“Celebrity and name recognition is currency in Hollywood,” said Todd Boyd, a cinema and media studies professor at the University of Southern California. Mr. Boyd, whose work focuses on race and popular culture, added that the entertainment business was under pressure to diversify its ranks and the stories it put on screen.
Credit George Pimentel/WireImage
“The question is where this goes in the long term,” Mr. Boyd said. “How long will the content boom last? Will diversity continue to matter?”
And success on the court in no way ensures success on screens, Mr. Boyd noted.
So far, the most serious has been Mr. James, whose production company, SpringHill Entertainment, has financial backing from Warner Bros. Early accomplishments include “The Wall,” a game show on NBC where contestants play what is essentially vertical pinball. SpringHill has at least 10 series and three films in the works, including “Space Jam 2” and a reimagining of the 1990 hip-hop comedy “House Party.”
Co-founded by Maverick Carter, SpringHill has also built a sports-centric video and podcast platform called Uninterrupted. Sample offering: “The Shop,” which finds Mr. James and Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors debating music, sports and culture while getting haircuts.
“As the number of platforms and distribution channels grows — social media, Amazon, Netflix — there is a big need for unique content and quality storytelling that can cut through the noise,” said Mr. Carter, who serves as SpringHill’s chief executive and has known Mr. James since boyhood. “We saw an opportunity to tell stories about people who look like us and think like us.”
Because he is still playing basketball, Mr. James is not sitting in many production meetings. But Mr. Bryant, who retired in 2016 after two decades with the Los Angeles Lakers, is taking the opposite approach to building his Granity Studios.
“He’s working on a bunch of novels — fiction, but rooted in sport — and will be building shows and films from there, original from his own head,” said Molly Carter, Granity’s chief marketing officer.
Credit Mike Nelson/European Pressphoto Agency
In the near term, Mr. Bryant has a basketball-analysis show, “Detail,” headed to ESPN. And he will appear at the Academy Awards on March 4. He is nominated for an Oscar for producing “Dear Basketball,” an animated short based on a poem he wrote.
At a recent Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences event, Mr. Bryant was mobbed by Hollywood A-listers wanting to take selfies with him.
“This is better than any All-Star Game I was ever in,” he said after posing with Allison Janney, an Oscar acting nominee for the ice-skating biopic “I, Tonya.”
Hollywood has a long history of casting athletes, who come with built-in fan bases and often exude a natural magnetism on screen. Johnny Weissmuller, an Olympic swimmer, starred in a dozen “Tarzan” movies starting in the 1930s.
Among basketball players, Michael Jordan appeared as himself in the original “Space Jam,” which took in $337 million worldwide in 1996, after adjusting for inflation. Shaquille O’Neal, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson have tried acting, producing and hosting over the years, to mixed results.
The current crop of N.B.A. stars are a bit different. With Mr. James leading the way, some are trying to build production businesses that can thrive over the long term. (SpringHill is named after a housing complex where Mr. James lived as a boy. Granity is a word that Mr. Bryant made up by melding “greater than infinity.” Thirty Five Media represents Mr. Durant’s Warriors jersey number.)
Credit Warner Bros.
“LeBron has done such a great job so far,” Mr. Durant said. “It’s like, wow, this can actually be done.”
Mr. Kleiman, who is also Mr. Durant’s manager, added that a generation of athletes had also watched music stars build business empires. “Kevin paid attention to the Jay Zs and the Puffys that came up ahead of him and provided a blueprint,” Mr. Kleiman said.
Mr. Durant may not be interested in acting now, but he got his start in Hollywood in 2012 when he starred in the family comedy “Thunderstruck,” which took in just $587,211 at the box office. After that experience, he focused on his basketball career and investing in tech companies.
His affiliation with YouTube formally started in April, when he introduced a channel dedicated to his off-court life. The channel, which has more than 600,000 subscribers, features videos of Mr. Durant at home (“Yo! This is K.D.”) and has expanded to include a popular feature, “Parking Lot Chronicles,” in which his teammate JaVale McGee interviews fans after games.
Thirty Five Media also aims to increase revenue on the channel with a twist on the endorsement deal.
“You may not get Kevin Durant the spokesman — he can only personally represent so many brands authentically — but you can get branded content,” Mr. Kleiman said.
The Apple project, “Swagger,” got its start when Mr. Grazer and Mr. Durant spent time together at Google Camp, a summertime conference on the Mediterranean.
“He started telling me the very interesting story about his early days playing basketball and how his mom kept a really good eye on him,” Mr. Grazer said. “And that got us talking about another way to do ‘Friday Night Lights,’ which was a series and movie about a boy’s identity and how things that seem imperceptible can be so seismic.”
Mr. Grazer added: “A lot of people wanted to buy the idea, but we sold it to Apple. The content boss there, Eddy Cue, is a big Warriors fan.”