Deutchman: We did an enormous amount of testing the film in front of various audiences, trying to poke and see how possible it was to get the film to broaden outside the arthouse audience.
James: We were really pushing Fine Line: “If the African-American community can find out about this, they will embrace it.” I remember they showed the trailer before an advance screening of Above The Rim in Harlem. The trailer made it look like the film was a gritty narrative, as opposed to a documentary. So they asked the audience when they came out of the film if they liked the trailer and would like to see that movie. I remember I was at Kartemquin editing when the results of the test screening were faxed over. And I’m seeing some overwhelming results. “Excellent.” “Excellent.” I get a call from Ira, and he said, “Did you get the results?” and I said, “Yeah, they look great.” He said, “What do you mean? No, those are the people who stayed.” Half of the audience walked out. The comments on why they walked out were like, “I didn’t know this was going to be some PBS shit.” And, “I live this, I don’t go to the movies to see this.”
Deutchman: I went on kind of a goodwill tour trying to bring on promotional partners. For this film, it was the one and only time I went to the Turner offices in Atlanta. I made presentations for the Atlanta Hawks, TNT, regional sports networks. We did a screening in an Atlanta movie theater. The biggest tool we had to drive people into theaters were reviews, and they were only going to affect the arthouse audience. So we reached the conclusion that chasing other audiences in a more commercial way was simply not going to work. Then the question became, how could we put it in front of African-American kids? We put together a massive educational campaign that got it to, I think, a couple hundred thousand African-American kids.
James: I remember talking to Ira on the phone after the opening weekend in October of 1994, and he was so disappointed.
Deutchman: Some people point to us opening the same weekend as Pulp Fiction as to why we opened soft, but we got as much press as they did. We were the closing night of the New York Film Festival [leading up to the film’s release], they were the opening night of the New York Film Festival. We had just as much momentum going into that weekend as they did, but we were a two-and-a-half-hour documentary on basketball, and they were something that seemed like it was going to be more fun. I’m not sure if we opened a month later, that there would have been some other film that would have been just as problematic. [Ed. note: Hoop Dreams grossed $18,396 its opening weekend on three screens, Pulp Fiction grossed $9.3 million on 1,338 screens.]
We had to readjust the whole marketing plan to slow the release down. To keep it alive meant we had to keep the press people on to continue to get whatever additional press the film could garner. But more importantly, week after week we had to take out ads in newspapers, because back then, that was the main way to get the word out.
James: I have to give Fine Line credit, they pushed to keep it in theaters, and I think it became, “We just have to get to the announcement of the Oscar nominees.”