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For 'Battle of the Year' director, dance drama is real

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Documentary filmmakers have become Hollywood's hottest farm team: The directors Paul Greengrass (the upcoming "Captain Phillips"), José Padilha (the new "RoboCop" remake) and Jon M. Chu ("G.I. Joe: Retaliation") all hail from the nonfiction world.

Benson Lee is another doc director leaping into features, but with an atypical twist: His fictional movie "Battle of the Year," out Friday and starring Chris Brown, is a scripted remake of his own 2007 nonfiction break-dancing film, "Planet B-Boy."

In recent years, several studios have tried to turn admired documentaries into fictional dramas, but few have actually made it to screen.

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The tally of stalled transformations includes "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters," "Touching the Void," "Air Guitar Nation," "Young @ Heart" and "Racing Dreams." On Wednesday, the Weinstein Co. said it was developing a narrative feature based on Shane Salerno's recent documentary "Salinger."

Lee's documentary followed five international teams of break dancers — known as B-Boys — through the 2005 world championships in Braunschweig, Germany.

The dancers' athleticism in "Planet B-Boy" is remarkable — the performances combine gymnastics, gravity-defying acrobatics and mock fighting all within a tightly choreographed routine. But the personalities of the individual performers made Lee think that there was another story yet to tell, especially given some of the unexpected results of several underdog teams.

"I knew from an early stage that it could be turned into a narrative," Lee, 43, said of "Planet B-Boy," which played at several film festivals but only grossed $274,000 in domestic theatrical release. "Because it had such a Cinderella ending."

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It took Lee, who made his filmmaking debut with the 1998 Sundance Film Festival drama "Miss Monday" before moving to documentaries, more than a year to edit his $1-million "Planet B-Boy," largely because he had 300 hours of footage of the dancers' preparations and performances. The delay was fortuitous in a way because, while he was cutting his movie, urban dance films took off at the box office.

Disney in 2006 released its dance movie, "Step Up," which grossed more than $65 million and spawned several sequels. A year later, before "Planet B-Boy" was released theatrically, Screen Gems released "Stomp the Yard," which sold more than $61 million in tickets.

So even if "Planet B-Boy" didn't work commercially as a documentary, its subject matter was suddenly hot.

Lee, who collaborated with screenwriters Brin Hill and Chris Parker on the finished 3-D film, spent several years working out a "Battle of the Year" plot.

"We couldn't figure out a story that made anybody happy," Lee said. "When it comes to urban dance films, there are not a lot of companies that are making these films. But the irony is that they can make a lot of money."

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Screen Gems ultimately decided to finance the $20-million production, which will face Hugh Jackman's "Prisoners" this weekend as the two new films in wide release. According to audience tracking surveys, "Battle of the Year" will struggle in its debut, and may only gross about $6 million in its first weekend, about a quarter of what "Prisoners" is expected to take in.

But the audience tracking, as often happens with films like "Battle of the Year," may be underestimating the movie's broader appeal.

"Hip hop for me has always been international. If you look at all of these shows, it's multicultural. If you watched 'America's Best Dance Crew,' there was always someone from another country in there," said Kevin Tancharoen, who directed "Fame" and "Glee: The 3D Concert Movie." "That world is so universal and so international, which is a hard thing to accomplish in entertainment. I'm really looking forward to it."

Lee's dance drama stars Brown as one of a team of dancers under the direction of a coach (Josh Holloway of "Lost") who has as much to prove as his ensemble. Rather than find actors who could dance a little, Lee cast several veterans of "Planet B-Boy" to round out the film's fictional dance teams and was able to film them performing at last year's world championships in France in front of about 10,000 fans.

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"It really helped that I had a good relationship with the event," said Lee, who was able to shoot on the stage for 10 minutes. "It saved us an immense amount of money."

He said Brown was willing to work hard on his dancing so that he wouldn't need a stunt double.

"He said, 'I will train and I will train hard,'" Lee said. "It was very important for him to keep it as real as possible. Chris is not a B-Boy, but he dances like there's no tomorrow."

Lee, who was born in Canada but raised in the United States, is currently developing "Seoul Searching," a semi-autobiographical tale about summer camps in South Korea intended to teach foreign-born teens more about the country. "That was the best summer of my life," he said.

Although his documentary brought Lee his first studio film, the director said that he's focused on remaining in the narrative world.

"I don't consider myself a documentary filmmaker, but I learned a lot about filmmaking through it," Lee said. "It's all about how to integrate as much reality into the drama as possible."

john.horn@latimes.com

Times staff writer Jevon Phillips contributed to this report.

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