They Shoot . . . They Score! : Doors Are Opening for the Creators of 'Hoop Dreams,' After the Film's Snub by Oscar Documentary Committee

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a truism in Hollywood that good things come to those who create buzz at the Sundance Film Festival. So it was that Steve James and Peter Gilbert, two of the filmmakers behind the acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams," were leaving their seven-year shoestring existence far behind last week. They were on a pricey, quintessentially commercial shoot--actual commercials.

What's more, James and Gilbert were filming commercials for the Prime Sports cable network with triumphant athletes unlike the struggling subjects of their compassionate documentary--Laker Nick Van Exel, whose NBA dreams are hoop reality, and hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky.

But the filmmakers' commercial success may have had a cost as well. Some speculate that the box-office clout of "Hoop Dreams" has landed it squarely in the tradition of some other films whose very bankability may have invited snubs from the Oscar documentary-nominating committee.

The "Hoop Dreams" filmmakers, whose exclusion has kicked up a major hoopla, had thought their documentary had been palatable enough to escape those films' sorry fates and score a nomination. The nearly three-hour documentary, made with a third filmmaker, producer and co-editor Frederick Marx, traces four years in the lives of two young NBA hopefuls as they jump through the difficult hoops posed by urban life. The film opened wide on 250 screens nationally last month and has already made more than $5 million.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated "Hoop Dreams" only for editing, even though it has won best documentary prizes from the National Society of Film Critics and critics' groups in L.A. and New York. Those awards, media buzz and the active circuit of bootleg "Hoop Dreams" tapes had raised the filmmakers' hopes that their work would get the nominating nod for best documentary and possibly even best picture.

"There aren't many films that ever get critical acclaim in the sense of the way we have," said "Hoop" producer and director of photography Gilbert, waiting for the court to clear at the Forum. "So in your heart of hearts, you think, OK, this is going to happen."

"A lot of times in the past," James said, "when films that have been critical and popular successes have been overlooked, people have said, 'It's because "The Thin Blue Line" was quirky and offbeat and different, and "Paris Is Burning" is about gay people.' There were all these 'liabilities' these films had on some level. I like 'Roger & Me' a lot, but some people probably thought Michael Moore was too much of a cad.

" 'Hoop Dreams' didn't have that kind of baggage, because it's about the American dream. It's a film that sparked a lot of discussion, not just about the film, but about who we are as a society and what our values are and where we're headed. And it just seemed like it was the ultimately politically correct film to boot."

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James said the good company "Hoop Dreams" was keeping took the sting out of the Oscar committee's rejection, which was protested in a petition signed by Paul Newman, Robert Redford and others. "I was disappointed initially, but not deeply," said James, who directed, produced and co-edited the film.

James said he hadn't seen the nominated entries and couldn't comment on whether "Hoop Dreams" belonged with them. Still, James and Gilbert called for reform of the documentary committee's makeup, now that the selection process has come under scrutiny in the wake of the "Hoop Dreams" controversy. Since the academy has no documentary branch, the 47-member committee was drawn from all 12 branches aligned by craft--acting, directing, etc. Volunteers must make a serious time commitment to view the films at screenings--63 over three months for this year.

James and Gilbert said documentaries should be judged solely by documentary filmmakers. "It's not something that people in general have a great knowledge and understanding of the discipline and what constitutes the best that discipline has to offer," James said.

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"Because of the demands of the way it's set up, not only do they have to live in Los Angeles, but they have to watch something like 60 films, so what you end up with is a lot of retired folks watching the films, because they're the only ones that have the time. I'm sure they're well-meaning, but that does a disservice ultimately to picking the best films, because the documentary community itself is not centered in L.A. at all. It's ethnically quite diverse. . . ."

The academy doesn't release information about its demographic makeup, spokeswoman Leslie Unger said.

"Hoop Dreams" vaults sports to examine race in urban America in a stereotype-smashing way. The issue fascinates the Chicago-based James and Gilbert, who've teamed up for future projects--("It's the Coen brothers scenario," says Gilbert)--that tackle race in various ways.

This summer, they're planning to film Anna Deavere Smith's one-woman show about the L.A. riots, "Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992," to be executive produced by Jonathan Demme. Disney is trying to get the rights to baseball great Roberto Clemente's life story, and studio chairman Joe Roth has enlisted the pair to develop a script.

"Hoop Dreams" itself is targeted for a fictional remake to be executive produced by Spike Lee for the TNT cable network. Essayist Ralph Wiley is writing the script. And James and Gilbert are shopping another basketball project, their own script, "Cockroach Basketball," about a coach on the verge of hitting the NBA.

"The American dream and race in America are the biggest issues in our culture," James said. " 'Hoop Dreams' is about those things, and Anna's play 'Twilight' is very much about those things, and the Clemente story--if we ever get a chance to develop that--is very much about that because he was the first real Latin American star to break through in the public mind, but it was a struggle.

"So we don't really think of ourselves as white interpreters of people of color. We think of ourselves as people coming out of a community filmmaking background, and we're fascinated with issues of race and class and the American dream."

Meanwhile, the filmmakers are negotiating with the NCAA, which has barred the young athletes of "Hoop Dreams"--Arthur Agee and William Gates--from benefiting financially from the documentary's windfall. If their families had been paid, Agee and Gates would have risked losing their college athletic scholarships and they could have been prohibited from playing.

"It's not that (the NCAA doesn't) want to see these kids benefit from it," James said. "It's just that they're worried about precedents. We hope we can work it out, and we have every intention of treating the kids and the families fairly."

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