Tribeca Teams with Dick’s Sporting Goods for High-School Football Docu ‘We Could Be King’

In what Tribeca Digital Studios hopes will become a template for working with corporate marketers on branded content, it has pacted with retailer Dick’s Sporting Goods to create “We Could Be King,” a documentary highlighting the issue of underfunded youth sports.

The film, helmed by Judd Ehrlich, depicts two rival Philadelphia high schools — Martin Luther King High School and Germantown High — that were forced to merge last year due to drastic budget cuts in the school district. “We Could Be King” follows how the combined football teams have to learn to work together after years of intense rivalry as well as their lives off the field.

The 72-minute film is skedded to premiere in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, then will air on ESPN2 on Saturday, April 26, at 8 p.m. ET.

For Dick’s Sporting Goods, the docu will serve as a key promotional element for a new campaign to raise money in support of school athletic programs that need financial aid. The Dick’s Sporting Goods Foundation is launching the “Sports Matter” initiative, which will match pledges made through its crowdfunding site for eligible teams up to $2 million. That’s part of the foundation’s $25 million commitment to youth sports.

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Paula Weinstein, the veteran film producer who joined Tribeca Enterprises as exec VP a year ago, said the company sees a growing opportunity to work with brands that want to create compelling sponsored content instead of using overt product placement. “We can help them to frame the stories they want to tell, and, at the same time, give them access to experienced filmmakers who want to tell the story about contemporary America,” she said.

Added Weinstein, “In the movie business, we all get calls about product placement — this is the antithesis of that.”

Tribeca put out a call for entries for a sports-related docu last summer and then narrowed it down to nine proposals, which ranged from rugby teams in Iowa to soccer teams in New York City. Ryan Eckel, VP of brand marketing at Dick’s Sporting Goods, said the company picked Ehrlich’s project because it presented an emotionally engaging way to showcase the plight of school sports programs.

“We wanted to make this truly big, to make it culturally significant,” Eckel said. “We had a very clear vision of the type of story we wanted to tell, something dramatic that affected student athletes.”

According to Weinstein, Dick’s does not have any creative control over “We Could Be King” (apart from its initial selection of Ehrlich’s proposal). Execs declined to disclose budget for the film; the rights are owned by Dick’s while Tribeca is handling production and distribution.

Ehrlich, who spent four months in Germantown, Pa., with a three-person crew shooting footage for “We Could Be King,” said the central drama about the football teams merging functions as an entryway through which the film will delve into the story of the broader community.

“We found the other elements in their lives was much deeper and richer than any football rivalry. There are lots of different issues these kids are dealing with,” said Ehrlich, whose previous credits include “Run For Your Life,” a docu about the New York City Marathon. “I think this is ultimately going to be an inspirational film.”

Dick’s primary purpose through funding the docu is to drive donations to the Sports Matter initiative, Eckel said. The film’s success will not be measured by sales and is completely separate from Dick’s biz efforts, according to the company. Of course, the retailer will also gain brand exposure from “We Could Be King,” and it has a profit motive in helping youth sports teams survive because it doesn’t want to lose potential customers.

The film will air on ESPN2 through a broad partnership the sports cabler has with Dick’s. Last August ESPN2 broadcast “Hell Week,” sponsored by Dick’s and produced by the retailer’s ad agency, Anomaly. With “We Could Be King,” Tribeca will look for additional distribution outlets, including subscription video-on-demand providers like Netflix, Weinstein said.

The Dick’s Foundation and Tribeca Digital Studios will launch the Sports Matter initiative Saturday, March 8, at SXSW with a screening of a clip from “We Could Be King.” Event, which will include appearances by pro football analyst Jon Gruden and thesp Michael B. Jordan and Olympic track-and-field athlete Sanya Richards-Ross, will be held at Easy Tiger in downtown Austin.

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