Emmy Award-winning screenwriter-producer Lena Waithe has signed an exclusive overall deal with Warner Bros. Television Group. The studio and the filmmaker’s Hillman Grad Productions signed the deal in a very competitive circumstance, Deadline is reporting.
Under the multi-year agreement, Waithe and her partner, Rishi Rajani will produce new television programming through Hillman Grad for all platforms. The platforms include WarnerMedia’s HBO Max, external streaming services, cable and the five broadcast networks.
For her first project under the deal, Waithe is developing a scripted drama series that’s inspired by the landmark documentary, Hoop Dreams. The film was directed by Steve James, who also served as a producer on the project with Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx.
Written by Aaron Rahsaan Thomas (S.W.A.T., Friday Night Lights), the upcoming coming-of-age television drama will follow two African American teenage boys in 1990s Chicago. They experience 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 the Chicago-born Waithe. “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. They’ll be joined by not only James, Gilbert and Marx, but also Scott Huff, David A. Stern and Colin Callender of Playground Entertainment and Thomas.
The filmmakers and subjects from the documentary, William Gates and Arthur Agee, are involved in the show’s production. Their involvement is very important to Waithe, as she continued to follow their lives for years Hoop Dreams was released in 1996. Her approach was important in Hillman Grad getting the series adaption started, nearly two decades after the documentary’s distribution.
“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 do something set in the 90s, some kids with a dream, so it will be in a similar vein,” Waithe said. “It was so important that they know that these stories will be handled with care, the title will be handled with care.”
“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, which was distributed by Fine Line Features, is one of many titles in the Warner Bros. library. While that wasn’t the driving factor behind Waithe wanting to work with the studio, having access to the Warner Bros. library will provide Hillman Grad with endless 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.”
Before Waithe committed to Warner Bros. Television Group, Hillman Grad had a two-year overall deal at Amazon Studios. She wanted to take her time in meeting with a number of studios and streaming services before the production company committed to a new deal.
“Warner Brothers just offered a different experience than what we were doing and being able to go to different places. [That’s] 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.”
Besides Hoop Dreams, Hillman Grad Productions upcoming projects set at Netflix, BET, Disney, Amazon, Universal, Focus and MGM, including A.V. Rockwell’s feature debut, A Thousand And One, which stars 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, which is being directed by James Adolphus and is set to premiere next year.
For television, prior to signing the deal with Warner Bros. Television Group, Hillman Grad Productions executive produced The Chi for Showtime, BET’s hit series Twenties and the Amazon original series Them. The production company also worked on the upcoming shows Birth of Cool and Twenties the After Show, which will be hosted by B. Scott for BET+.
In 2017, Waithe made Emmy history, as she became the first Black woman to win an award for comedy series writing. She was recognized for co-scribing the Thanksgiving episode of Master of None with co-creator-star, Aziz Ansari.
Waithe’s character of Denise was in the center of the drama in the recent third season of Master of None, which was released four years after the release of Season 2. “I hope it doesn’t take that long,” Waithe said about a potential fourth season of the Netflix comedy. “Aziz and I always are in communication, so I think it’s just a matter of if something…feels right enough for us to regather.
“I think what people can always know is that myself, Michael Schur, Alan Yang, Aziz Ansar, Eric Wareheim, everybody involved 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,” the actress added.