Lena Waithe has signed a big exclusive overall deal with Warner Bros. Television Group. The studio landed the producer, actor and Emmy-winning writer and her Hillman Grad Productions in a very competitive situation.
Under the multi-year pact, Waithe and partner Rishi Rajani will produce new television programming through Hillman Grad for all platforms, including WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, external streaming services, cable, and the five broadcast networks.
In her first project under the deal, Waithe is developing a scripted drama inspired by the landmark documentary film Hoop Dreams, which was directed by Steve James, and produced by James, Peter Gilbert, and Frederick Marx.
Written by Aaron Rahsaan Thomas (S.W.A.T., Friday Night Lights), the coming-of-age drama would be 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.
“Hoop Dreams was a very important documentary in my life growing up, it was right in my own backyard,” said Chicago-born Waithe, creator of Showtime drama series The Chi. “I was seeing two young Black people with dreams bigger than their backyard and watching their journeys as they also struggled and tried to understand where they fit in their families. I always knew I wanted to bring that story back because Hoop Dreams, to me, is so representative of what it means to have a dream, to be from a city that you really believe in, and you’re really proud to be from.”
Waithe and Rajani will executive produce Hoop Dreams under their Hillman Grad banner along with James, Gilbert, and Marx as well as Scott Huff, David A. Stern, and Colin Callender of Playground Entertainment and Thomas.
Having the Hoop Dreams filmmakers on board and the documentary’s subjects, William Gates and Arthur Agee, whose lives Waithe had continued to follow for years, in the loop was very important to her.
“I didn’t want to announce or talk about Hoop Dreams until they had been contacted by the filmmakers to know that we were doing this even though we aren’t going to base characters on them per se, we’re going to o something set in the 90s, some kids with a dream, so it will be in a similar vein,” Waithe said. “Iit was so important that they know that these stories will be handled with care, the title will be handled with care.”
Waithe’s approach proved key to Hillman Grad getting a Hoop Dreams adaption off the ground nearly two decades after the documentary’s release.
“We are excited to work with Hillman Grad, Playground and Warner Bros. Television on adapting Hoop Dreams into a scripted television series,” said James, Gilbert, and Marx. “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.”
Hoop Dreams, distributed by Fine Line Features, is one of many titles in the Warner Bros. library. While not the driving factor behind setting shop at the studio, having access to the Warner Bros. library provides Hillman Grad with opportunities.
“We’re not necessarily a super IP-driven company — we like to think that we can be one of the companies that’s out there aggressively advocating for original material from the artists, writers, directors that we’re working with — there may be a few little Warner Brothers properties coming down the pipeline for us as long as they match our goal and desire to tell stories that are representative of the world that we live in, and representative of Lena’s background, and my background, and the background of so many other people that don’t normally get to be heroes on screen,” Rajani said. “So, I will say, stay tuned. We’re combing through the library for sure.”
Coming off a two-year overall deal at Amazon Studios, Waithe took her time and met with a number of studios and streamers before committing to Warner Bros. Television Group.
“Warner Brothers just offered a different experience than what we were doing and being able to go to different places, which is really how we’ve operated anyway, so, it just really felt like a natural fit,” Waithe said. “We really also enjoyed our time at Amazon, being able to have all the episodes up in so many different territories all at once. [Warner Bros. TV’s] Channing and Clancy have been such champions, and they were also a huge part of that, too, because it’s not just the company, it’s the people at the company. We enjoyed working with the people at Amazon, we enjoy working with the people at Warner Brothers, and that’s really ultimately what it is, it’s a relationship, it’s a commitment to linking arms and to doing work that you both believe in.”
Hillman Grad’s Naomi Funabashi will run Film and TV with Rajani. Rocio Melara and Sylvia Carrasco will oversee upcoming WBTVG projects alongside Rajani and Funabashi.
Waithe spoke about the mission of Hillman Grad, which she named after the fictional HBCU from A Different World.
“I want people from all walks of life to tell their story, people who aren’t able-bodied, people who are of the transexperience, people who happen to be Black and queer,” she said. “We’re no longer the misfits, we’re the majority, and I think that is really what Hillman Grad is all about, to tell people that it’s your differences that make you unique, and will hopefully make you successful, and so, that’s what we want the company, in all areas, whether it be books, music, and obviously with film and TV as well, it’s really important that we’re doing something that hasn’t really been done in that marketplace before. We don’t believe in reinventing the wheel, just remixing with it.”
Hillman Grad recently expanded into music with the launch of a record label alongside Def Jam.
“Looking down the future endeavors of ours, we’re looking at the fashion space, we’re looking at branded content,” Rajani said.
In 2017, Waithe made Emmy history as the first Black woman to win for comedy series writing. She was recognized for co-writing the “Thanksgiving” episode of Master of None with co-creator/star Aziz Ansari.
Hillman Grad Productions is home to the producers behind award-winning films such as The Forty-Year-Old Version and Queen & Slim, with upcoming projects set at Netflix, BET, Disney, Amazon, Universal, Focus and MGM, including A.V. Rockwell’s feature debut A Thousand And One, starring Teyana Taylor; the Disney Studios high school basketball movie Chang Can Dunk for Disney+; a Sammy Davis Jr. biopic based on his daughter Tracey Davis’ book, Sammy Davis Jr.: My Father; and Being Mary: The Mary Tyler Moore Documentary, directed by James Adolphus and set to premiere in 2022. For television, prior to the WBTVG deal, they executive produced The Chi for Showtime, BET’s hit series Twenties, and the Amazon original series Them, as well as upcoming series Birth of Cool and Twenties the After Show hosted by B. Scott for BET+, both currently in production.
Waithe’s character was front and center in the recent third season of Master Of None, which came four years after Season 2.
“I hope it doesn’t take that long,” Waithe said about a potential fourth season of the Netflix comedy. ‘Look, Aziz and I always are in communication, so I think it’s just a matter of if something sparks, if something feels special enough, if it feels right enough for us to regather. Make no mistake, we will, and I think what people can always know is that myself, Michael Schur, Alan Yang, Aziz Ansar, Eric Wareheim, everybody involved, we are family, and we love each other, and so, we’re always going to be together, and thinking up ideas. We just don’t want to ever waste anybody’s time, so we’ll always make sure that when we do regather and huddle up again, it will be worth your wait. So, I guess stay tuned.”
Waithe is repped by Blue Marble Management, WME, Del, Shaw, Moonves, Tanaka, and Finkelstein & Lezcano. James, Gilbert, and Marx were repped by Gersh and Jackie Eckhouse at Sloss Law.
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