Geoffrey Gilmore (Director of Sundance Film Festival 1990-2009): They submitted the film and it was a rough cut. It was a long film, but we were willing to look at it because people had already responded to it positively. Also, we didn’t have as many submissions at Sundance as we did years later, so you could spend more time on a title.
There was a lot of discussion about it, but it wasn’t a collective decision—the decision was mine. People either argued for or against it, and the people that argued against it were basically people that just did not care for sports. Now, I was the opposite, I’m one of the people who cared most about sports. It was a film we were going to accept.
James: When John [Pierson] didn’t want to rep the film, it’s not like there were a lot of producer’s reps around at that time.
Quinn: We agreed that [Chicago publicist] John Iltis and David Sikich would be our producer’s reps. They were from Chicago, and we trusted them.
Marx: I met them probably the same time I met John Pierson. It was around the time they wanted to form a sales agency.
David Sikich (Producer’s Rep): John and I knew each other for a long time. I was in traditional distribution for about 15-16 years, working as the Chicago branch manager for Orion Pictures. In 1992, they filed for bankruptcy, so I pitched John the idea of starting a subsidiary combining our two strengths, John with public relations, and me with distribution and exhibition.
John Iltis (Producer’s Rep): John Pierson couldn’t take it on, so he recommended us. We started talking to them in early summer of 1993, and then they hired us following the Sundance titles being announced.
James: They did a lot of good things, but the single brilliant thing they did was get Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel to see the film before Sundance.
Iltis: I told Larry Dieckhaus, the executive producer of their show, “They have got to see this, and they have to see it before anyone at Sundance.” It was unheard of: Here’s a movie that does not have a distributor, and they would review the movie. But Siskel and Ebert knew how important this was not only for the filmmakers, but for Chicago.
Chaz Ebert (wife of Roger Ebert): I remember going to see it with Roger and Gene, and we didn’t have any particular expectations, because he hadn’t heard a lot about it. It was just going to see a film. Roger and Gene and I would glance at each other from time to time during the movie, because we couldn’t believe how interesting things were unfolding on the screen.
Primarily, following screenings, conversations were between me and Roger first, because he and Gene liked to keep their feelings about the movies secret between each other until they got on the set and did the show. But there were times when you walk out of a movie like this one and we knew we all liked it a lot.
Iltis: Larry called and said he needed clips, and I didn’t say, “Great, we’re on the show?” I knew. I told the filmmakers, “Just watch the show, you have nothing to worry about.”
James: We had a party at my house the night they reviewed it. This was during Sundance [when it aired]. Back then, you went to either the first or second half of the festival. They wouldn’t pay for you to come for all of it. So we chose the second half because we were in competition, and wanted to be around for the awards ceremony. We watched the review, and it was off the charts.
Marx: They basically scooped the world. But we had a meeting the next day at a Cuban restaurant near my house, and one of the things we talked about was that I wasn’t mentioned by Siskel or Ebert [though Steve and Peter were]. That stung badly.
Sikich: I was the one set up to go the first week of Sundance, John and the filmmakers were going Tuesday night. But a day or two before I flew out, the show faxed over the transcript of the Hoop Dreams segment. It was going to air that first Saturday or Sunday at the festival. I basically was handed the start of a marketing campaign. Right there were Roger’s words: “This is one of the best films about American life that I have ever seen.”
Marx: At Sundance, it felt like being The Beatles for a week. Everybody wanted us and wanted the film.
Iltis: I told the guys, “Just enjoy it. Don’t say anything, just listen and enjoy all the wine and food you’re going to be getting.”
James: This one dinner at The Rocking Horse, we had this long table, and we’re having dinner, and Russell Schwartz [then president of Gramercy Pictures] came up and goes, “Congratulations on the movie. I haven’t seen it yet, but I smell it, and it smells good.”
Sikich: I remember getting a call from Madonna’s rep asking for a print.
Gilbert: In all of the craziness during Sundance, I went to Steve: “We need to get an agent! This is our shot!” Steve had always wanted to make narrative films. I remember sitting where we were staying at Sundance, and calling agencies.
James: I could see Peter doing that. I don’t think I’d have the balls to do it, honestly. I think in our mailbox that the festival provided, we got inquiries from agents.
John Sloss (entertainment lawyer): I was passionately involved with independent film as a lawyer. I wasn’t selling films. John Pierson was someone I was close with. I saw him and asked if he’d introduce me to the Hoop Dreams guys, and he was sitting with Steve James.
James: Sloss walked up and said, “Hey John, do you know where I can find the Hoop Dreams guys? John Sayles is writing a script, and wants to see it for research.” Sayles was his client, and the script he was writing was for the movie Passing Glory, which I would make years later for TNT. Back then, it was a vehicle for Denzel Washington, and it was going to be his directorial debut. Pierson explained to me that John was an entertainment lawyer and we should have him if any deals happen. He came onboard as our lawyer after the festival.
Gilbert: I started seeing a bizarre trend: A lot of people that came to us said, “Oh, we love the film, can’t wait to remake it.”
James: Miramax met with us, but they seemed more interested in the remake rights.
Iltis: Everyone wanted the film because once they got it, they had all rights to the film and could do whatever they wanted. We could have put something in the sales saying, “You can’t remake it,” but even though this was the first film we repped, we knew what we could and couldn’t do to find the most interest.
James: Turner ended up taking the remake rights. Spike Lee came on to executive-produce it, but it died at the script stage.
Sikich: There were big hurdles [to selling the film]. The film had a commitment already with Film Forum in New York, so we had to take care of that and agree that when the film came to New York, they would be one of the runs. The PBS airdate had to be pushed back, and they were obviously going to be the first TV window. It originated on video, so there would be some cost to reconfigure and color-correct. And the three-hour length.
James: Toward the end of the festival, this story floated around that we were going to sell the film for a million dollars, which was erroneous and planted by our reps. It was printed in the Chicago Sun-Times and led to a real problem with the families.
Gilbert: All I could think of was how Arthur, William, and their families were thinking about this back home.
Sikich: I think it was a little too much bluster on my part. I may have even said to somebody that week, “Better get ready to open your checkbook,” which was sort of jerky. I was confident, and I don’t think it hurt the picture, but we were really pushing the fact that this was unique, and this wasn’t going to be something that goes for a cheap amount, and nothing guaranteed for release.
Marx: When the dust settled, there were three companies that made actual offers on the film: Orion, Samuel Goldwyn, and Fine Line.