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

March 08, 1995|IRENE LACHER | 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.

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