Sony shifts gear with Lance Armstrong documentary

From Los Angeles Times.

The studio is betting money that documenting the cyclist's comeback bid at Tour de France will capture audiences, with 'Taxi to the Dark Side's' Alex Gibney at the wheel.

Hollywood loves beat-the-odds stories, and Sony hopes that Armstrong's return to racing after a 3 1/2 -year absence could prove as enthralling as any make-believe film. The studio, best known for its "Spider-Man" franchise and a stranger to nonfiction filmmaking, is currently financing a feature documentary chronicling Armstrong's attempt to win the world's most prestigious bike race.

"What interested me was the story of his comeback -- his will," said the documentary's director, Alex Gibney, the filmmaker behind "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" and the Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side." "I wanted to understand Lance and what makes him tick. And the more I know, the more compelling the story gets."

Sony and Armstrong have a long relationship. For years, the studio has been developing a movie based on the cyclist's 2000 memoir, "It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life," which chronicles Armstrong's recovery from metastasized testicular cancer to his first Tour de France victory in 1999. The feature film, which Marshall is also producing, is now in the hands of writer-director Gary Ross ("Seabiscuit," "Pleasantville"), but has no start date or cast attached.

Columbia Pictures President Matt Tolmach is one of the industry's most avid cyclists (he has raced locally for Velo Club La Grange) and a friend of Armstrong's. When Tolmach learned in August that Armstrong was planning to return to racing -- largely to promote cancer awareness and push for increased research funding -- he saw the possibility for a captivating documentary, even if the studio wasn't in the nonfiction business.

"It's about cancer. It's about getting old. It's about proving all the naysayers wrong," Tolmach said. "It's about a comeback. It unfolds in an isolated period of time. It's all the ingredients for a documentary."

He was able to persuade his bosses Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton that a well-made movie could reach audiences far beyond the road-racing intelligentsia. "As a small movie, it struck me as having enormous commercial potential," Tolmach said of the $3.5-million production.


In shooting so much racing and the physical preparation for it, Gibney hopes to educate audiences (just as he has learned, in making the movie) on what athletes at Armstrong's level must obsess over -- critical decisions about nutrition or team politics, for example. "I think I have a peculiar ability," Gibney said, "to make complicated things understandable."

While the filmmakers and studio obviously hope Armstrong wins, they don't believe the movie's success depends on it. "The end of the movie is going to be great no matter what happens," Tolmach said. "It's about the journey."


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