To gage what effect "Tyson" would have on audiences, James Toback asked the opinions of the film's opposite demographic: older white women who were disinterested in boxing. He asked that they come to his editing suite and watch the film. If they left after 5 minutes, Toback would give them $100 USD. If they stayed after 5 minutes, they would have to stay for the whole picture - and give Toback extensive feedback on the film. According to Toback, not one woman left after 5 minutes, and many were in tears by the film's finale.
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James Toback, who had known Mike Tyson since Tyson was 19, financed the film with his own funds and shot thirty hours of footage in the process.
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In an April 2009 Q&A at a Century City, CA screening for the film, director James Toback recalled Tyson's reaction at the first screening. Tyson initially sat in silence for several minutes, then remarked: "it's like a Greek tragedy, only I'm the subject".
Director James Toback wanted to get Tyson talking while he was completing rehab, as he felt Tyson would be more clear-headed and willing to speak about some of his life's darker moments. Furthermore, Toback and Tyson had the understanding that no topic would be off limits, nor would Tyson have any say over what footage made the final cut.
"Tyson" received only one distribution offer during its run on the festival circuit, from Sony Classics Pictures. After Toback accepted the offer, the film screened at the Cannes Film Festival and received a 10 minute standing ovation. Many of the executives who initially passed on the film were at that screening.