Marx: In spring 1993, Peter reached out to Michael Apted and Barbara Kopple, who reviewed the cut, and both of them said, “You guys need to try to get this into theaters.”
James: We went through this process with KTCA of us having to deliver an hour, then we got them on board with it being a two-hour special. Frankly, I was uneducated in the business. I had heard of Sundance, but I didn’t know anything about it. Frederick had different ideas, which is good, because he was pushing us in different directions.
Marx: I’d been following John Pierson and his work for a while. I wanted his take on the film: “Does this have theatrical potential?” I heard he was going to be giving a talk in Chicago, so I went.
John Pierson (Producer’s Rep): Chicago became a really familiar stopping spot for me. I was there for an IFP event.
Marx: I asked him at the end of his presentation, “Do you know of any film that has been blown up to film from video and been theatrically released?” He said, “No, but it’s only a matter of time before it happens.” And I said, “I’ve got it.”
James: Pierson called one day when I was at Kartemquin and said, “It’s John Pierson,” and I’m thinking the way he’s talking, I’m supposed to know who he is. I’d never heard of him. He goes, “I watched the film, and I watched it again, and I was going to wait and call you on Monday”—this was Friday—“because I didn’t want to look too anxious, but I love this movie.” And I’m thinking, “That’s great!” So I hang up and call Frederick, and he’s excited, and calls back John. He got back to me and tells me John doesn’t want to represent it.
Marx: I don’t think he said no right away, and in fact I think he thought about it for a while.
James: Though he didn’t take it on, he still helped us tremendously. Especially getting the film into the hands of critics.
Pierson: That was an amazing year at Sundance, because I had Go Fish and Clerks, and it was a challenge to give just two films all your attention. I’m happy I could help Hoop Dreams. I’m sorry it wasn’t my film.
James: Through Gordon and Frederick, we connected with Richard Peña of the New York Film Festival, so we sent the film to him. He got back to us and said he wanted the film. Back then, they only showed one or two docs at the festival, so we were blown away. Then a few weeks later, we had to call him and say we weren’t going to be able to get it done in time.
Gilbert: I was completely heartbroken when we couldn’t get it into the New York Film Festival.
James: We actually were the closing-night film at the [following year’s] New York Film Festival following our première at Sundance. It was amazing sitting with the families in the balcony. That was one of the highlights of my filmmaking career.
James: Around the time we withdrew from the New York Film Festival is when Woody [Wickham] convened this meeting to figure out what could happen with the film. He had PBS, CPB, KTCA, activist people from Chicago. Frederick had John Pierson come.
Quinn: It was a meeting where we began to understand we didn’t have to do it all ourselves, that there were organizations and foundations and people who would be interested in really helping us make the film have an impact.
James: We had submitted the film to Sundance. It was a three-hour-20-minute version. I remember calling them up and checking in on the film, and whoever I talked to said, “I can’t tell you whether it’s in, I can tell you it’s high up on the list of being considered.” So that was big to know going into the meeting.
The film was supposed to air in March after Sundance, around March Madness, so to the credit of public television, they were willing to push the airdate, and I think John Pierson showing up with all his credentials and saying “This is an important film” was huge.
Marx: John basically said, “You’re out of your minds if you’re not thinking about first maximizing its commercial appeal, because that is what’s going to drive its social utility.”
Pierson: This was not my world. I did not know these people, which was probably great, because there was a great debate about whether PBS was going to hold these guys to the contractual obligation to deliver a two-hour film. I just remember because I had nothing to lose, I didn’t care what I said to them. I just said, “You’re nuts if you think this film should be shorter—this film could be longer. It’s great the way it is, don’t screw it up.”
James: Then you had Woody Wickham, from the MacArthur Foundation, a huge supporter of public television, saying, “This is why we’re having this meeting, to think outside the box.” All these things allowed Hoop Dreams to be thought of as a theatrical film.