Ira Deutchman (president, Fine Line Features, 1990-1995): The report I was getting at Sundance about the film was mixed. It was amazing, but probably not very commercial. Specifically the length of the film and the subject matter were concerns. I went to see the movie, but I had another appointment, too. About 25 minutes into the film, I stepped out and called the person I was supposed to meet and said, “I’m not coming, I’m in the middle of a movie.” I went in and watched the rest of the film.
Iltis: I had known Ira since he started in the business, and I felt that he had the right feeling for the film.
Deutchman: My reaction was like everyone else’s: “It’s an unbelievable experience, but it’s too long, and it’s going to be difficult to sell.” And the rumors on the street of what the sales agents were looking for was a million dollars, so I didn’t hold out a lot of hope that we were going to end up with it.
Deutchman: I basically told John and Dave, “I could have interest, but if you’re thinking of this being a million-dollar advance, there’s no way I’m going there.” Next time we saw them was the closing night, where the film won the Audience Award, and they said to me, “We don’t know how that rumor started about how much money we’re looking for, but we may be susceptible to something smaller if we feel the film ends up in the right hands.” At that point, I asked them if we could get a print to New York.
Sikich: Orion flew us out first-class to meet with them, but they had just come out of bankruptcy, so there were just too many questions about the company. Samuel Goldwyn came to Chicago and they wanted just a straight gross deal, which wasn’t ideal for us. Fine Line came to us too. Ira put on a good presentation, and being part of New Line, which was owned by Turner, they had the basketball angle.
Deutchman: They had made it clear to me that there was no cutting to be done, which made me feel maybe Harvey [Weinstein] was out of the running. I went to Chicago with Liz Manne, and we did the presentation in a conference room in Iltis’ office. And I made the case that because we were a division of Turner we were better placed for the kind of cross-promotion that would potentially help push the film to a larger audience. Turner owned TBS, the home of the NBA, and Ted Turner also owned an NBA team [the Atlanta Hawks], and there were all sorts of other networks that were potential cross-promotion opportunities. Deep down inside, did I really believe I could pull all that off? We certainly had no history of it, but I did believe it was possible.
James: John Sloss knew we could easily get screwed in whatever deal we took, so with three legitimate suitors, he wrote in a gross corridor deal [a portion of money received from box-office returns and ancillary markets will revert directly to the filmmakers] and see what happened.
Gilbert: That meant we could look at Variety every week and know what we were going to get paid. We didn’t have to depend on the back end. That was huge.
Quinn: It was brilliant. It’s the reason we actually made money on the film.
Sloss: I was really interested in being aggressive structurally, and trying to do things with deals. Putting in a gross corridor was unusual to do back then, and it was probably unprecedented back then to do for a documentary deal.
Deutchman: This was something Sloss and a couple of other people who were making deals at that time were beginning to push for. I was aware of the concept, and I’m not even sure it was the first time I bought with a gross corridor.
I was in Los Angeles at the American Film Market in February 1994, and we were going back and forth, since I went out to meet them in Chicago, and they came back to me with the answer I’d been waiting for, which was a “Yes, you guys are the right people, let’s hammer out a deal.” I told them my threshold, Sloss came back with a gross corridor, and it wasn’t a complete surprise. I wasn’t enthusiastic about it, but I knew we were getting it, so I made the decision right there and then to go ahead and do it for $400,000.
James: When we were closing in on a deal, we met William, Arthur, and their families at Kartemquin. One, they had read this story that the film was going to sell for a million dollars, but we always said that if the film became profitable, we’d sit down and figure out a way to compensate them. However, I was talking to the NCAA because both William and Arthur were on scholarship in college playing Division I basketball [William at Marquette University and Arthur at Arkansas State University], and giving them money was going to compromise their amateur status.
Marx: John Sloss came in from New York. Steve, Peter, Gordon, and I were there, and all of the families.
James: We told them that the story about a million-dollar deal wasn’t true, but that there is interest in the film. And we explained that because of NCAA rules, we can’t talk about compensating you until the boys are done with school, or they’ll lose their amateur status.
Gilbert: Think about the trust these people had to have.
Agee: I wasn’t there, I was at school. But what my mom told me was we couldn’t get any money until I left school, and I was just like, “If we get anything, that’s cool, as long as I can buy you that house I promised you.”
Sloss: That meeting was about as dramatic as anything that’s ever happened in my career. It was literally about a bunch of people who had been living hand-to-mouth seeing their story being told, and seeing people getting wealthy in their eyes far beyond what they’d ever made, and trying to get their head around it. And seeing the people getting wealthy being more than willing to share with them, but everyone confronting this archaic system at the NCAA.
James: It was a very tumultuous meeting. I called Curtis afterward—he was a very contentious voice in the meeting. And he said, “I’ve dealt with white people before, and ultimately, I’ve always felt I can’t trust them when it comes to money. I’m going to get screwed. And I’m just telling you that’s the way I feel.”
When the kids got out of school, we made William and Arthur equal partners in the film, so they got as much as Peter, Frederick, or I would get, and we also gave shares to the families.
Marx: John Sloss pointed out again and again, “This is absolutely unprecedented,” but it’s something we wanted to do.
Agee: I’ll never forget, my first check was $64,000. I’d never seen that much money in my entire life. I signed the check over to my mom and said, “Now go find that house.”
James: Before the release of the film, St. Joe’s and Pingatore filed a suit against the film, saying the film had painted him and the school in a false light. We stood by the content in the film completely, and the last thing we’d ever do was change it. We did work out a settlement that was beneficial to Gene and the school.
Marx: But we also insisted that we include Marshall High School.
James: If we were going to do anything with St. Joe’s on the profits of the film, we also wanted to help out the kids at Marshall.
Pingatore: I was upset because I didn’t think they did what they said they were going to do. Time passes and it heals a lot of wounds—it’s really a good movie. But if I had to do it again, I don’t think I would have agreed to let them film.