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Originally published October 8, 2009 at 6:03 PM | Page modified October 8, 2009 at 9:16 PM

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"Sonicsgate" documentary tells tragic tale of losing Seattle's NBA team

Moviegoers will get their first glimpse tonight when the two-hour film premieres at SIFF Cinema. It goes online Oct. 12.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A few days before tonight's screening, filmmaker Jason Reid worked frantically in the living room of his Georgetown-neighborhood house to fix two major problems with his latest documentary "Sonicsgate," which takes an in-depth look at how Seattle lost its NBA team.

The first problem: It's too long.

Reid conducted over 38 interviews and shot 25 to 30 hours of original footage. He had hoped the documentary would be 60 minutes, and then decided on 80. On Tuesday, the film clocked in at well over two hours.

Moviegoers will get their first glimpse tonight when "Sonicsgate" premieres in front of a sold-out crowd at SIFF Cinema. Reid scheduled a second screening Saturday at Pacific Place before the Oct. 12 online release at www.sonicsgate.org.

"We'll get this under 120 minutes," Reid promised. "But seriously, this movie could be an 8-hour miniseries. We have enough detail and information to do it. We could easily do four hours."

The film's other problem: It's depressing.

This dilemma is little more difficult to solve because in many ways, "Sonicsgate" is an unconventional love story told in three acts.

Act I: Seattle meets Sonics, falls in love and celebrates an NBA championship.

Act II: Oklahoma City tycoon Clay Bennett (you can almost hear Darth Vader's Imperial March theme in your head every time he's on the screen) buys the team from Starbucks mogul Howard Schultz.

Act III: Seattle sues Bennett. Seattle settles lawsuit. Roll credits.

You see the problem? There's no resolution. Or at least, there's no happy ending. And what Sonics fan wants to relive the horror of watching their favorite team being ripped away all over again?

Film editor Darren Lund said there's no getting around it, "Sonicsgate" "is a sad film."

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"We spent a lot of time the last few days talking about the ending needs to be sadder and that it needs to be devastating," Lund said. "And there is a certain element to that. It's a tragedy, and I believe that people should — especially at the end of the film — feel like we got screwed. Like Sonics fans here got screwed. And it's sad."

"Sonicsgate" gives you heroes and villains, minus the white or black hats.

Brian Robinson, the co-founder of the grass-roots group Save Our Sonics, comes across as the people's champion caught in the middle of a multimillion-dollar tug-of-war between Seattle-area politicians and the NBA.

Bennett, Schultz, mayor Greg Nickels and NBA commissioner David Stern are not favorably portrayed. Not coincidentally, they declined to be interviewed for the film.

"I would have loved to have had more of their story," Lund said. "I assume that they would say Seattle dropped the ball. That we need public subsidies to be able to do this. The other side of that coin, do they need subsidies or are they basically extorting the money from cities? Obviously it would have been better to have had David Stern say it for our camera as opposed to pulling his quotes from news conferences, but that essential conflict is in the film."

And there are victims: Sonics fans.

"Ultimately, this movie is for them," Reid said. "So they know the truth about what happened to their team."

Reid, 31, grew up a Sonics fan in the 1990s, and he became infatuated with the Sonics story while filming videos for the Seattle Weekly and covering the 2008 trial between the city of Seattle and Bennett.

"That's when I started thinking this story is getting really compelling and I'm going to document as much as I can," Reid said. "Just basically being there for history. ... It was in my head that I was going to be the one to make this movie because I've been there and I have the passion to do it."

Reid worked with Lund for the 2007 feature narrative film "Haymaker and Sally" and the documentary "Man Zou: Beijing to Shanghai," which they hope to release in 2010. They teamed with Adam Brown, who worked with Save Our Sonics, for the Sonics documentary, began filming four months ago and completed the project for less than $10,000.

"If I had to lose my team, I guess I'd want to have it happen in this way because losing it was so interesting every step of the way," Reid said. "It's hard to not use the perfect-storm analogy because that's what it was. I couldn't have imagined it being written better.

"As a filmmaker, this is just gold. As a storyteller, I was fascinated by the story. As a fan, it's been really interesting trying to disconnect my passion for the team and getting the team ripped away to being able to tell the story objectively as a great story. Because it is a great story. But in all honesty, I'd rather have the team than to be able to tell this story."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

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