Two films about Steve Prefontaine, one starring Jared Leto and the other starring Billy Crudup, go neck and neck

”I’ll bet our catering bill was bigger than their entire budget,” boasts two-time Olympic runner Pat Porter. ”We had filet mignon. Crab legs. Pheasant with plum sauce. At one meal!”

Porter’s passionate discourse on craft services underscores an amazing fact: Nearly 22 years after his death, Steve Prefontaine, the charismatic long-distance runner who dominated his sport in the early ’70s, is the subject of an intense Hollywood showdown. On one side is the film in which Porter has a bit part, Warner Bros.’ estimated $25 million Pre, starring Billy Crudup (Sleepers) and directed by Robert Towne (Personal Best). Running in the next lane is Disney’s Prefontaine, starring Jared Leto (My So-Called Life) and created on an estimated shoestring $8 million budget by Steve James and Peter Gilbert, the pair responsible for the acclaimed basketball documentary Hoop Dreams. And although dueling films are nothing new (can anyone tell the trailers for Volcano and Dante’s Peak apart?), what’s surprising about the Prefontaine movies is just how bitter the competition has become between the two projects — not to mention the unlikeliness of their subject. ”We’re not talking about two Nixon movies,” says James, who wrote and directed Disney’s film. ”We’re talking about a fairly obscure guy who died 20 years ago.”

So how exactly did this obscure guy spark a multimillion-dollar brouhaha that has mixed up everyone from Tom Cruise to shoe giant Nike and divided the loyalties of the normally close-knit track-and-field community?

Back in 1977, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED writer Kenny Moore, a former Olympic runner and a friend of Prefontaine’s, was consulting on a TV movie about the late runner’s life when he called Towne for some screenwriting advice (a mutual friend put them in touch). At the time, Prefontaine seemed like a natural for a Hollywood adaptation. The Oregon-born runner had broken every American record in events from 2,000 to 10,000 meters, crusaded for the rights of amateur athletes, and was the first sports star to ever officially endorse Nike shoes. He died in a car crash in 1975 at age 24. (At the time of his death, his blood alcohol was well above the legal limit, a fact glossed over by the Disney film because of a deal with the Prefontaine estate.)

Moore’s TV project was eventually shelved, but he and Towne continued to discuss a Prefontaine film throughout the years. Then, in 1992, TV producer Jon Lutz moved from L.A. to Eugene, Ore., where Lutz became enthralled with the legend of Eugene’s most famous son. ”All the elements were there,” recalls Lutz. ”The blue-collar kid, the brashness, the big disappointment at the Munich Olympics [where Prefontaine finished fourth], the early death. The story was more interesting than anything we could make up.”

With the help of Geoff Hollister, a former Oregon runner, Lutz bought the rights to the story from the Prefontaine family. The two worked together on a Nike-financed documentary about Prefontaine called Fire on the Track, which aired on CBS in 1995. Lutz then contacted Towne and Moore, who naturally were enthusiastic about the revival of their old idea. Towne in turn talked with his friend Cruise and got him on board as a producer. (For a while Cruise even toyed with the idea of starring in the film but dropped it after realizing he was too old for the part.) But Lutz became convinced that Towne and Cruise were less than enthusiastic about the project. ”If Tom Cruise was so interested,” asks Lutz, ”why couldn’t I get my calls returned?”

Roughly around this time, Lutz also met with Disney, where he discovered that company chairman Joe Roth was a longtime fan of the runner; in fact, Roth was able to rattle off Prefontaine’s high school two-mile record from memory. “Here I was trying to find my way through the Hollywood jungle,” says Lutz, “and I’ve got one guy [Roth] whom I like very much and who really wants my project, and one who didn’t seem interested. So we made the deal with Disney.”

Towne’s group was caught by surprise, saying they had no idea how Lutz arrived at his negative impression. As Moore says, imagine “the look on Tom Cruise’s face when he heard that Tom Cruise didn’t really want to make this movie.” Undaunted by the setback, Cruise’s production company, backed by a distribution deal with Warner, decided to proceed on a rival Prefontaine film. The race was on.

Lutz quickly signed up Gilbert and James, and Prefontaine began shooting July 1. Thirty days later, Towne and Cruise started filming Pre. Needless to say, the two camps fought over resources. Warner signed the exclusive rights to shoot on the campus of Prefontaine’s alma mater, the University of Oregon, for four months, forcing James to choose between delaying filming and finding a substitute location. “They didn’t need four months,” says a bitter Hollister, who, as a technical adviser to the Disney film, was concerned about accuracy when the production had to shoot at Seattle’s University of Puget Sound.

The complexities of filming two movies about the same subject became apparent in the case of Bill Bowerman, the Oregon coach who recruited Prefontaine and later went on to become one of the founders of Nike. Played with ferocious authority by R. Lee Ermey, Bowerman is a major figure in the Disney film. But Bowerman was officially a consultant to the Warner movie, in which he is played by Donald Sutherland. So Lutz hired current Oregon coach Bill Dellinger as his technical adviser, in essence pitting two Oregon track coaches against each other. “I feel bad because [the films] caused division among a lot of Prefontaine’s old friends who felt they had to take sides,” says Lutz.

So can a winner be declared? At a glance, it appears that James’ movie, which recently premiered at Sundance, has taken the gold by virtue of crossing the finish line first. “When you’re talking about an idiosyncratic story,” says James, “to come out second would have been suicidal.” However, Prefontaine, which opened Jan. 24, earned only $320,000 at the box office its first weekend and received decidedly mixed reviews—a result, the Warner camp contends, of haste making waste. For their part, Towne and company are encouraged by Warner executives’ reaction to early footage: The studio is considering the film serious enough to open in the fall, the traditional season for Oscar contenders. (Presumably, the studio doesn’t mind the breathing room a planned September release gives them, either.)

“What we do with our movie,” says Moore, “is exalt Prefontaine for the reasons runners do, for his ferocity and intensity.” And if that’s the case, Steve Prefontaine might have enjoyed watching this competition.