Roger Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, heads for the screen

Ebert tweets the big news himself.

“Whoa! My memoir has been optioned for a doc by Steve James (“Hoop Dreams”) and Steven Zaillian, with Martin Scorsese as exec producer.”

In 1994, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel placed Steve James documentary Hoop Dreams at #1 on both their Top 10 Lists. In 2009 Roger Ebert wrote:

Today, fifteen years after I first saw it, I believe “Hoop Dreams” is the great American documentary. No other documentary has ever touched me more deeply.

So what happened to Hoop Dreams at the Oscars that year? Maybe you know. I hadn’t heard this story before today.

Gene and I saw the film early. We were approached by a friend of ours, the Chicago publicist John Iltis, who didn’t ask us to see a screening, he told us this was a film we had to see. We believed him. We were the only people at the first screening outside Kartemquin. Iltis rented the original auditorium of the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute — which has become, fittingly, the new Siskel Center. When the movie was over we remained in our seats for a minute or two before speaking. Neither one of us had ever seen anything like it.

It didn’t have distribution. It had been accepted at Sundance. We decided to break the rules and review it before Sundance, hoping that more people would see it. It won the Audience Award.

The way seemed clear for an Academy Award as best documentary. Then a shameful thing happened. It wasn’t even nominated by the Academy’s documentary committee. We learned, through very reliable sources, that the members of the committee had a system. They carried little flashlights. When one gave up on a film, he waved a light on the screen. When a majority of flashlights had voted, the film was switched off. “Hoop Dreams” was stopped after 15 minutes.

There was such outrage that the Academy, under attack led by the great Oscar-winning documentarian Barbara Kopple, rewrote its rules for the documentary selection process. “Hoop Dreams” wasn’t nominated, but it changed the Academy rules, it is still widely seen, and the reforms are its lasting legacy.

Lasting legacy. That legacy enabled the best documentary of 2011 to be not even nominated for an Oscar — The Interrupters, directed by guess who. Steve James.

I found a quote at Collider that Collider found at IndieWire. Ebert spoke to Matt Singer about the adaptation of his memoir:

“This dropped out of the blue. They say they have a good idea for an approach. I believe Steve James’ Hoop Dreams is one of the greatest documentaries ever made, and my hopes for this are so high. I never thought of my book as a doc. I’m keeping hands off any involvement, such as with the screenplay, because I don’t want to be a third wheel. Whatever they do I will be fascinated.”

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7 Comments

  1. September 7, 2012

    Ebert was pissed at The Interrupters’ snub as well, though. And now the rules have changed once more, again due, in part, to the efforts of a renowned documentarian. Perhaps Steve James’ new documentary Head Games could be nominated this coming year.

  2. Kevin Klawitter
    September 7, 2012

    I seriously can’t imagine a better team of filmmakers than this to make a documentary about Where’s life. It’s a friggin’ Dream Team. “Life Itself” was a great read, and I’m really interested in how James, Zaillian, and Scorsese intend to adapt it, especially since they’re EXPLICITLY using it as their basis. The book’s episodic structure probably lends itself well to documentary form, anyway.

  3. Jon
    September 7, 2012

    I love Ebert. If I could have lunch with any 5 people, living or dead, he would be one of them.

    Steve James and Martin Scorsese seem to be two of the few individuals involved in the film business who actually have a relationship with Ebert, so it is not surprising at all to see them come together to do this worthy project. Congrats Rog!

  4. AdamA
    September 7, 2012

    That story is highly disturbing. It sounds not unlike a jury room and a black defendant.

  5. Dave L
    September 9, 2012

    I wonder if he’ll review it. That would be very Kaufman-esque. :)

  6. Unlikely hood
    September 9, 2012

    15 minutes, holy f ing crap. I have often thought about that stain on the history of Oscar noms. I hope this story isn’t true, if it is it’s as big a scandal in our world as “Bush ignores Bin Laden warnings.”

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