Opening Friday, Universal's new film "Big Miracle," starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski, is the fictionalized retelling of the 1988 rescue of three California gray whales trapped off Barrow, Alaska, and the media circus that sprang up around the efforts to cut a path through the Arctic ice to set them free.
It was an event that united Greenpeace, the oil industry, the Reagan administration and the Soviet Union near the end of the Cold War, and a story that the film's makers are hoping will appeal to the same family moviegoers who turned up to support last year's "Dolphin Tale," a Warner Bros. title with a relatively modest budget centering on the plight of an aquatic creature that earned upward of $72 million for the studio.
Although "Big Miracle" isn't specifically aimed at the Christian community, the film might need a small miracle of its own to win the weekend at the box office -- opening as it is against "The Woman in Black," a new supernatural thriller starring Daniel Radcliffe, and "Chronicle," a found-footage movie aimed primarily at teens, not to mention Sunday's Super Bowl.
Based on the book "Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World's Biggest Non-Event" by journalist Tom Rose, the film stars Barrymore as crusading environmentalist Rachel Kramer and Krasinski as local television journalist Adam Carlson, who makes his career by breaking the whales story.
Screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler ("The Prince and Me," "Raising Helen") spent 15 years trying to bring their retelling to the screen. The duo initially was more interested in making a satire of the media business, something akin to "Wag the Dog" or "Network," but that angle didn't generate much interest since the whales and the Arctic backdrop would require CG effects and an expensive location shoot in Alaska.
It was Amiel and Begler's manager Michael Sugar and his producing partner Steve Golin who suggested the writers take a more uplifting approach. "They encouraged us to find the brighter story that would appeal to a larger audience," Amiel said. "We were still doing a true story but we were looking at it through much less jaundiced eyes."
Added Begler, "We focused more on the rescue, and the stars of the movie became the whales."
The new focus appealed to then-Warner Bros. President Alan Horn, a committed environmentalist. The studio bought the script in April 2009, even though it didn't necessarily fit into the studio's strategy of making larger tent poles featuring well-branded characters.
"What I kept telling myself was it had 'Free Willy' parallels," said Kevin McCormick, former president of production at Warner Bros., referring to the 1993 family film that earned a surprising $77 million and spawned two sequels. "It was a movie that Warners wouldn't normally make, that came out of the blue and wound up being incredibly successful."
Director Ken Kwapis ("The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") was brought on to direct, and he refined the script further, with an eye toward making a film similar to Philip Kaufman's 1983 adaptation of Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff."
"What I loved about the book and the film is that Tom Wolfe manages to satirize the hero-making machinery of NASA while at the same time he's completely in awe of space travel," Kwapis said. "It makes light of the media circus of the early space program without ever losing the majesty of space travel itself."
According to Sugar, one of the producers of "Big Miracle," Warners agreed to make the film at a budget that was "too low," and he and the other filmmakers opted to exercise a clause in their deal that allowed them to take the project to Universal.
"It seems like a simple movie, but we shot in harsh terrain in an environment with not a lot of experienced local hires, and we were working with water," Sugar said. "It was a complicated physical production."
Universal was willing to shoot the film in Alaska and pay for the special effects, including the three robotic whales that portray Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm.
According to Kwapis, Donna Langley, co-chairman of Universal Pictures, advocated for the use of real archival footage in the movie, which does contain plenty of snippets of news coverage from the era featuring the network anchors at the time, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather.
"It was an unprecedented thing to get those networks to agree to lend us the use of those clips," Kwapis said. "That was Donna's approach to the film. She felt keeping it real would make it feel fresh."
Still, despite a significant advertising spend, a tie-in with Burger King restaurants and some strong early reviews, "Big Miracle," which cost Universal close to $40 million to produce, is estimated to open to around $10 million.
Universal Co-Chairman Adam Fogelson admits the tracking for the film is soft, a fact he finds disheartening considering the positive response to the trailer and advance word-of-mouth screenings from its core audience, women of all ages.
"This was a script that everyone genuinely loved, a story everyone responded to and a filmmaking team we believed in," Fogelson said. "We were making it responsibly enough that it felt like it was worth taking a flier on."
Sugar believes "Big Miracle" will find its way. "We always hoped this film would be like 'The Blind Side,' which struck a chord with audiences because it's about people doing good things for others. Really, 'Big Miracle' is all about finding the common ground."