After Julia Roberts turned down the starring role, executives at 20th Century Fox met with writer-director John Lee Hancock with a plan for "fixing" the script for his proposed movie "The Blind Side": Why not change the leading part from a pistol-packing Southern supermom to a man and redraft the film as a father-son story?
It didn't matter that the film was based on the life of Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white Memphis interior decorator who along with her family adopted a 350-pound, homeless African American teenager, Michael Oher, and helped him become an academic success and football phenomenon who today starts for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. If Roberts didn't want to do the movie, they would only make it with a male lead.
Hancock relates this story, which Fox denies, and says it was the nadir of his long struggle to get the film made, but that he understood the studio's unease. "The Blind Side" was "a feathered fish" that didn't fit their marketing pigeonholes. "It's not really a sports movie, although it's got sports in it. It's also not a chick flick," though it was written for a female star. "My take on it was . . . there was something for everybody," Hancock said. "That's a suspicious thing for people to hear. They don't trust that."
Hancock, of course, turned out to be right, beyond even his wildest expectations. With a box office gross of $220 million and counting, it is a surprise hit, a potential Oscar contender and the envy of studio execs all over town. It has helped reignite Sandra Bullock's career and made Alcon, the tiny independent production and finance company that made the movie after the majors rejected it, look like the smartest kid in class.
The perceived box office weaknesses of "The Blind Side" turned out to be its strengths. The film is attracting a diverse audience, people who might live together but rarely attend the same movies: football fans, older women, infrequent filmgoers and that huge swath of the American public that attends church every Sunday.
Hancock, 52, thinks there is a lesson here for a film industry fixated on "event" movies and multi-film "franchises."
"To the studios, it's an anathema. It can't be a real movie unless it cost hundreds of millions of dollars and has to have all the effects, and 16-year-old boys need to want to see it to be successful. That simply isn't true."
But the saga of the making and selling of the film is a story of coincidence, luck, unconventional thinking and a willingness to take risks rarely ventured by corporate-owned major studios.
"The Blind Side" began as a nonfiction book by Michael Lewis about the evolution of the left tackle position in football. The story of Oher and the Tuohy family was just part of it, but that was what "gripped me," Hancock said. "Leigh Anne and Michael and their affection for one another. I kept thinking that Michael and Leigh Anne were alike. They didn't look backwards, always forwards."
A well-known screenwriter, Hancock had made his directorial debut with the successful sports drama "The Rookie." But at the time of "The Blind Side's" beginnings, he was coming off a career-denting flop with "The Alamo." He turned in his first-draft screenplay in fall 2007, and by summer 2008, the project lay dead on the Fox development heap.
Finally, a taker
An agent at CAA slipped the script to Molly Smith, a producer at Alcon, which had made such modestly budgeted, wholesome and moderately successful films as "My Dog Skip" (produced by Hancock) and "Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." Run by Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson, Alcon is financially backed by Smith's father, Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx. In fact, Fred Smith's youngest son, Cannon, dates the Tuohys' daughter Collins, and the Memphis-based Smiths and the Tuohys are old friends.
Kosove, Alcon's co-president, saw the script as a female empowerment tale, like the company's "Traveling Pants" movies, but, more important, as a family film that, with the right budget and cast, could turn a reasonable profit.
"It's about an unusual family and good Samaritanism and giving," said Kosove, a diminutive 39-year-old white Philadelphian who has been business partners for the last decade with his Princeton buddy, Johnson, 42, who happens to be a mammoth African American from Georgia. "To be clear, we thought it could make $75 million, not $200 million," Kosove said. "We didn't think it would do this."
Alcon waited six weeks while CAA extracted "The Blind Side" script out of Fox, shopped it to Disney, which passed, and finally deposited it on the production company's doorstep. Alcon, which fully finances its own films, weighed whether it could afford Bullock, whom Hancock had interested in the script. Johnson in particular thought Bullock was needed to give the project big-screen credibility.
"My biggest fear was that the movie would somehow be perceived as a Lifetime [television] movie, that it didn't have theatrical scope. I really believed that with Sandra Bullock in this movie, one plus one is four." Bullock also brought comedic chops to the sassy Leigh Anne Tuohy character and would telegraph to her fan base that "The Blind Side" wasn't just a sentimental, earnest, do-gooder film.
But Bullock's standard fee was $10 million plus 10% of the gross, and Alcon's budget for the entire production was $35 million.
Alcon instead offered Bullock $5 million upfront and a bigger slice of the profits, including DVD sales. The actress climbed on board, and "The Blind Side" looks to be her biggest payday ever, more than $25 million. Hancock, who also took profit-participation, will earn in the mid-seven figures.
Weeks before production was set to start in Atlanta in April 2009, Warner Bros., which distributes Alcon's films, offered the producers a release date of the Friday before Thanksgiving because its planned holiday film, "Cats and Dogs 2," had been pushed back. Alcon quickly accepted the family-friendly date, even though it put the company's movie opposite the highly anticipated "Twilight" sequel, "New Moon."
It was another gamble, one that had some of Hancock's friends rolling their eyes in disbelief. But Dan Fellman, Warner's president of domestic distribution, wanted the film to come out during football season and argued that it would attract older women, rather than "Twilight's" rabid horde of adolescent girls.
To make the Thanksgiving deadline, Hancock had to rush through post-production, and he limited his test-marketing previews to one, in the Navy town of Coronado, across the bay from San Diego. "I was hoping the audience would be at least 60% women," Hancock recalls. "It wasn't. I saw a bunch of Marines coming in and thought, 'Oh no, they're going to expect a rock 'em, sock 'em football movie.' "
But when the comment cards were returned, 88% said they would definitely recommend the film to friends.
Bolstered by the preview, Alcon marketers devised a promotion campaign that used extensive pre-release screenings to develop word-of-mouth endorsements, often in communities overlooked in movie marketing. Using Hancock's "something for everyone" model, Alcon promoted the film in a variety of niche markets hoping they would come together in the theater.
There were screenings for football fans, sportscasters and sports opinion makers. With country music singer Tim McGraw cast as husband Sean Tuohy in the film, Alcon showed the movie at a big red-carpet event in Nashville hosted by McGraw and his wife, country star Faith Hill; ran a special, extra-long preview clip during the Country Music Awards; and gave away tickets through country music radio stations.
Alcon's marketing head, Richard Ingber, also insisted that Alcon go after a faith-based audience.
"The real-life Tuohys are evangelical Christians. The fact that the movie portrayed that but also showed them as regular people was deeply appealing to the religious audience that feels they get portrayed too extremely in movies," Kosove said.
Alcon hired a religious marketing firm, Grace Hill, which screened the film extensively for pastors and religious opinion-makers and set up a website where ministers could find sermon notes and spiritual study guides based on "The Blind Side." Ultimately, 23,000 pastors downloaded material from the site.
Kosove and Johnson also said that the film played well in the African American community, although there has been some commentary in the media that it exemplifies white paternalism. Kosove points out that the movie has been nominated for four Image awards from the NAACP.
The African American audience, Johnson said, responded to Michael Oher's tenacity, not just in football but academically. "It's not like he just got a handout," Johnson said. "It's not just Leigh Anne and the Tuohys doing it for him."
In addition to the screening program, the studio ran television commercials emphasizing the movie's comedic elements. The film generated little advance buzz in big media hubs, and reviews were middling, but services that track pre-release awareness of movies showed a level of interest so high Johnson and Kosove didn't believe them.
"If I was looking at those numbers and it wasn't my movie, I'd say this movie is going to open at $30 million, but that's impossible," Johnson told Kosove.
"The Blind Side" opened nationwide Nov. 20, and by that night, Fellman of Warner Bros. had gotten the film's Cinemascore, which gauges how paying audiences were responding. It had earned an "A+", the only film other than "Up" to do so in 2009. "The Blind Side" grossed $34 million during its opening weekend, far behind "New Moon's" $143 million but enough to grab the attention of Hollywood.
Ticket sales were soft in major cities, where the industry typically measures its box office success, but huge in places such as Sacramento and Plano, Texas. By Thanksgiving break, the film had expanded its appeal to all states and has remained in the top 10 for the last nine weeks.
Although the film has shown broad appeal, the first weekend's audience was 65% women over 35, a demographic consistently underserved in the movie marketplace.
Genuinely uplifting films, particularly ones that come with an unusual true story and striking visuals (like a white supermom and a gigantic African American football player) are hard to replicate, notes DreamWorks Chairman Stacey Snider.
But "The Blind Side" is a "good reminder," she says, "that if you find something that moves you deeply on a personal level and offers something novel, despite the fact that it is a genre that is not popular -- drama -- driven by a demographic you mistrust -- adult women -- you should cast those concerns aside."
"The world doesn't revolve around the coasts, even though if you live here, you think that it does," Kosove added. "There's a whole wide country that wants wholesome entertainment. They want a movie that speaks to the better part of human nature."