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What Happens in the Bleachers Stays in the Bleachers

Will the hassle of dealing with Major League Baseball bury a documentary about Cubs superfan Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers?

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Just days before the Cubs season opener in 2005, amateur filmmaker Paul Hoffman premiered his documentary about Chicago Cubs superfan Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers at a gala benefit at the Chicago Historical Society.

Over the previous five years, Hoffman had managed to burrow below the cartoonish persona Wickers cultivated in the Wrigley Field bleachers to reveal a complex person who could endure anything life threw at him—including years of sleeping in a box on Lower Wacker —as long as he had a bleacher seat in time for the first pitch. Hoffman and Wickers were at the screening of the 90-minute film, Woo Life: One Life Saved by the Game of Baseball, as was Negro Leagues baseball legend Buck O'Neil, who gave a speech. The film was covered on Channel 32 and in the Sun-Times. And before the night was over Hoffman had raised $15,000 for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Hoffman figured it was only a matter of time before his project found a distributor and brought further attention—and money—to a cause near to his heart, the plight of Chicago's homeless. But in fact, in three years' time he'd be sitting on a thousand copies of the film.

Hoffman, a native of Schererville, Indiana, and a 41-year-old Cubs fan who suffered through the heartbreaks of 1984 and 1989, was familiar with Wickers's public persona long before he decided to zoom in on his life. For decades Ronnie "Woo Woo" Wickers has attended games at Wrigley Field—more than 3,000 of them—in full uniform (including shoes donated by former Cubs right fielder Andre Dawson), delighting some fans and annoying others with his high-pitched "Woo!" chant.

Hoffman's former college roommate at Indiana University, Lou Stanczak, had befriended Wickers and would take him to Notre Dame football games, typically returning with anecdotes about Chicago baseball's zaniest superfan. At a Fourth of July barbecue in 2000, Stanczak told Hoffman Woo Woo's backstory: how he recalled being raised by an abusive mother on the south side; how he'd fallen in love with baseball on trips to Wrigley Field with his grandmother to see Jackie Robinson play for the Brooklyn Dodgers; how years later he'd ended up cheering for the Cubs during the afternoon, working as a janitor at Northwestern University in the evenings, and retiring late at night to his cardboard box downtown.

Hoffman was a big fan of documentaries, and, dissatisfied with his job as a hospital software salesman, he'd often contemplated venturing into filmmaking. Not long before that barbecue, he'd driven from Chicago to the Grand Canyon, taking the time to reflect on where his life was headed. When Stanczak told him about Wickers, Hoffman found a direction.

Wasting little time, Hoffman got himself introduced to Wickers and began stockpiling footage later that month. He bought a camera and signed up for a film class at Columbia College. When Wickers went to New York City for an appearance on Howard Stern, Hoffman tagged along. He made plans to film Wickers cheering for the Iowa Cubs minor-league team and easily got the club's management to sign a "location release" granting Hoffman the rights to anything he shot at the stadium. And of course he filmed Wickers "wooing" in the Wrigley Field bleachers.

Wickers, meanwhile, was working toward a goal of his own. For years he'd wanted to sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" as a guest conductor during the seventh-inning stretch at Wrigley Field. Celebrities and local newsmakers—even high school sports championship teams—had been offered the microphone, but the Cubs had resisted the idea of letting Wickers sing.

John McDonough, an executive with the Cubs who would later become the club's president, finally relented. But he wanted to lay down some ground rules. He asked for a meeting with Wickers in early May of 2001, and he wanted it private—no cameras. He said Hoffman could film a "reenactment" of the meeting afterward. McDonough and Wickers reached an agreement, and the date was set for Wickers's seventh-inning stretch performance—May 24.

Now that he'd established contact with Cubs management, Hoffman proffered a location release so he could shoot inside Wrigley Field. He assumed getting it signed would be a formality. But a few days later, he says, McDonough left him a voice mail: there was no way he was signing anything. (McDonough, now the president of the Chicago Blackhawks, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

So Hoffman got access to the game through a connection he had in the Cubs media relations department. What he captured on film was an event fraught with tension. The Cubs requested that Wickers not be delivered to Wrigley via limousine, as had been arranged by Janet Tabit, a friend of his who sometimes serves as his de facto agent. Someone posted a no wooing sign on the press box. And the Cubs official who nervously guided Wickers through the process asked him not to woo and broke the news that afterward he would not have the customary on-air visit with the Cubs announcers.

Through it all, Hoffman's camera was rolling. He knew he'd face a battle if he ever wanted the footage to see the light of day, but he also knew he was getting the backbone of his documentary.

By that winter, when Hoffman moved to Los Angeles for his job in sales, he had 300 hours of footage. The following summer a thrilling coincidence energized his work. One night he stayed up into the wee hours watching Baseball, the epic documentary by Ken Burns. Hoffman was particularly enthralled by a segment on Jackie Robinson and the civil rights battle in baseball, in which an aging, charismatic Negro Leagues star named Buck O'Neil steals the show. Hoffman watched O'Neil's interviews multiple times, fascinated by his ability to spin a yarn.

The very next day Hoffman received a call from Janet Tabit. She and Wickers had run into O'Neil at an event in Chicago. Did Hoffman know who that was? O'Neil loved the idea of a documentary on Wickers and was hoping Hoffman could interview him for it. Within days Hoffman was on the road, driving from southern California to O'Neil's home in Kansas City.

Eventually Hoffman moved to San Francisco, where he took more film classes, tapping his professors for help on the Woo Woo project. By the spring of 2005 he had spent $150,000 and countless hours on the film, and finally he had something he was ready to show. Things seemed to come together quickly then. The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless helped him arrange the benefit screening at the Chicago Historical Society. Hoffman needed a licensing agreement from Major League Baseball that covered film festivals and academic screenings, and since all of the proceeds from the event would be going to charity, MLB was amenable.

A commercial release, he figured, would be another matter entirely. Hoffman never imagined he'd get rich from the movie, but he did hope to bring in enough to make some charitable donations and begin covering his costs. If by chance the movie hit pay dirt, he planned to split the profits with Wickers. Since he didn't have the cash for a legal battle, for the next two years he looked for a large distributor to buy the movie and with it any legal and licensing complications that might arise. One company, Emerging Pictures, expressed strong interest but backed off over concerns about tangling with the Cubs.

Finally, unable to land a distributor, Hoffman began looking into releasing the film on his own. In April 2007 he contacted Major League Baseball's licensing division and asked how he could get approval to use footage shot inside Wrigley Field. The licensing fees, he discovered, were enormous—thousands of dollars a minute, even for non-game footage.

"Based on our review," he was told in an e-mail, "there is roughly 15 minutes of non-baseball footage filmed in Wrigley while the gates are open. For us to ignore this footage would be a complete change in current MLB policy."

By late last summer, after a series of exchanges, Hoffman realized he wouldn't be able to get MLB to lower its rights fees on his own. That's when he got help from a friend of Janet Tabit's, Joe Ponsetto. A lawyer who worked in the Illinois attorney general's office, Ponsetto was also a long-time friend of Wickers's—they had met at a basketball game in the mid-70s when Ponsetto played for DePaul. He's kept in contact with Wickers ever since, hiring him to entertain at birthday parties and other events. Ponsetto met Hoffman when he was filing paperwork with the attorney general's office detailing the film's charitable intentions. "I was impressed with Paul and what seemed to be the underlying motive of his project," Ponsetto says, "which was not trying to make a million-dollar profit off of some movie."

Ponsetto steered Hoffman to Northwestern University's Bluhm Legal Clinic, where law professor Sam Tenenbaum set three of his students to work negotiating pro bono with Major League Baseball. (The students, per NU policy, are restricted from speaking with the press.) "My prayers were answered," Hoffman says.

In negotiations with the Northwestern team MLB offered to reduce its $6,000-per-minute rate for non-game-footage to $3,000 per minute. The student legal team kept negotiating until February, when MLB agreed to a flat fee of $5,000 in return for being able to show the film when it launches its MLB-TV cable channel in 2009.

Believing he'd triumphed, Hoffman had 1,000 DVDs of Woo Life pressed. He planned to begin selling them on opening day.

Wrigleyville sprang to life the morning of April 2 as people filled the bars, restaurants, and streets hours before game time. Mere feet from the ballpark, Hoffman's documentary was on sale in the Wrigleyville Sports shop on Addison. Hoffman also put the DVDs up for sale on his Web site. Half of the proceeds would go to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and a college fund for Wickers's daughter; the rest Hoffman would keep until he'd recovered some of the costs of making the film.

About 60 copies of the film were purchased over the next three weeks. Then the Northwestern legal advisers passed on another bit of news from Major League Baseball that hit Hoffman like a Kerry Wood fastball to the ribs. On top of the licensing fees, Hoffman would be required to purchase insurance if he wanted to sell his film. Hoffman could afford the discounted $5,000 licensing fee. He could not afford $20,000 more to cover himself against the possibility of a lawsuit tied to the content of Woo Life. The movie was pulled from the shelves and no longer listed for sale on the Web site. The movie was back under wraps.

Not long ago Hoffman was in contact with a vice president for acquisitions at another film company, renewing hope that a third-party distributor could still come in and take on the fight, but then the company backed down, fearing costly legal problems. Hoffman's also had preliminary discussions with the publishers of StreetWise about a distribution deal. As he envisions it, the newspaper's homeless vendors would offer the DVD outside Wrigley Field in exchange for a small donation, which would go directly to charity. His legal advisers are waiting to hear whether MLB would waive all its fees under these circumstances.

Hoffman notes that there are 21 newspapers for the homeless in the United States. These days he dreams not of Sundance or Cannes but of vendors nationwide handing out Woo Life DVDs for spare change.v

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