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'Streetballers' scores with St. Louis drama; now, will it win fans?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 20, 2009 - "Streetballers" finally opens this week, almost seven years after Matthew Scott Krentz began work on the script for this gritty, gripping feature film about street basketball players in St. Louis. Principal photography was completed in August of 2006.

Matt Krentz, who wrote, directed and stars in "Streetballers," said that most of his time since then has been spent "doing all the parts of filmmaking that are no fun," tasks that are lumped together in the general categories of "pre-releasing" -- promotion and distribution.

Krentz spent much of 2008 hauling the film around the country to prestigious film festivals. In November, he returned home, where "Streetballers" won the audience choice award at the St. Louis International Film Festival. Since then, he has been working to set up a distribution network. An independent distributor offered to buy rights, but the advance would not have been nearly enough to pay back the $1.8 million local investors have put into the project. So Krentz and his partners are doing it themselves.

In the past two years, the independent film market has crashed, with most independent distributors either closing or being folded back into larger studios. At the same time, creative independent filmmakers like Krentz have begun making greater and greater use of the Internet to market and distribute films themselves. DVDs of "Streetballers" will be sold through its website, www.streetballersthemovie.com, but Krentz is also hoping for a national theatrical distribution.

"Streetballers" is the story of John and Jacob, two young men whose friendship is strengthened by the game of basketball on the public courts of St. Louis. Each of them belongs to a disrupted family. They both are trying to define themselves and help those they love survive in a city beset by drug addiction, alcoholism, racism and violence.

John, who is Irish-American, is played by Krentz, a talented actor. Jimmy McKinney, an African American, is not an actor, but he gives a believable and touching performance as Jacob. McKinney starred in basketball at Vashon High School and the University of Missouri. He is now playing professional basketball in Germany.

The movie has a rich emotional structure that explores the protagonists' relationship to their families and close friends and to the sometimes clashing culture of their neighborhoods. Except for one possible false note that seems a bit contrived - the spirit of a dead boy appears at crucial moments as a kind of life guide - the movie rings true to life, and the climactic basketball game, with much at stake for both young men, is rousing and suspenseful. Many of the participants played college ball and some are now professionals, like McKinney. That shows in the exciting quality of the game.

The movie is, on the whole, effectively paced, and Nick Gartner's cinematography conveys mood skillfully, as the story moves through the city's neighborhoods and sweeps towards the big game, with tens of thousands of dollars in bets on the line. (Apparently, such large sums are actually wagered on big street games in the city.)

Krentz, who just turned 30, grew up in Webster Groves, and as a teenager began playing basketball at a court in Richmond Heights where some of the best black players from the city and county showed their skills. Often, he was the only white kid on the court, and he developed a deep respect for the level of the game as it is played on area playgrounds. Krentz later played at Rockhurst College in Kansas City. He loves basketball, but he has had little time to play in recent months, which have been devoted to the business end of "Streetballers."

"My goal," said Krentz, "is to get the distribution set up and then go back to being a fulltime filmmaker, not a distributor, so I can go back to shooting hoops."

The movie will have its commercial opening Friday, Aug. 21, at two theaters - the Tivoli in University City and Ronnie's in South County. If it does well there, Krentz said, the doors will be opened to distribution elsewhere.

"The hardest part in making the film was that no one thought we could make a serious movie in St. Louis," said Krentz. "That's over. We proved we could do that. Now we have to make sure people see it."

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.