Barbara O. Chamberlain-Lewis has written letters that essentially scream “cut!” on local filmmaker Kevin Willmott’s “Jayhawkers,” but the command has fallen on deaf ears.
Acting on behalf of the Chamberlain family, Chamberlain-Lewis has told Willmott that he does not have the rights to the film, but Willmott said his entertainment lawyers have told him otherwise.
“There’s an issue with her, but it’s not an issue with us,” Willmott said.
The two parties first discussed doing a film on Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas years in 2003 and had entered into a contractual agreement in which Willmott would pay $150,000 for the rights to do the film, according to both sides of the dispute. Willmott made one $10,000 payment and then on Oct. 4, 2006, made another payment of $10,000 in exchange for the contract being extended 24 months.
Six days after that extension expired, attorney Seymour S. Goldberg informed Willmott and Rick Cowan of Big Dipper, LLC in a letter, “your option to proceed with this project has expired without you or your organization fulfilling all of the obligations spelled out in the Option/Purchase Agreement. At this point, it does not seem reasonable to extend your option since no tangible evidence of substantial progress has been demonstrated to my client.”
Last spring, Willmott phoned Chamberlain-Lewis to inform her he was interested in doing a film with a different script from the original one she had read. Chamberlain-Lewis said she told Willmott she was pretty sure the family would not be interested but would think about it and get back to him in a letter.
She responded to Willmott in a letter dated April 2, 2012, which, in part, stated: “This letter is in follow-up to your recent telephone call to me to reconsider the option to produce The Wilt Chamberlain/University of Kansas Life Story. Kevin, after research, prayer and discussion with family and friends, it has been decided that we will not consider any future interest in this venture.”
Willmott did not respond. After reading in the July 1 edition of the Journal-World the news that Kansas University basketball player Justin Wesley had been selected to play Wilt in the film, Chamberlain-Lewis wrote another letter to Willmott dated July 12.
Its final two paragraphs:
“Please be advised that on December 21, 2001, the court approved that the Chamberlain Family are entitled to ‘all of the rights, titles and interests into the intellectual property and rights of publicity associated with the international sports celebrity in the name and likeness of Wilton Norman Chamberlain.’
“Kevin, therefore, I request on behalf of my family, and as outlined in our above-mentioned letters, that you do not violate these rights by pursuing the name and likeness of Wilt since you do not have permission from our family.”
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.”
Willmott said the change in the script brought about the change of his viewpoint on the rights to making the film.
“Our entertainment lawyer told us we didn’t need the rights,” he said. “It’s an ensemble film. Wilt’s not the main character, so it’s no longer necessary to buy the rights.”
Willmott said former Kansas Chancellor Franklin Murphy and legendary former KU coach Phog Allen are the film’s main characters, and Wilt’s KU coach, Dick Harp, and jazz musician Nathan Davis are major characters as well. Willmott characterized the film as a story of the role Wilt, Murphy and Allen played in integrating Lawrence.
“This is about Wilt’s time at KU, and KU owns the rights to the story, and the Allen family, and the Allen family is working with us,” Willmott said. “... I’m a professor at KU. This is KU history. This is Lawrence history. This is not Wilt’s life story. This is a much wider, bigger story than the bio pic. This is probably the movie we always should have been making.”
In her 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.”
The original bio picture, Willmott said, originally had a $12 million budget, but he was unable to raise the money for it, even after trimming the budget to $5 million. He said he hopes that a minimum of $250,000 can be raised for the making of “Jayhawkers.”
“It’s going incredibly well,” Willmott said of the filming and the fundraising. He also said “everybody’s very impressed” with the work Wesley is doing.