Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sonicsgate: World Premiere Screening Report

All right, so it looks like it's Movie Week here at The Painted Area. On Friday night, we made our way over to SIFF Cinema in Seattle for the second time in three nights, this time to catch the world-premiere screening of Sonicsgate, the new documentary film chronicling the dastardly events and characters which precipitated the move of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City.

[Note 1: Sonicsgate was screened in Seattle on Friday and Saturday nights. It was released online on Sunday night at midnight, and the not-for-profit film is available to be viewed for free at]

[Note 2: On Wednesday at SIFF Cinema, we saw a screening of the documentary More Than A Game, about the inseparable friends who comprised the champion St. Vincent's-St. Mary's high school basketball team in Akron, Ohio, headlined by LeBron James. Here's our report.]

It was an energetic evening at SIFF Cinema. Members of the Seahawks' "Blue Thunder" drumline were outside the cinema to pump up the energy, former Sonics dance-team members were posing for photos, and prominent members of the local media were on hand as well.

The screening started off in raucous fashion, with hearty boos for the first on-screen images of chief villains like Howard Schultz, Clay Bennett, David Stern, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, and Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire, and cheers for the first appearances of Sonics heroes like Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, George Karl, and longtime broadcaster Kevin Calabro.

Things settled down as the sobering story developed. Ubiquitous Seattle sports superfan Lorin "Big Lo" Sandretzky was there - in the front row, of course - and noted in the Q&A session after the documentary that it was as if the filmmakers had created a kind of funeral for the fans.

Filmmakers Jason Reid and Adam Brown are shown above accepting a standing ovation from the audience following the screening. Reid noted prior to the screening that the film was so "hot off the presses that we haven't even seen it." In a story by Percy Allen in the Seattle Times on Friday, Reid confessed that there were two issues with the film: it's too long, and it's depressing.

Regarding the length, we'd have to agree. Sonicsgate clocked in at about two hours - the biggest problem we had was that it took way too long to get into the heart of the story. There is a good 30-40 minutes of general Sonics history and back story which should probably be shrunk down to about 5. (We'd also love to see the pricelessly cheesy "Sonics Basketball" song which led off the trailer (see below) added into the film!)

As far as Sonicsgate being depressing, well, it's complicated. Once the film got into the core story of the Sonics move, I thought that the filmmakers did a fine job of piecing together the multiple intersecting characters, events, self-interests, and issues which comprise this complex story.

Sonicsgate is leavened by humor from interviews with the likes of author Sherman Alexie (who referred to the infamous Jim McIlvaine signing as "the original sin, the apple in the Garden of Eden"), and the greatest Sonic of them all, Gary Payton (much like on NBA TV, Sonicsgate really can't get enough Gary), as well as others. Beyond the fact that Sonicsgate is what it is, I didn't find it overly depressing, per se; I saw it as a well-told story with an inevitable unhappy ending for Seattle basketball fans.

Reid and company certainly did an impressive job with an exhaustive set of interviews of characters on all sides of the issue. There was an impressive array of ex-players such as GP and crowd favorite Sam Perkins, prominent local media, city officials and activists. None of the chief villains noted above agreed to talk, though people like Wally Walker (who committed Alexie's original sin and was originally part of the sale to Clay Bennett, before joining the group which later tried to force Bennett to sell) did speak.

In my opinion, Alexie was the star interviewee - really the poet laureate of the film with his heartfelt observations, as he coined phrases like saying that the ceaseless chanting of "Save Our Sonics" at the final home game were "pitiful cries to disinterested gods... far too late."

As noted, The Glove was entertaining as well, and broadcaster Calabro was a recurring voice of sobering reason throughout.


I was wondering going in if Sonicsgate was going to be overly biased from the perspective of an angry fan. It was not, it covered all angles fairly, and if anything, illuminated that there are still no easy solutions.

Many fans have difficulty accepting that Key Arena is an inadequate venue, given that it's a great place to watch a game and is less than 15 years old in its current incarnation. However, people across the spectrum like Brian Robinson (head of Save Our Sonics), Calabro, and journalist Percy Allen all agreed in the film that the Key is no longer viable as an NBA arena because it is much too small in terms of square footage to maximize the varied revenue streams which much larger arenas have.

Meanwhile, the public - after funding $1 billion worth of stadiums in the past 15 years - has been adamant in not spending further money on a successor or a renovated arena. When Washington State Speaker Frank Chopp was quoted in the film as saying that sports arenas were not as important as things like health care, education and other social services, it's frankly hard to argue with him (even though it's somewhat disingenuous because a new arena would be funded with an existing tax on hotels/restaurants that's paying for Safeco Field/Qwest Field, and would otherwise expire, but still).

That's still the intractable issue: the arena. Seattle will easily get a new team with a viable arena, but Seattle shows no signs of progressing toward a viable arena.

A major problem is that the atmosphere was so poisoned by Howard Schultz - who made a weak, ham-handed effort to sell arena funding to the public and the legislature - and Clay Bennett - who actively and purposely did nothing to same - that even good public policy like the plan floated by the proposed (Microsoft CEO) Steve Ballmer group was dismissed by the public.

Alexie can say that McIlvaine was the original sin. I still say that Schultz selling the team to an Oklahoma group instead of a local group such as one headed by Ballmer was not only the original sin, but also the one singular sin which put all the other events in motion. I hold Howard Schultz responsible for the departure of the Sonics far, far beyond any other individual.


A couple quibbles, as I was surprised that these events were not included in the film, as I thought they were key moments in poisoning public perception:
1. Feb. 2006: Howard Schultz goes on a frontal assault driven by sheer ego, delivering ultimatums to public officials as he claims that "the city and state officials are not showing us the kind of respect we feel we deserve."

Consider that this round of interviews was conducted during the week that the Seahawks were in the Super Bowl, when the mood in the city was excited and positive, and it was maybe the most ham-handed political effort that I've ever seen.

2. Apr. 2006: David Stern is quoted as saying that "[Seattle] is not interested in having the NBA there." It was meant to be the kind of quote to shock the city into action, but it backfired. Again, it was a frontal assault that galvanized public opinion against the Sonics, if anything, and I thought it was the moment at which the area turned against the commissioner permanently.

If you're a basketball fan, though, those quibbles shouldn't be enough to keep you away from Sonicsgate. The film is a worthy document of this sordid story. And it's not-for-profit - Reid and friends created the film out of the passion that this story needed to be told and documented. Show 'em some love and go over to and give it a watch.

Other notes:
- Sonicsgate has a terrific soundtrack featuring hip-hop artists from the developing Seattle scene - you can listen to all those tracks at

- Jason Reid also directed the recent documentary film Man Zou: Beijing to Shanghai, a "story of four Americans who, immediately following the Olympics, travel by bicycle between China's two largest cities to learn more about the Chinese people, their culture and the rapidly changing environment in which they live."


At 9:12 AM, Blogger Michael Jaffe said...

great flick

At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

+1, great movie, well played Reid and company, well played

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