By David Lewis | Thompson on Hollywood January 23, 2010 at 6:45AM
Ex-Variety.com staffer David Lewis reports on Paramount Vantage pick-up Waiting for Superman and the Q & A:
The buzz around Davis Guggenheim's latest documentary "Waiting For Superman" was already at a fever pitch by its Friday premiere, following Thursday's news that it had been acquired by Paramount Vantage (the same studio that scored with Guggenheim's previous "An Inconvenient Truth"). Waiting in line for the screening, the anticipation only increased as the rumor spread that the screening's Q&A would include a very special guest: Bill Gates.
The Microsoft chairman/philanthropist participated in the highly educational Q&A, along with Guggenheim, producer Lesley Chilcott and educator Geoffrey Canada (a major figure in the film).
The film's hard-nosed look at the United States' failing public school system -- and ways to go about fixing it -- carried over into the Q&A.
Guggenheim was happy to defer questions to Gates, even admitting "I'm so glad Bill is here!" Education reform seems to be a subject close to Gates' heart, and he spoke knowledgeably and eloquently on the subject, covering charter schools, teachers' unions and experimental alternatives to traditional public schooling.
But the session's real star was Canada, who intelligently and passionately discussed his role in the film and education reform in general. Canada, a longtime social activist, is the CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone).
The crowd stuck to the day's theme, eschewing filmmaking questions in favor of queries on education. They were clearly inspired by the film's troubling statistics and simultaneous hopeful message. Two questions came from educators -- one from a college professor, and another from a high school teacher concerned about the future role of teachers' unions (the organizations are heavily scrutinized in the film, although Gates, Canada and Guggenheim were all careful about criticizing them in the Q&A).
A major aspect of the film -- which follows five youngsters whose future educations rest on lottery-based admissions systems -- is putting a face on the nameless statistics of America's failing school systems. Canada summed it up best: "Why should a child's destiny be based on pure luck?" If Guggenheim, Gates and co. have their say, it won't.
Chilcott pleaded for viewers not to give away the film's intense ending -- a nerve-wracking finale that rivals "The Hurt Locker" in terms of suspense. After seeing it, people won't be be able to stop talking about it.
Exhilarating, heartbreaking and righteous, "Waiting for Superman" is also a kind of high-minded thriller: Can the American education system be cured? Can it be made globally competitive? Can it, at least, be made educational? A bucket of ice water in the face of politically motivated complacency, Davis Guggenheim's epic assessment of the rise and fall of the U.S. school has been bought by Paramount and will bear the Vantage imprint. While this bodes well for theatrical nonfiction overall, it also means that those who prefer can do their crying in the dark.
[Photo of Davis Guggenheim, Lesley Chilcott, Geoffrey Canada and Bill Gates at Waiting for Superman press conference by Olivia Hemeratanatorn]