signed a Los Angeles company to handle merchandising — DVDs, a soundtrack and even a Streetballers basketball shoe are in the works — and cut a deal with the Black Broadcasting Network to shoot a behind-the-scenes documentary of the marketing of the film to air on the east-coast cable outlet.
"A lot of people in the industry are watching to see if this can be done," says co-producer Rooney. "They're looking for someone like us who can show it's possible to distribute a film independently."
Closer to home, the filmmakers found fans in the St. Louis Cardinals.
Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz reported recently that Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is a "big fan of the project," and the Cardinals are running Streetballers' trailer on the Busch Stadium video board this month.
Co-producer Thomas used his connections in the music business to encourage several hip-hop acts to lend works to the film. The trailer features a song by the St. Lunatics; Murphy Lee, Yung Ro, Spiffy and Vega appear on the soundtrack. Out-of-town contributors include Yo Gotti and the Stockholdaz (Memphis), R. Prophet of the Nappy Roots (Kentucky) and Sunny Valentine (Atlanta). Thomas hopes those artists will help promote Streetballers when the movie arrives in their hometowns.
But first the film must make its way out of St. Louis. The deal with Landmark and Wehrenberg has Streetballers screening at the Tivoli in the Delmar Loop and at Ronnies 20 in south county for as long as it can draw an audience.
"Our goal is to have the highest per-screen attendance in the country this weekend, which will hopefully allow it to screen in other cities," says Krentz.
To accomplish that lofty objective, the film will need to have near sellouts at all its St. Louis showings. "This is our chance to prove that a local film can appeal to a broader audience," adds Krentz, who believes St. Louis makes for an ideal launching pad.
"Think about it: In a bigger city like Chicago, do you think the public would rally behind us like they have here in St. Louis? Would they play the trailer in Wrigley Field? No way," says the filmmaker. "At the same time, St. Louis is large enough that people pay attention. What's popular here can catch on in other cities."
By next month, Krentz hopes, his film will have spread to New York and California. He also aims to get the movie into Los Angeles theaters in time for the release of a documentary on NBA phenom LeBron James that's due out in October.
"I think the two movies would play well off of each other," says Krentz. "And if a film runs in Los Angeles for a week, it qualifies for nomination for the Academy Awards."
An Oscar? Seriously?
"Sure, it's a long shot," he admits. "But so was making the film and so was getting it into theaters. So why not?"