Fifteen years. Hard to believe.
“Hoop Dreams” is such an important milestone in my life that absorbing the fact that it has been fifteen years since its release makes me feel very old. There are many proud parents of this film, not the least of whom are its subjects, who allowed their lives to be laid bare on the screen; the three filmmakers, who devoted a big chunk of their lives to creating something that they had no idea would ever lead to anything; and the various funders who enabled them to keep going. Then there are John Iltis, Dave Sikich, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. I like to think that I have a claim to a piece of that parentage, as well.
My “Hoop Dreams” connection began at Sundance. Liz Manne, who was my marketing chief at Fine Line, told me that she loved the film. She added the caveat that she was dubious about its commerciality, but that I ought to check out at least the first half hour. About an hour into the film, I ducked out to cancel a meeting, and ran back in to see the rest of it. I was smitten. When it was over, I immediately expressed my interest, but the rumour on the streets was that the asking price was $1 million and that the filmmakers would not consider any cutting. That sounded like a dangerous combination.
I ran into John Iltis and Dave Sikich at the closing night party. John and I had been friends and colleagues for many years, so I felt comfortable being honest with him. I was interested in the film, but not at anywhere near the price that had been rumoured. He told me that the rumours were not necessarily true and that we should talk after the festival.
I arranged a screening of the film back in New York and invited the New Line and Fine Line department heads. The reaction was universally good, but everyone told me that the film was too long. When I probed them about what they would cut, the women said there was too much basketball and the men said there was too much family drama. That made me feel that the film had achieved the right balance. The bad news was delivered by the home video division; I was told that the best case scenario was 5,000 video units. I decided that I was going to go ahead and try to acquire the film anyway.
Liz and I flew to Chicago, and on the plane, I wrote out an outline for a marketing plan. It included many of the things I had been told were important to the filmmakers–grass roots outreach to inner city kids, an educational component, and an openness to work with many of the partners they already had on board. But the main emphasis of the plan was to take advantage of the one thing we had that none of our potential competitors did–synergies with our parent company, Turner Entertainment. Turner had only recently bought New Line, so I really had no idea whether we could deliver any of what I proposed, but the Turner connection represented a unique opportunity. Turner owned TBS, which was then the home of the NBA on TV. They owned the Atlanta Hawks basketball team and the regional TV network that carried all their games. I could tell by the end of the meeting that the filmmakers were sold. So rather than make an offer, I told them that if they decided that we were the best distributor for the film, they should get back in touch and I would try to match whatever offers they had.
The deal was finally made in the lobby of the Hotel Nikko in Beverly Hills during the American Film Market. Many years later, I found out that we paid less than other offers that were on the table, but I didn’t know that at the time. I agreed to give the filmmakers a share of the gross, which I’m told was later the source of a lot of annoyance at New Line because the success of the film meant that ultimately a lot of money was paid out.
Now came the hard part. I had to live up to the promises we had made.
First I followed up on a call I received from Lauren de la Fuente from Nike. She had seen the film at Sundance and wanted to get Nike involved. We brainstormed about what could be done, and by the end of the first meeting, we had a framework for a national educational program that Nike would underwrite. Lauren also told us she would try to bring in additional promotional partners and eventually ended up bringing in Sports Illustrated and Gannet Outdoor. With the support of these sponsors, we would have a 24-hour toll-free number for group sales wherever the film was playing. All school groups would receive copies of a curriculum guide that had been created by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society and printed by Sports Illustrated.
Now it was time to focus on Turner. I flew to Atlanta and organized a morning screening of the film, inviting as many Turner executives as I could get to return my phone calls. After the screening I met with each of the divisions. The most important of those meetings was with the Atlanta Hawks. I knew that if I couldn’t get them aboard, I wouldn’t be able to get any NBA team to cooperate. The meeting began badly. They asked how much we were spending in advertising, treating it like I was coming to them with a studio film. I told them they were approaching it all wrong–they had to look at it like we were a non-profit. The important part of this was the message of the film. It was a chance for the Hawks to give back to the community. Then I mentioned the magic word- “Nike.” The Hawks agreed to promote the educational program in their stadium and on their broadcasts, during half time, on the scoreboard, and wherever else they could. I had what I needed.
Back in New York, I met with David Stern, the Commissioner of the NBA. I told him about the Atlanta Hawks program and he agree to send a note to all the NBA teams encouraging them to do the same thing. Eventually we ended up with promotional programs with most of the NBA franchises. As the film gained momentum, companies began to fight for the opportunity to become part of the educational outreach, and even though the film never really crossed over to a young inner city audience in the way the filmmakers dreamed of, more than 100,000 kids saw the film courtesy of the outreach program.
On the closing night of the New York Film Festival, the film had a response that I’ve never seen for a film–either before or since. When the film ended and the spotlight hit the box where the filmmakers and the subjects of the film were standing, the audience simply erupted in tears and applause. Peter Gilbert had given me his video camera and asked me to tape the reaction at the end of the film. I was in a box on the opposite side of the auditorium and I shot the entire thing, or at least I think so. I’ve never seen the footage and I wonder if it exists somewhere.
The film opened later that week, and despite all of our efforts and the amazing reviews, the results were not as good as we had hoped. We knew that the film would be a tough sell, but we thought all the pieces had been put into place to give it a strong launch. We were wrong. So we re-tooled and dug in for the long haul. We hoped that if we kept the film alive long enough, word-of-mouth would eventually kick in. I have great nostalgia for that moment in time, since it is clear to me that any film facing the same dilemma today would never have the opportunity to stay alive that long. “Hoop Dreams” had opened in mid-October, and it wasn’t until the end of the year, when the critics’ ten best lists started appearing, that the grosses began to build. This fact alone makes me believe that if a film like “Hoop Dreams” were to be released today, it would never find its audience.
Many have written about about the controversy over the Oscar snub of “Hoop Dreams.” What they don’t realize is that I was pretty sure that the film would NOT get nominated for Best Documentary even before Oscar season began. Historically, the documentary committee had always ignored films that were deemed to be too commercial. And besides, the last thing I wanted to do was remind the audience that the film was a documentary–we had scrupulously presented it as a story, a family drama, a not-to-be-missed movie-movie. In my mind, getting the doc nomination was the worst case scenario, the one that would make the least noise. Without the nomination, we had a scandal. With it, we had a doc. My strategy was to get the film nominated for BEST PICTURE. OK, we didn’t get that either, but we did get a nomination for Best Editing, which indicates to me that we might have come close. Boy, that would have been something.
To emphasize our underdog status, I had our staff stay late one night and hand-pack all the screeners that we were sending out to Academy members. I asked our publicist to alert the press that we were doing this because we didn’t have the budget for a real Oscar campaign. We invited camera crews to come to our office to cover this. Earlier that day, I was informed that I was being fired. I decided not to tell the staff until after we had completed the job. When the last packages had been brought down to the post office, we all met at Kennedy’s bar on 57th Street and I broke the news. So as it turns out, packing VHS cassettes of “Hoop Dreams” to send to Academy members was my last official act as the President of Fine Line.
I was gone, but the film kept going. By the time the Oscar controversy hit, the film had become the highest grossing non-music documentary of all-time, and it remained true until “Bowling for Columbine” was released. In all my years of marketing films, “Hoop Dreams” is one of my proudest achievements. It’s easy in retrospect to think that its success was inevitable. But it was a struggle all along the way. And through the prism of how difficult it is to release a documentary today, one that doesn’t involve cute animals, a kids’ competition or a big star (Michael Moore, Al Gore), it seems more like a miracle. Thanks to Steve, Frederick and Peter for letting me be a part of it.