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October 2011
A Love For The Game
By Sheila Neisler

     In the 2009 movie Invictus, Matt Damon’s climactic 20-second speech implores his South African team to hear their fellow countrymen’s voices singing the traditional South African miner’s song (very engaging in a call-and-response style), and to reach deep within to play for a cause greater than themselves.

     The story recounts newly elected President Nelson Mandela’s decision to use the 1995 Rugby World Cup to bridge the chasm of hate, fear and prejudice in his deeply divided country. The team’s heroic win changed the arc of reconciliation in his country, and when put on the big screen, showed emotionally gripped viewers that out of humanity’s darker days can arise a brighter ending of redemption.

     This fall, the transformative victory of Invictus is being played out in new film based on a Charlotte true story about how a group of homeless men form a soccer team and go on to win the national championship. Titled A Love For The Game, it was inspired by the Urban Ministry Center’s Street Soccer 945 Program, and its mission to help homeless youth rebuild their lives through the use and dynamics of soccer.

     Charlotte’s own Bert Hesse and son Evan Hesse of Central Avenue Pictures L.L.C. are directing it and some of the filming will take place at the Urban Ministry Center in downtown Charlotte where this amazing story took place.

 

The Storyline

     In the fall of 1995, Lawrence Cann found his way to Davidson College. He was a soccer player with a knack for writing and literature, and soon found himself recruited to play for the Wildcats, becoming a nationally ranked soccer player. He also generously volunteered at the Urban Ministry Center in downtown Charlotte, helping people overcome homelessness.

     For Cann, it was a natural fit. When he was a young boy, his family’s house burned to the ground. Luckily, the Canns had a support system of friends and family to help them through tough times, but it made the 9-year-old Cann realize how easily a turn of events can land young people on the streets.

     After college, Cann became art director at Urban Ministry Center. An artist himself, he noted the untapped talent of the homeless men involved in the center, and applied for and received an Arts & Science grant for supplies and support to hone their skills. Over the next six and a half years, he established an entire suite of programs serving the homeless yielding some $100,000 in art sales, and homeless men began to feel they could make a contribution to society.

     Spurred on by that success, Cann decided to engage them in sports, specifically soccer, falling back on his own success as a youth. With a lure of snacks and fruit, he rounded up three busloads of men and took them to Freedom Park for an afternoon of exercise in peaceful surroundings far from their asphalt jungles. Cann’s thought, “We’ll start with soccer and then go to basketball to see if something catches their interest. Soccer ‘stuck.’”

     Cann began putting together a soccer team for the homeless. By the spring of 2005, the team, named Art Works Football Club, had been invited to the Homeless World Cup in Edinburgh, Scotland. From there, it was only a matter of time before they won the Homeless World Cup itself.

     Because of the Urban Ministry Center program’s huge success, Cann decided to take the concept national, founding Street Soccer USA as a non-profit in late 2008, operating out of New York. Today, the program has expanded to 23 cities throughout the country, with 15 others looking to start a team.

 

The Real Scoop

     To the skeptical reader, this is not a play-date for homeless men and women; it’s an innovative solution to build an emotional connection between homeless men and women and the more fortunate members of our community. Urban Ministry Center employees and volunteers practice regularly with the homeless team, culminating in their participation in the annual Homeless World Cup.

     For the homeless, many experience a camaraderie they never have encountered. For the ‘homefull,’ many realize their own misperceptions of who lives on the street and why and gain a new perspective and understanding.

     Dale Mullenix, Urban Ministry Center’s executive director, explains, “Many in the homeless population face unique challenges and unintended consequences while growing up. Some feel levels of failure, rejection and shame—almost all feel alone. We focus our efforts on their capabilities versus their life situations in a non-threatening, non-judgmental environment. The outcome is a bond and level of accountability between coach and player and the players with each other.

     “These ‘I’ve got your back’ relationships give them a level of confidence and a support mechanism they were never raised with. Small achievements in small groups and on the field foster larger steps in life to become contributing members of society.”

     Those growing up on Little League teams and playing youth sports know very well, lessons taught on the field resonate in the game of life: show up on time, be ready to work, be prepared, be disciplined, give 110 percent, be a team player, have a positive attitude and take pride in your and your teammate’s achievements.

     The Urban Ministry Center’s Street Soccer 945 program (the number being the address of the Urban Center) has the same expectation with an accelerated agenda: players are required to have 3, 6 and 12-month goals for their life off the field. Soccer is a means to a greater end. Peter Fink, director of the program, puts it succinctly: “We’re not here to make better soccer players; we’re here to help people make better choices.”

     Both the local and the national programs’ overarching goal of changing lives has have more than their share of success. Fink ticks off stats like a major league commentator: “Seventy-five percent of the homeless have made significant life changes—facing their addictions, finishing their education, getting jobs and getting off the street.

     “The entire 2005 team moved off the street, all but three of the 2006 and 2007 teams are in permanent housing, and 90 percent of the U.S. National Teams are off the street.” The organization has expanded to 23 cities throughout the country, with 15 others are looking to start a team.

 

Enter Bert Hesse

     Bert Hesse has built a successful career working on the business side of films. Behind the façade of stars, starlets and red carpet premieres are accountants, attorneys and developers grinding out long hours to put the story on the screen profitability. For all of its glamour and entourage accoutrement, it’s like any business—juggling finance (funding), manufacturing (making the film), distribution (getting the film to a theater near you) and marketing (getting you in those theater seats).

     Funding comes from pockets of money everywhere: private partnerships, hedge funds, government investment (state rebates), and high net worth individuals. Production is outsourced to locales across the globe. Hollywood has become merely a location, not an industry.

     Hesse had begun to see the power of the motion picture media—“feel good” films that inspire people and transform lives.

     “Sandra Bullock’s Oscar win last year for The Blind Side broke the glass ceiling in this genre of films,” notes Hesse. “She was able to deliver a critically acclaimed role in a movie which generated $ 225 million in revenue. In the past, this type of movie had limited box office appeal. Uplifting-themed films usually had no budgets, no quality production values and certainly no movie stars. That all changed with her win.”

     Additionally, he had noticed a change in audience’s tastes. “The pendulum is swinging from the ‘shock and awe’ computer-generated stunts on the screen to quality entertainment which challenges viewers to think and to reflect—witness the impact of The Help—in addition to generating some $141 million (and counting) in revenue, the film has spawned multi-racial discussions about growing up in South during the segregated 1960s,” adds Hesse.

     Most importantly, he had zeroed in on a huge untapped marketing opportunity: partnering with not-for-profits which relate to the movie’s theme to premiere the film to as a fundraising benefit.

     Explains Hesse, “Many executives and philanthropists are ‘tux’ tired of gala fundraisers with the same old, same old format. They have their own means and access to sporting events and entertainment options. A quality evening of client interaction may not result during half-time, between band sets or after a key-note. However, attending a one-of-a-kind movie premiere to benefit a charitable cause seemed like a win-win-win all the way around: the charity.”

     Hesse’s observations proved prescient. Just a few years ago, his earlier venture, Indievision, produced the documentary In The Steps of Elie Weisel for the Echo Foundation, a Charlotte-based not-for-profit that sponsors and facilitates the conversation on human dignity, justice and moral courage in a way that leads to positive action for humankind.

     For Echo Foundation’s 10th anniversary in 2007, 12 Charlotte students experienced a life-changing journey tracing the Nobel Peace Laureate’s life from a youth growing up in the mountains of Romania to the WWII German concentration camps to becoming the world’s conscience and voice for peace, atonement and dignity for all of humanity. Hesse and his team were right there discretely covering the students’ journey for all of posterity.

     Using the movie as a fundraiser was an easy decision for Echo Foundation Founder, President and Steps director Stephanie Ansolado.

     “Throughout this economic downtown, everyone was looking for something different (in fundraising), something real, something of substance. The traditional “black-tie” gala wasn’t going to help us share our story or help achieve our fundraising goals. Like most not-for-profits, we’ve faced several difficult years. Using the film as a fundraising vehicle provided us a new medium to share our mission, our commitment to humanity. The media exposure and the money we raised really gave us an emotional and financial boost: in April 2010, more than 1,200 individuals filled the sold-out Knight Theater and we added some $960,000 to our coffers,” says Ansolado triumphantly.

 

As Seen Through the Lens

     One day Bert Hesse read an article about Charlotte’s presence in the Homeless World Cup. Street Soccer was in its infancy and as the Charlotte team was the only U.S. homeless team, they represented our country at the Edinburgh, Scotland games, winning the coveted ‘Fair Play Award’ for their sportsmanship.

     He reflected on two visions: make movies which can transform individuals—and make them in Charlotte.

     “We’ve got a great filming location here in Charlotte; we’ve got the talent, the amenities and the hospitality. Most of the time, Charlotte’s featured as a backdrop to another’s city’s story. It’s always been my goal to have this community be the setting for a movie. And when I cam across this positive, uplifting story based in this very community , it was a natural,” Hesse nods.

     In his current venture, Central Avenue Pictures, which has both Charlotte and Los Angeles ties, he plans to take advantage of son Evan’s producing skills as well.

     Pre-production titled A Love For The Game will be a loose adaptation of homeless to success soccer story and its impact of changing lives, one goal at a time. Son Evan serves as the screen play’s co-writer and will step in as producer when filming begins in Charlotte. At 31, Evan has spent the last eight years in Los Angeles building a career as a successful musician and composer for Lionsgate Films and Fox Television.

     Says the younger Hesse, “Working in the trenches is almost an acid test for an entertainment industry career. The environment is so competitive—the hours are brutal and there are lots of ‘two-year” Hollywannabies—lots of people moving in and out of the industry all the time. To have staying power, you have to give it your all, all the time.”

     Evan also brings quite an ‘A-list’—an ‘Access List’ to help build the Central Avenue Pictures brand. “Through my composing work, I have met regularly with directors, producers, actors and fellow musicians. As a result, they’ve become friends and I can go to them directly instead of through agents, managers and ‘gate-keepers’ to move our projects forward.”

     In a world of so much turmoil and strife, it is refreshing to see the power of filmmaking brought by Bert Hesse and the Central Avenue Pictures team meet up with the power of goodwill in the Urban Ministry Center’s Street Soccer 945 program to illustrate the power of humanity on a big screen, telling the story of the heroic spirit within so many Charlotteans who have been touched by the program for the homeless and transforming and uplifting audiences all over.

     Casting is set to begin this fall, as is scouting for actual locations. All of Charlotte is certainly waiting for “Ready, set … and action!”

 

Sheila Neisler is a Charlotte based free-lance writer.
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