Can a documentary about high school basketball make it big at the box office? At the moment that is the question uppermost in the minds of Chicago-based filmmakers Steve James, Frederick Marx, and Peter Gilbert, along with scores of behind-the-scenes movie executives whose job is to make the public want to see what Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert has labeled “one of the best films about American life I have ever seen.” After opening October 19 in New York City and then in Chicago and Los Angeles on October 21, the picture hits an additional 15 to 20 markets in late October and early November.
Though it already has won over numerous critics and will close the New York film festival on October 9, Hoop Dreams is by no means a sure bet at the nation’s box offices. For one thing it’s what people in the commercial film world call “the dreaded d word”–a documentary, few of which, aside from concert movies, have performed well financially in general distribution. One notable recent exception is Roger & Me, filmmaker Michael Moore’s entertaining account of his attempts to track down the chairman of General Motors, which has grossed more than $6.5 million to date. “But that was a comedy,” notes James. No one at New York-based Fine Line Features, which is distributing the considerably more serious Hoop Dreams, is making unduly brash claims about the film’s box office potential. Says Fine Line president Ira Deutchman: “The typical Hollywood film is designed to attract a big audience, but when you’re selling a documentary, you’re viewed as a hero no matter how far you go.”
Certainly there is nothing typically Hollywood about Hoop Dreams. The film might never have found a commercial distributor had it not won the award for most popular documentary at the 1994 Sundance film festival. James, Marx, and Gilbert spent more than five years filming the story of two Chicago youths who dream of becoming NBA stars. William Gates was raised in Cabrini-Green, and Arthur Agee went to high school on the west side. In straightforward documentary style, the film depicts their struggle to adapt to the unfamiliar ways of the prep school where they are sent to hone their basketball talents, as well as the efforts of their families to cope with various medical and financial crises. James, Marx, and Gilbert shot more than 250 hours of film, which were edited down to a still lengthy two hours and 45 minutes.
Fine Line isn’t planning a splashy, high-profile ad campaign. The early emphasis will be on attracting serious filmgoers who will generate a positive word of mouth. Deutchman expects all media coverage to prominently note that Hoop Dreams is a documentary, not a flashy, action-packed feature film about basketball. But Fine Line intends to soft-pedal that fact in its promotion of the picture. Posters for the film play up the positive critical response and feature the silhouette of a boy with outstretched arms facing an approximation of the Chicago skyline. Fine Line excecutives concede the image is a none-too-subtle homage to Rocky and its underdog-triumphing-over-adversity theme. Explains Deutchman: “We think that theme is there, and we want to suggest it, but not in a tacky way.”
Deutchman doesn’t expect to have much trouble finding an audience, but he’s pessimistic about attracting the lucrative youth market, at least early on. To help reach that crowd, Nike and Sports Illustrated have teamed up to sponsor a toll-free telephone number school administrators can call to organize special screenings for kids. The number will be prominently displayed in billboards and other advertising. Whatever the film’s commercial fate, its creators hope it will serve as a ticket into the more visible and potentially lucrative feature film business. “I think we all have feature film aspirations,” says director James.
The celebratory mood surrounding last Sunday’s opening of Millennium Approaches, the first half of Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America, was quickly dampened by news that the producers had pushed the opening of Perestroika, the play’s concluding installment, back to October 9. A spokesman for the show said the delay was required to work on the angel’s wing mechanism, enhance some scenic effects, and smooth out various scene shifts; the second installment was originally scheduled to open September 29. Though rumors of a possible postponement were flying opening night, the producers waited until the next morning to make it official. This delay ensured that no suggestion of problems tainted Trib chief critic Richard Christiansen’s gush of a review, which carried the headline “Astounding Angels” and concluded with the remark “I can hardly wait,” a reference to his eagerness to see Perestroika. Will he survive now that he must wait an additional ten days?
Publicist With a Day Job
By day Frank Sajtar is a Chicago-based consultant for Sprint, but in his off-hours he’s a fledgling concert promoter. On October 11 he presents the Chicago debut of recording artist and actress Linda Eder at Park West. Eder, whose singing voice has been compared to those of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, has released two solo albums in recent years, but as yet hasn’t had a hit. The more recent one, And So Much More, released earlier this month on the Broadway Angel label, includes a duet with Michael Feinstein and a cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s familiar “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Sajtar, who first saw her perform in 1981 in Minneapolis, has long believed Eder is bound for greatness. “She has a one-in-a-million voice,” he says. In 1987 after hearing her open for Rich Little in Saint Charles, he asked Eder out for a drink. Their friendship has deepened since then, along with his respect for her talent.
Eder goes into rehearsals in November for what its producers hope will be the final pre-Broadway tryout of the Frank Wildhorn/Leslie Bricusse musical Jekyll & Hyde. The production, starring Eder as Lucy and a yet-to-be-named actor in the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde, debuts in January in Houston (where another version of the show premiered four years ago). It’s scheduled to embark on a yearlong national tour before arriving on Broadway. Dates and venue for an expected stop in Chicago still are being negotiated.