PARK CITY, Utah—The Library Theatre Center that cuts through Park Avenue here is characterized by its intimate space and the proximity of people to the movie screen. People put up with the lack of comfort because of the promise of seeing something important, interesting or unknown take hold during the frenzied 10 days of the Sundance Film festival, the country’s most prestigious platform for independent American cinema.
On the last Sunday in January, Chris Webber was alternately reigned in and ecstatic. The five-time NBA All-Star and current studio analyst for NBA TV and TNT sat in the back, with his producing partner Peter Gilbert, in watching the world premiere of Unexpected, one of three new films produced and financed under their production company, Webber Gilbert Media Group.
Directed and co-written by Chicago-based independent filmmaker Kris Swanberg, Unexpected stars Cobie Smulders (of How I Met Your Mother) as a high school science teacher at a predominantly black South Side Chicago high school whose unplanned pregnancy is contrasted against the story of her favorite student (Gail Bean), who is also dealing with the emotional and personal consequences of a surprise pregnancy.
“Sundance makes careers, and it just made mine,” said Bean, an unknown from Atlanta in her first significant role. Webber, who also lives just outside Atlanta, knows something about electric starts. He was the NBA Rookie of the Year in 1993-94. Recasting himself as a entrepreneur and film producer marks a logical next step.
Webber made an estimated $180 million dollars in his NBA career. Since his retirement following the 2007-08 season, Webber has studied finance, investment and now film production. “I even had a restaurant,” he joked.
The film business is a volatile one, especially from a financial point. “I know we’re going to have bumps in the road, and not everything we do is going to be successful, but sitting at that premiere, you couldn’t tell me that because everything felt so good,” Webber said.
The day after the Unexpected screening, Webber and Gilbert also were on hand at the premiere of Digging for Fire, with Jake Johnson, Rosemary DeWitt and Anna Kendrick. The movie was directed and co-written by Joe Swanberg, Kris’s husband and a prolific director whose other credits include Drinking Buddies and Happy Christmas.
The third film the company financed, Queen of Earth, directed by Alex Ross Perry (Listen Up Philip) stars Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men) and debuts this month at the Berlin Film festival.
Gilbert is best known as the cinematographer and producer of the landmark Chicago high school basketball documentary Hoop Dreams. Webber is from the same high school graduation class (1991) as the two protagonists, William Gates and Arthur Agee, of that film. His path crossed with the Hoop Dreams filmmakers during the film’s making at various national camps, and he was a great admirer of the film.
Webber and Gilbert met about five years ago. The two are currently working on a first person documentary about Webber, his life and career. Webber is also writing a book that he says addresses every aspect of his personal and professional life, from the time out in the 1993 NCAA Championship game to his sometimes tumultuous professional career.
“I’ve always said this, and I hope nobody takes this the wrong way, but I only want to play with people I can lose with,” he said. “I’ve seen guys win together and then never speak to each other again. When you lose with somebody, that means you can handle every situation with integrity, you worked as hard as you could and you looked each other in the eye and then you go from there. I trust Peter, and I trust our relationship.”
The American film industry is notoriously insular and predominantly white—93 percent of the Academy members are white. As a Hollywood subset, the independent film scene tends to be even more exclusive, and the historic barriers to entry for blacks and people of color are considerable. Only one film in this year’s Sundance dramatic competition, Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, featured a primarily black cast and crew. “I understand how there’s not much color, and I understand how I’m looked at as a black representative,” Webber said.
“What we want to do is change the narrative,” he said.
As he has demonstrated from his time at Michigan, Webber is a deeply charismatic presence. Like actors, he has been in front of cameras his entire life. He seeks the obvious parallels. “The bug got me three years ago,” he said, acknowledging his own desire to write and direct fiction films. “Being an athlete and being around artists, writers and people who understand the world is bigger than their hometown, I look for the backstory in people, because you can’t just judge the book. Our whole thing is we want to empower the writers, we want to empower the directors and actors.
“Everything is about trying to be successful in business with good people and have passion projects that we believe in,” Webber added. “The first projects have been great, and I just hope we continue to follow it.”
Patrick Z. McGavin is a Chicago-based writer and film critic. He also writes on high school and college sports for the Chicago Sun-Times.