Long shot for 'Hoop': fixing Oscar nominating process

"Hoop" got stuffed.

That's the consensus among critics and industry observers. "Hoop Dreams," the three-hour documentary from Steve James, Frederick Marx and Peter Gilbert that lighted up critics' top 10 and best-of-year lists and was even rumored to be on the verge of becoming the first documentary to get a best picture nomination, didn't even get a nomination in the Best nTC Documentary category last Tuesday when the nominations were announced.


The film chronicles the life and hard times of two Chicago-area basketball standouts, William Gates and Arthur Agee. Intending to make a short about Chicago playground basketball, filmmakers James, Marx and Gilbert discovered the youths when they were 14 and both recruits at a suburban Catholic high school with a reputation as a basketball factory and stayed with them over 4 1/2 years as their basketball and family fortunes rose and fell and rose again.

The film finished with each in his freshman year of college, William at Marquette in Milwaukee and Arthur, who had left the private school to return to an inner-city school, at Mineral City Junior College (he later transferred to Arkansas State University). "Hoop Dreams" has attracted an unusually broad audience, is still in general release nationwide and, with $4.6 million in box-office receipts, is rapidly closing in on the $6 million record for a documentary held by Michael Moore's "Roger and Me."


The film did receive one nomination -- for best editing.

But Fine Line Features, the distributor of "Hoop Dreams," isn't taking the Oscar slight lying down: Today, the art film division of the larger New Line Cinema is running a series of full-page ads in Variety and USA Today that use the case of "Hoop Dreams" to dramatize what has long been considered a scandal in Academy operations.

The ads take the form of a petition to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and are signed by a blue-ribbon list of industry powers, including Paul Newman; Robert Redford; Barbara Kopple, who won an Oscar in documentary filmmaking; Danny DeVito; former Paramount executive Dawn Steel; and Michael Apted, the noted feature director who also directed a series of highly respected documentaries that followed a group of upper- and lower-class children in seven-year increments for 21 years.

The ad focuses on the seemingly contrary nature of the nominations, which persistently ignore the best-known and most-beloved films in the category while, instead, choosing films of which very few outsiders have heard. It requests that Academy president Arthur Hiller, who has promised to "look into the nominating procedure," "do more than just look into it."

"It's a hall of shame," says Liz Manne, vice president of marketing for Fine Line. "You can virtually run a best-documentary list from the last 10 years to come up with films that the Academy hasn't nominated."

Among the films that have been passed over by the nominating committee are "Roger and Me," "The Thin Blue Line," "A Brief History of Time," "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," "Paris Is Burning" and "The War Room."

"It's not a case of sour grapes at Fine Line," Manne says. "If it were just a case of one picture being ignored, you could explain it away. And each time a picture was ignored, there was a theory: 'Roger and Me' was too political, 'Paris Is Burning' was sexually provocative, 'The Thin Blue Line' had 're-creations.' But with 'Hoop Dreams,' we're talking about a traditional narrative form; there's no explanation. You can only blame the system."

The system is difficult to explain. Unlike other technical categories in which practitioners of the craft make the nominations -- that is, other directors nominate directors -- the 47-member nominating committee in documentary is composed "primarily of people with time on their hands," says Frederick Marx, one of the three producers and the lead editor on "Hoop Dreams," "and many of them are retired or at least over 50.


"Not to be ageist or anything," he says, "but these people aren't exactly on the cutting edge of what's going on."

One reason for this is that the films are usually not distributed in video format so that the committee members may look at them at their leisure. They are screened in a single venue, and committee members must agree to a grueling period of film-watching. According to some press reports, the viewers vote every 10 minutes via flashlights on whether to continue with the screening, a system reminiscent of "The Gong Show."

It has also been said that some committee members had difficulty with the two-hour, 48-minute running time of "Hoop Dreams."

It particularly provokes Marx that his editing team did win an Oscar nomination. "Now does that make any sense? On the one hand, we're hearing it's too long, and on the other, the best professional editors in the business are telling us we did a great job cutting 4 1/2 years of filming down to length."

But Marx, the only member of the trio of filmmakers available for comment, says he's not bitter.

"You have to go back and remember how modestly we began. We were going to make a half-hour film about playground basketball and we were extremely excited about the prospect of getting it shown on PBS. Now we're on 260 screens and we've posted $4.6 million in box office. That's a long way for a little independent documentary."


Both Marx and Manne agree that the most positive thing that can come out of the imbroglio is some kind of improvement in nominating procedures for the category.

"As far as 'Hoop Dreams' goes," says Marx, "it's a done deal. My biggest hope is that they will reform the process."