Lena Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions — the company the actor/writer/producer founded with Rishi Rajani — now has an exclusive, multi-year deal with Warner Bros. Television Group. At WBTVG, Waithe and Rajani will develop television projects for, according to the announcement, “all platforms, including WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, external streaming services, cable and the five broadcast networks.”
Hillman Grad’s previous deal was with Amazon Studios, but moved to WBTVG after a “highly competitive situation.” The terms were not disclosed.
Waithe’s first project in the new pact will be to develop “Hoop Dreams” as a scripted drama, with Aaron Rahsaan Thomas (“S.W.A.T.”) set to executive produce and write.
Yes, director Steve James’ 1994 movie “Hoop Dreams” — the documentary that changed documentaries — is getting a scripted adaptation more than 27 years after it won the Sundance Film Festival’s audience award for best documentary. Waithe and Rajani will executive produce, as will Colin Callender, Scott Huff and David A. Stern of Playground Entertainment (“Howards End,” the forthcoming “Dangerous Liaisons”). “Hoop Dreams” producers James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx will also executive produce.
James’ movie followed two Black students, William Gates and Arthur Agee — star high-school basketball players from Chicago — as they tried to excel at the suburban St. Joseph High School. To do well for Agee and Gates would mean to be recruited for an NCAA team, paving a way for them to get to the NBA. The 170-minute movie was famously created from 250 hours of footage shot over five years. The movie is considered to be one of the most thoughtful and immersive examinations of race and class in the United States that’s ever been produced, and it was added to the Criterion Collection in 2015.
After its Sundance triumph, “Hoop Dreams” was released in theaters in October 1994 to universal raves. It also proved that documentaries could be box office successes before that was common. According to Box Office Mojo, “Hoop Dreams” grossed nearly $12 million worldwide.
After “Hoop Dreams” won the New York Film Critics Circle award for best documentary, and a Directors Guild Award, it was thought to be a shoo-in for an Academy Award nomination. That is wasn’t caused an uproar in the film community, one that led documentarian Barbara Kopple to change the selection process for the committee. Strangely, the film was nominated in the best editing category of the Oscars.
This isn’t the first attempt to make a scripted version of “Hoop Dreams.” Simultaneous to its theatrical release in fall 1994, TNT planned to make a TV movie out of the story — but it never came to fruition.
The “Hoop Dreams” producers — James, Gilbert and Marx — released a joint statement about the new project: “We are excited to work with Hillman Grad, Playground and Warner Bros. Television on adapting ‘Hoop Dreams’ into a scripted television series. There’s been quite a bit of interest over the years since the film came out in 1994, but Lena Waithe is the ideal Chicagoan to lead the effort to finally make it happen.”
The logline for “Hoop Dreams” is: “The proposed series is a coming-of-age drama following two African American teenage boys in 1990s Chicago experiencing the privileges and pitfalls of being high school basketball phenoms at the height of the Jordan era, and the start of high school players turning pro. Through their friendship and rivalry, the boys must learn to empower themselves in a world that considers them commodities before they can legally drive.” Agee and Gates have given their stamps of approval to the show.
New Hillman Grad hire Naomi Funabashi will run film and television with Rajani, and company executives Rocio Melara and Sylvia Carrasco will work on upcoming WBTVG projects with Rajani and Funabashi.
Upon the news of the new deal with WBTVG, Waithe and Rajani released a statement. “We are thrilled to be joining the WBTVG family and incredibly grateful to Channing, Clancy and the rest of the team for believing in us and supporting our mission to give underrepresented artists a platform,” the statement reads. “To have our first project together be an adaptation of the seminal documentary ‘Hoop Dreams’ is a testament to the ambition of our partnership. ‘Hoop Dreams’ was more than just a documentary, it was a groundbreaking window into a community that was rarely ever seen. It provided a deeply intimate look at two families with hopes of capturing the American dream. Our goal is to continue telling that story with our collaborators at Playground Entertainment and Aaron Rahsaan Thomas as our showrunner. We look forward to bringing the legacy of ‘Hoop Dreams’ back to the screen.”
Waithe is represented by Blue Marble Management, WME, Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka and Finkelstein & Lezcano.