More on Hoop Dreams

Mike Wise writes a fascinating account of what happened to the 2 basketball players in Hoop Dreams. Details:

  • Coach Pingatore and the school were parties to a suit to prevent the film from being released theatrically.
  • the film wasn’t even nominated for a Oscar because Academy Members wanted the film stopped after 20 minutes
  • one of the basketball players William Gates married his childhood sweetheart (who had a baby during the shooting of the documentary)
  • William Gates is a minister; Arthur Agee runs a motivational foundation with sportswear
  • Both people had the opportunity to suit up and play with NBA members
  • 10 of Agee’s friends in the film are now dead
  • The two players have 8 children between them
  • the families received $175,000-200,000 for participating in the film (each?)
  • Arthur gave up on his dream to go into the NBA by choosing to participate in one of the film director’s other projects
  • Gates’ older brother was murdered

Here’s a Roger Ebert retrospective about the film. Btw,  there was a sequel to Hoop Dream (condemned by all) and the Criterion edition of Hoop Dreams has commmentaries by the two basketball players themselves.

Some fascinating commentary on the Roger Ebert post:

I have a story that will horrify and shock you. I’ve seen Hoop Dreams only once, when I was was a teenager. I must have been 15 or 16 years old at the time, so it should have been when I was in sophomore or junior year of high school.

It was playing as part of The Museum of Modern Art’s Friday Night at the Movies program for high school students (it’s an excellent project of the MoMA’s that is still around, look it up) and I had long wanted to see it because of your Great Movies article on it.

Several large groups of African-American and some Latino inner city high school students arrived to watch the film. They must have been taken there by their teachers only because Hoop Dreams was playing because, to the best of my recollection, I never saw them again after that. Not at any other Friday Night screening.

They were one of the worst audiences I’ve ever seen. Not the worst audience at Hoop Dreams, not the worst audience at a documentary, not even one of the worst audiences at the movies. One of the worst audiences at ANYTHING that I’ve ever seen. They were bored out of their minds. They couldn’t keep still. Have you ever been in a room with 100 or 200 people behaving like they had ants in their pants for two hours? That’s what it was like. The vast majority were not even watching the screen. They kept talking throughout the movie. Nonstop.

The single worst moment came when the young boy- Arthur?- who is enrolled at the Catholic school- St.Joseph’s?- talks about how uncomfortable and scared at his new school. He says something to the effect of “I’m scared of all these…white people.” My audience SCREAMED with laughter. I mean, HOWLS of laughter.

I couldn’t wait until the movie was over. I was furious that my first viewing of Hoop Dreams would be spoiled this way.

The gentleman who ran the program for the MoMA, a decent and smart man who was clearly very dedicated to his job and whose name I sadly no longer remember, was DISGUSTED with the teenagers. I saw him when the lights went up and he looked furious and embarrassed and was shaking his head in pure disgust. He addressed himself to them and something to them along the lines of “You guys were unbelievable. I can’t believe you did that. Just unbelievable.” as they were all streaming out.

I don’t mean to sound like a middle class Caucasian liberal here (though that’s exactly what I am) but I couldn’t believe that an audience of poor black New York City teenagers would behave like that at Hoop Dreams. You’d think this would have been the perfect film for them. Guess not.

Ebert: One at a time, they might not have behaved that way. My guess is: They (1) thought they were expected to learn something, (2) were away from their turf, (3) were insecure, and (4) cuing off of peer pressure from the least secure and most threatened. The movie probably had nothing to do with it.


The blogger who wrote about the unfortunate MOMA screening reminded me of a relevant anecdote from the time the film came out. After Fine Line bought the film for distribution, they did a test screening in Harlem to gauge response in the black community there. They recruited the audience by handing out flyers at Harlem screenings of ABOVE THE RIM, saying basically that this was like that film. The audience had seen a HOOP DREAMS trailer, which carefully avoided the dreaded “D-word”, giving them the expectation of seeing another fictional basketball drama.

After the screening, Fine Line sent the results to Kartemquin, and we were thrilled. An overwhelming number of the viewers had rated the film excellent. But then Fine Line called, depressed, to point out a detail we had missed: Nearly half the audience had walked out! Those that stayed may have loved it but those that left said things like:

Too depressing
What’s this PBS shit?
Nobody told me it was a documentary
Too much like my life
I live this, why do I want to see this?

Based on this single test screening, Fine Line never really pursued a theatrical release strategy in the black communities around the country. Which really upset us because our contention was that they deluded the audience to get them to come, and that accounted for much of the negative response.

Our view was borne out by screenings that were later done around the country as part of outreach to inner city schools. The screenings and discussions were conducted by the esteemed Center for Study of Sports and Society out of Boston. And the response of inner city high school students was incredibly positive. Essentially, they said things like:

I’ve never seen a documentary about this.
This is so much like my life
It’s real. Not fake like Hollywood movies.

In other words, its all about context.

Ebert: I’ve heard several stories about good films derailed by stupid test screenings. The error of the studios is that they tend to recruit their “dream audiences, “tentpole fans, because they can’t get their heads around the notion of specific audiences for a specific film.

Another problem — it costs less than $1000 to rent a theater for a night, but marketing “consultants” add a fortune to that for counting the cards and reading the results to the studios. And in this case, misinterpreting them. A competent executive should be able to discover what he needs to know by simply sitting in the damned theater.






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