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How Little Documentary "Quantum Hoops" Became a Big Ben Stiller Comedy

Photo of Dana Harris By Dana Harris | Indiewire August 18, 2011 at 2:42AM

How does a tiny documentary become a hot Ben Stiller comedy? "Quantum Hoops" was Rick Greenwald's 2007 documentary that follows the CalTech basketball team in their quest to gain a win after 21 seasons of nothing but losses. Narrated by David Duchovny, the film made the rounds on the festival circuit and earned a fair amount of press, but not a distributor; Greenwald released it himself in six cities before it played on western-region PBS.
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How Little Documentary "Quantum Hoops" Became a Big Ben Stiller Comedy
"Quantum Hoops" documentary director Robert Greenwald says he always knew the story had the potential to be "a real movie."

How does a tiny documentary become a hot Ben Stiller comedy? "Quantum Hoops" was Rick Greenwald's 2007 documentary that follows the CalTech basketball team in their quest to gain a win after 21 seasons of nothing but losses. Narrated by David Duchovny, the film made the rounds on the festival circuit and earned a fair amount of press, but not a distributor; Greenwald released it himself in six cities before it played on western-region PBS.

Four years later, it's much more likely that "Quantum Hoops" will become a familiar title to audiences: Disney bought the feature remake rights for Stiller's Red Hour Prods. and Stan Chervin ("Moneyball") is writing the script.

We spoke with Greenwald to get the backstory about how his little documentary became a big deal.

How did the deal with Disney and Ben Stiller come about?
I hooked up with an ICM literary agent named Todd Hoffman. I think specifically he repped the New York Times for turning their select articles into bigger stories -- TV shows, movies or whatnot. And he got a hold of the documentary on his own. In fact, it was actually given to his wife by a friend of mine for another reason: She had an HBO connection who watched it with her, and his first thing was, “Wow, this should be a movie.” And that’s how it started.

It’s actually been a couple of years of throwing it out there. The obvious thing to me five years ago when I started this was, “Holy cow, this is a regular movie. I don’t have the means to turn it into a real movie.” It was a documentary thing when I discovered it. That was my initial angle and as I started to do more research on it, I thought “Wow, this sits right on the fringe of Hollywood, and no one ever discovered this story. This is insane.”

The story hasn’t changed at all. One year they won the championship, but every other year for the last hundred years it’s been the exact same story, and nobody ever stumbled upon it and said, “Let’s make this into a movie.” And I don’t have those kinds of connections, so luckily, Todd started making that happen.

The first film festival we were in, the Santa Barbara Film Festival -- one of the programmers eventually left [to produce] and partnered up with a guy named Brian Truman. [Jeremy] selected us out of the whole group of submissions way back when, and still had it in the back of his mind. He kept bringing "Quantum Hoops" up, so he and I would talk periodically. Finally I said, “You just have to talk to my agent here, because you sound like you’re making all the right moves and all that stuff, and you’re very sincere with what you want to do. I’ll set you up with Todd Hoffman.”

And then I kind of had to step back. He and Brian, they kept on going, and going, and going, really enthusiastic about it. So, in a strange way, the guy who got us into our first film festival turned out to be the guy who helped shepherd this through and get it to the right people, and eventually to Ben Stiller.

How many people would you say contacted you about the rights?
You know, it’s been a lot of people. It’s been casual, made-for-TV guys, serious writers, pretend guys who would call me on their own and say “Hey, this is a movie.” And I said, “Yes, it is.” And I’d look at their credits and I couldn’t figure out who they were. Then I would pass them off to Todd and he’d call me back and say, "Absolutely not an avenue we should go down. There’s no credibility here."

His goal was a little broader than mine. Mine was just, “Let’s get something made somehow, and see if I can get attached to the movie version of this.” On the outside, there was always talk of other people talking to other players, and I knew some people, for fun, were working on spec scripts and whatnot, people that didn’t necessarily have connections. There was a local sports writer who kept wanting to come to the coach, and the coach was like, “This guy’s bugging me, he wants to do a movie. What are we going to do? He just wants to take it and run on his own.” I said, “You’ll just have to ignore him, I guess.” This is not the current coach, but the coach I featured in the documentary, who has since left.

It was always people like that hovering around us. And my fear was that at some point, it’s going to get made, even if it’s 10, 20 years down the line and that I wouldn’t be involved, even in the remote slightest way. This kind of became a labor of love and I wanted it to be associated with everything down to the end.

I don’t know what my involvement will be moving forward, if it’s going to be a crazy comedy or not. I have my dreams and hopes of how I’d how I’d like the movie to play out, but it may not be what the studio or Ben Stiller’s company is interested in. We can just keep our fingers crossed and a) hope it gets made, and b) hope it’s done as respectfully as you can. The comedy is obvious -- I have some laughs in my documentary -- just to be careful for the relationships I have with the players and the CalTech people, really cool people that I met. You don’t want to do them wrong. They’re very serious about their basketball, even if they never win, and they’re very sensitive to—they understand the nerd angle and all the jokes that come along with that. They get it, they embrace it.

An orientation film that [CalTech] has every year is "Real Genius," a Val Kilmer movie from the '80s. That’s one of the films that all the incoming freshmen watch because [in the movie] the school is called Pacific Institute of Technology, but it’s really CalTech. That’s what all the stories are based on, and it’s a fun, funny orientation film. So they get that part, but there’s some sensitivity there. You know, do you want to be made fun of for being the most epic losers in the history of sports? You can only go so far before it really becomes insulting. You have to kind of walk that line.

I definitely walked the line successfully in the documentary. I had people come up and say, “I can’t believe you didn’t go for the comedy angle on this thing.” And I’m like, “How could I shoot these kids and then turn around and turn it into a reality-type thing where you’re just going over the top?” If they didn’t say something funny or do it on their own, I rarely put my comedy spin on it.

Aside from the project being a comedy, do know any other details about it?
Not too many details. IMDb has it listed as a 2013 release date; we’re all kind of waiting to see if Ben Stiller will play the coach or be one of the stars, et cetera. That certainly will help, if we get going immediately. But the writer has been working on the script; he has the story outline already. He may have actually already finished it. He met with Ben Stiller and they laid some stuff out, so he may have it finished and they may be polishing it right now and then throwing it out there.

Would you say you’ve made more money from the deal now than you have from the documentary?
You know, it’s pretty close. I didn’t have a distributor. I self-financed it, self-released it, did way too much all on my own. We didn’t have a big money distribution deal, and my end of the deal isn’t a gigantic thing. Obviously, it comes in typical stages. You know, up front, development, and then, if it gets made, the kicker. So, I see the potential as basically evening out what I got from everything I’ve been scratching to get back with the documentary itself. So, this definitely was an opportunity to get back to square one again. Like I said, it was a labor of love; it wasn’t really about breaking the bank.

Did I want to when I started the documentary itself? Sure. You know, I was very careful on how much I spent on it. It wasn’t an endless thing, but at a certain point I realized—I had all the main distributors take a look at it, but I got lucky that people were interested in seeing it, and the documentary market started going down as I got this thing out there, and the opportunities shrunk, and shrunk, and shrunk. Even TV deals went from $15,000 to show up on TV to $0 over the course of two years. It won’t be a big moneymaker for me, but it will certainly help get back to square one and kind of move on with another project.

Do you have any other projects in mind?
I’ve got another basketball story that’s been in my back pocket for a long time that I’ve stumbled upon. But jumping back in knowing what I went through on "Quantum Hoops," you know, the road that it takes and thinking about paying for it on my own has been the challenge of moving forward. Because once I’m in, I’m going to see it through; you know, just keep going and going.

I certainly regret almost nothing of about "Quantum Hoops," but it’s a task. I have a day job and a company that I run that helped pay for everything, and that’s what I rely on. My day-to-day stuff. This is more the fun, fantasy stuff to be a part of. But I’d love to do—everybody’s asking me, “What’s your next documentary?” And it just takes so much, and I don’t know who would ever come to the table to pay me to make one. That’s a tricky proposition there. I’m just sort of waiting, I guess.

If the movie moves forward and gets made and it elevates my status, then I can start pitching things with the credits.

What has the whole experience of making this deal been like?
Well, it was interesting for sure when [Todd Hoffman] called and he said this legit director just had hit and he’s looking for his next project so we’re going to send him some copies. I’m like, okay, cool. And then you wait. At that point, you could tell that it was going to the comedy guys, the comedy actors, the comedy directors. You hope for the best, and if they’re going to go for the comedy angle, I have to let that run its course.

And you don’t know. We hit some dead ends, and [Todd] called and said this is really interesting, you know these Brian Truman and Jeremy Platt guys are really serious and they want to make this happen and they’re looking at people and knocking on doors. So it’s cool, it started getting exciting in the last six months.

If this was something I was relying on for my income, I would have been dead. You can’t place your bets on it happening, and last week, I found out while I was on vacation. I started getting texts, everyone was finding out before I did. My phone would go off when I was playing golf and I would look and say “Whoa!” I knew it was close, everything was kind of there and I had agreed on my terms. You just think something can come in and mess things up. You know, the deal’s on the table and somebody walks away at the last minute.

But, all of a sudden, there it was. It’s pretty exciting, definitely, after all this time. Now we just let everything run its course. You know, the documentary’s out there, people see it if they have access to it. The fact that people were interested in making a movie means that there will always be continued life for the documentary itself. Let’s say the movie gets made, it’s based on the documentary and the comedy isn’t people’s taste, well, the documentary didn’t get taken away; it’s right here. Go see it.

Here's the "Quantum Hoops" documentary trailer:


You can order "Quantum Hoops," the documentary, here.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit