[Editor Note: This week marks the 15th anniversary of the release of the groundbreaking documentary “Hoop Dreams.” We are pleased to reprint this Week Behind classic first published when it premiered.]
October 15, 1994 – We went to the Chicago premiere of “Hoop Dreams” last night. It was quite a show.
For those who are not culturally asleep, “Hoop Dreams” is the Chicago documentary about two kids trying to make their way to the NBA that consumed seven years in the lives of filmmakers Steve James, Fredrick Marx and Peter Gilbert. After winning the audience award at Sundance, it is being released Friday by Fine Line Features with a $3 million publicity campaign, ten times what they spent making it.
I remember when “Hoop Dreams” started back in the summer of 1987 with three guys standing around the lobby of IPA talking about how they were going to follow two 8th graders recruited from the Chicago playgrounds to attend St. Joseph’s High School, Isaiah Thomas’s alma mater. Whatever happened in their lives, they would be there to film it. “We might have to follow them through college,” Steve said.
The good news was that they’d gotten a $2,000 grant from the Illinois Arts Council––and we’d get half.
“You shoot it and we’ll post it, “ I said. We shook hands and parted company smiling.
“Who are these guys,” I asked Gordon Quinn, the founder of Kartemquin, as soon as they left.
“I don’t know but we’re in,” he said. “We’re going to give them our 501 (c) 3 and help with fundraising.”
“If you’re in, we’re in,” I said.
I ran into Gordon at the opening party at Planet Hollywood and asked him how the lawsuit was going. St Joseph’s, it seems, after welcoming the filmmakers into its midst, had decided the filmmakers portrayal of the school did not reflect it in a “caring and supportive” manner. The school claimed the filmmakers fraudulently obtained access to its practices and games under the guise of a not-for-profit venture.
“Hell, you could sue us on the same grounds,” Gordon said. “Who knew? Who knew this thing would make money. Nothing we’ve ever done has made money.”
Steve and Fred, with Peter as their go-to camera guy, dogged these boys and their hoop dreams for the next three years (1987-1990). When they needed more money, we’d give them a junior editor like Eric Scholl to put together a demo tape for Toyota or a pitch to KCET, which was thinking of sponsoring it on PBS.
Then about three years ago, Steve came by. He said they were really close. He figured the final show was going to be three hours. They had 700 tapes so far, but he promised they wouldn’t shoot more 1,000. And, by the way, they were out of money again.
Enter The MacArthur Foundation
I had lunch that week with Woody Wickham, the media man from The MacArthur Foundation in a restaurant at First Chicago Bank. He started explaining how the foundation was spending $3 million a year on independent television but was having trouble quantifying the results.
“If you really want to make an impact,” I said, “put some real money into this “Hoop Dreams” thing. The shooting is almost finished. If you give them $250,000 right now, they can post it and be on PBS in the fall.”
Two more years passed. When I saw Steve or Fred, I kept asking “Are you done yet? Is it still three hours? What’s the tape count? Who’s watching it all?”
Last summer, it was Peter’s turn to come in for a little talk. “What does it take to get this done?” he asked. “Can we make Sundance?”
“No problem,” I said.
Eric, now a grisled editing veteran, worked 24 nights straight to make the deadline. Ric Coken at Zenith db audio put in three weeks of 16-hour days to clean up a troublesome audio track. We made the layback on the last day of the last extension to make Sundance.
“By the way, do you guys have any money to pay for all this?” I asked Steve one day.
“Yeah, we set aside $8,000 for the online edit,” he said.
“You mean you got a quarter of a million dollars from the MacArthur Foundation and you only have $8,000 left?” I exploded.
“We made a few mistakes along the way,” he admitted.
Sundance turned out to be more interesting than anyone expected. “Hoop Dreams” won the audience award for best documentary and Fine Line bet the bank on a theatrical distribution.
“What I’ve learned is that there are two categories in the film world,” Gordon said. “Talk about money and money––and there’s no relationship between the two. Producing documentaries still puts you at the bottom of the feeding chain.”
“Yeah, but don’t you just love the company?” I said.
The premiere at the Esquire Theater attracted a sellout crowd. It was nice that the filmmakers went out of their way to thank IPA. Nicer still to see so many friends in the audience who are busy editing their own movies for next year’s Sundance.
And nicest of all to see Steve, Peter and Fred standing on the sidewalk in tuxedos under the klieg lights to usher William and Arthur, the stars of the show, to the best seats in the house. To say we have all grown up on “Hoop Dreams” is to say the least.
The premiere was the first time I have seen “Hoop Dreams” without timecode numbers and with music and sound effects. It is a remarkable story told along a spine of integrity that grows right up out of the heart and vision of the three filmmakers.
When the credits rolled, you could see the names of hundreds of Chicago people who contributed to the film’s success.
“Hoop Dreams”, which opens this weekend across America, is expected to gross around $20 million. There is a book on the way, a soundtrack CD, an MTV video and a made-for-TV version in the works.
Better yet, William and Arthur are in their senior year in college. Although they will not play in the NBA, they will play in the game of life.
May all your Hoop Dreams come true.