Fine Line hoops it up with ‘Yao’

Fine Line Features bought worldwide rights on Jim Stern and Adam Del Deo‘s “The Year of the Yao,” the story of Chinese basketball phenom and Houston Rockets center Yao Ming.

“Year of the Yao” follows the 7’6″ Ming during his first year in the NBA, during which he had to cope with the pressures of being a rookie while knowing he represented the hopes of 1.2 billion people in his homeland. Helping him cope was Ming’s interpreter, Colin Pine.

Stern told Daily Variety he originally set out to make a film that followed several NBA players attempting to navigate the challenges of immigration and assimilation, but eventually he and Del Deo focused solely on Ming.

The film was produced through Stern’s Endgame Entertainment and NBA Entertainment. With Don Kempf, Stern previously directed the basketball doc “Michael Jordan to the Max.” Producers are Stern and Del Deo, with Bill DuffyAdam Silver and Gregg Winik as executive producers. Larry Weitzman is a co-executive producer.

“Even though it’s about a sports personality, in some ways it’s no more about basketball than ‘Spellbound’ is about spelling,” said Guy Stodel, Fine Line’s senior VP of acquisitions and productions. “It’s about one man’s pursuit of his dream and about the power of sport and friendship to bridge international relations and cultural differences.”

“Year of the Yao” is one of five films at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival in which Stern’s Endgame made an investment. The others are “Five Children and It,” Lions Gate Films‘ “Beyond the Sea” and “Stage Beauty” and United Artists‘ “Hotel Rwanda.”

Although Fine Line Features has distributed few nonfiction films since the company launched in 1991, the shingle handled the 1994 “Hoop Dreams,” Steve James‘ doc that follows two inner-city kids who dream of escaping the projects through professional basketball.

“Yao” is part of Toronto’s Reel to Real section.

Two other docs were close to deals as the festival wound down Thursday. “Tell Them Who You Are,” the story of Haskell Wexler as directed by his son, Mark Wexler, and polygamous romance “Three of Hearts” were both nearing North American sales.

From the Contemporary World Cinema section, Palm Pictures picked up North American rights on Johnnie To‘s Hong Kong crime drama, “Breaking News,” while Picture This! division Tales From the Orphanage Picture bought North America acquisition on Guka Omarova’s “Schizo,” a drama about illegal boxing matches in Kazakhstan.

In foreign sales, Hilary Swank starrer “Red Dust” sold to Scandinavia, Italy and Benelux, while “Saint Ralph,” starring Campbell Scott and Jennifer Tilly, has sold in Japan, U.K., Germany and France, with plans to screen it next week in the U.S. for major studios.

Meanwhile, buyers crossed their fingers Thursday night that “The Libertine,” which stars Johnny Depp, would prove to have been a good reason to stay until the festival’s end. Although the film screened as a work in progress, hopes are high it will prove a hot property.

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