A year ago, I was invited by Tribeca Digital Studios, a new production arm of the Tribeca Enterprises, to pitch ideas for a film commissioned by The DICK's Sporting Goods Foundation. They were looking for a story that explored the impact of funding cuts on youth athletic programs and the power of sports in their lives. I dug up a number of compelling stories, most in my hometown of New York City, but I always knew that the Philadelphia story of Coach Ed Dunn and the MLK Cougars was the one. Turned out Dick's and Tribeca agreed and I moved with a crew of three to Philly the next week.
The situation was electric: drastic public education budget cuts were forcing two longstanding rival high schools to merge, and the team of former enemies was being led by a passionate 27-year old head coach who was volunteering because he had been laid off. We had no idea what would happen, no idea if there would even be a football season.
Ours was the first film produced by Tribeca Digital Studios through this new model of corporate sponsored documentaries. When done right, it's a model that can put great stories in the world, benefiting the future of filmmaking and the companies who get behind these films. The key was trust. From the inception of the project last summer, we were able to make the film that we wanted to make without compromise in record time. Partnering with Dick's and Tribeca also enabled to us share the film with a vast audience, from our Tribeca Film Festival premiere, community screenings, theatrical run, national broadcasts on ABC and ESPN and the recent VOD launch.
Having the film funded up front allowed us to focus on the story and fully immerse ourselves over the course of four months. We shot hundreds of hours, and became close with the team and the community, allowing us critical access. By trusting us to tell the story on our own terms, Dick's helped us to create a film about real people and we've heard again and again how much audiences—and not just sports fans—relate to this film.
Without their support, we never could have started shooting in August and completed post in March. In fact, the kids were still in the same school year when the film premiered at this year's Tribeca Film Festival. It's rare for a documentary to have this type of immediacy, and it enabled "We Could Be King" to be part of a current, ongoing conversation about the future of public education in urban America.
Working with backers who are willing to support your vision allowed us to tell a remarkable story that supported their mission through compelling, authentic and honest storytelling. The experience was such a positive one that we've partnered with Dick's and Tribeca again to follow the MLK Cougars during the most intense week in high school sports: Hell Week. The show, called "Hell Week," airs nightly on ESPN's SportsCenter at the end of this month.
"We Could Be King" is a film about what happens when seemingly opposing forces unite for a common cause. I found that the film itself and the process of making it prove how this kind of cooperation leads to new possibilities, beyond what you might have realized on your own.
Judd Ehrlich is the director and producer of the Emmy-nominated 2006 public television documentary "Mayor of the West Side" and the public television documentary "Run for Your Life." "We Could Be King" is now available on VOD and iTunes.