After Julia Roberts turned down the lead role, 20th Century Fox executives huddled with writer-director John Lee Hancock to "fix" the script for his proposed film The Blind Side: why not change the role? Grab the southern supermother for a guy with a gun and turn the movie into a father-son story?
It didn't matter that the film was based on the life of Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white interior designer from Memphis who, along with her family, adopted a homeless, 350-pound African-American teenager, Michael Oher, and helped him settle down ... became a academic success and a football phenomenon who is now a starter for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. If Roberts didn't want to do the film, they would only do it with a male lead.
Hancock tells this story, which Fox denies, saying it was the low point in his long struggle to make the film, but that he understood the studio's unease. "The Blind Side" was "a feathered fish" that didn't fit his marketing pigeonholes. "It's not actually a sports film, although it does have sports in it. It's also not a women's film," despite being written for a female star. "My opinion on that was. . . There was something for everyone," Hancock said. "It's suspicious for people. You don't trust him."
Hancock was right, of course, and exceeded even his wildest expectations. Grossing $220 million and counting, it's a surprise hit, a potential Oscar contender and the envy of studio executives across town. It helped revitalize Sandra Bullock's career and made Alcon, the small independent production and finance firm that produced the film after the majors turned it down, look like the brightest kid in the class.
The supposed weaknesses at the box office of "The Blind Side" turned out to be its strengths. The film attracts a diverse audience, people who may live together but rarely watch the same films: football fans, older women, infrequent moviegoers, and the large segment of the American public that goes to church every Sunday.
Hancock, 52, thinks there's a lesson here for a film industry fixated on "event" films and multi-film "franchises."
"It's anathema to the studios. It can't be a real movie unless it costs hundreds of millions of dollars and has all the effects and 16-year-olds have to want to see it to be successful. That is simply not true.
But the story of the film's production and sales is one of chance, luck, unconventional thinking and a risk-taking seldom taken by large, corporate-owned studios.
The Blind Side began as a non-fiction book by Michael Lewis about the evolution of left tackle position in football. The story of Oher and the Tuohy family was only part of it, but that's what "hung me," Hancock said. “Leigh Anne and Michael and their affection for one another. I always thought Michael and Leigh Anne looked alike. They never looked back, they always looked ahead.”
A well-known screenwriter, Hancock made his directorial debut on the hit sports drama The Rookie. But by the time The Blind Side started, he had had a career flop with The Alamo. He submitted his first draft of the script in the fall of 2007, and by the summer of 2008 the project was dead in Fox's development heap.
Finally a taker
A CAA agent gave the script to Molly Smith, an Alcon producer who had made sane and moderately successful films like My Dog Skip (produced by Hancock) and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants on modest budgets. Alcon is led by Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson and assisted by Smith's father, Fred Smith, founder of FedEx. In fact, Cannon, Fred Smith's youngest son, is dating the Tuohys' daughter Collins, and the Memphis Smiths and the Tuohys are old friends.
Alcon co-president Kosove saw the script as a story of female empowerment, like the company's Traveling Pants films, but more importantly, as a family film that could make a decent profit with the right budget and cast.
"It's about an unusual family, a good Samaritan and a giving," said Kosove, a petite white Philadelphian, 39, who has been a business partner for a decade with his Princeton boyfriend Johnson, 42, who happens to be an African giant. Georgia American. "To be clear, we thought it might bring in $75 million, not $200 million," Kosove said. "We wouldn't have thought thatbe.“
Alcon waited six weeks for CAA to extract the script for The Blind Side from Fox, buy it to Disney, who approved it, and finally deposited it on the production company's doorstep. Alcon, which finances its films entirely on its own, considered paying Bullock, whom Hancock had interested in writing the script. Johnson, in particular, felt that Bullock was necessary to give the project credibility on the big screen.
“My biggest fear was that the film would somehow be perceived as a Lifetime [TV] film that lacked theatrical reach. Bullock also lent comedic flair to Leigh Anne Tuohy's cheeky character and telegraphed to her fan base that The Blind Side wasn't just a cheesy, serious do-gooder film.
But Bullock's standard royalties were $10 million plus 10% gross, and Alcon's budget for the entire production was $35 million.
Instead, Alcon offered Bullock a $5 million upfront payment and a larger share of the profits, including DVD sales. The actress jumped in and The Blind Side looks to be her biggest payday ever, over $25 million. Hancock, who also participated in the profit, will earn around seven figures.
Weeks before filming began in Atlanta in April 2009, Warner Bros., which distributes Alcon's films, offered producers the Friday before Thanksgiving as a release date because their planned holiday film, Cats and Dogs 2, had been delayed. . Alcon was quick to accept the familiar date, even as it placed the company's film alongside the long-awaited Twilight sequel, New Moon.
It was another gamble, one that made some of Hancock's friends roll their eyes in disbelief. But Dan Fellman, Warner's president of domestic distribution, wanted the film to be released during football season, arguing that it would appeal to older women rather than "Twilight's" rabid horde of teenage girls.
In order to meet the Thanksgiving deadline, Hancock had to rush into post-production and limited his marketing test previews to one in the Navy town of Coronado, across the bay from San Diego. "I expected the audience to be at least 60% female," Hancock recalls. "It wasn't. I saw a couple of Marines walk in and I was like, 'Oh no, they're going to be expecting a rockin' football movie.' "
But when the comment cards were returned, 88% said they would definitely recommend the film to friends.
Spurred on by the preview, Alcon's marketers created an advertising campaign that leveraged extensive pre-release screenings to build word-of-mouth, often in communities overlooked in film marketing. Using Hancock's "something for everyone" model, Alcon promoted the film to a variety of niche markets hoping they would flock to theaters.
There were demonstrations for football fans, sports reporters and sports tastemakers. With country music singer Tim McGraw as husband Sean Tuohy in the film, Alcon screened the film at a large red carpet event in Nashville hosted by McGraw and his wife, country star Faith Hill. aired a special extra-long preview clip during the Country Music Awards; and distributed tickets through country music radio stations.
Alcon's marketing director, Richard Ingber, also insisted that Alcon should target a religious audience.
“The real Tuohys are evangelical Christians. The fact that the film portrays that, but also shows them as ordinary people, really appealed to religious audiences, who feel that films portray them in very extreme ways,” Kosove said.
Alcon hired a religious marketing company, Grace Hill, to screen the film extensively to pastors and religious opinion leaders and set up a website where clergymen 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 the film did well in the African American community, although there were some comments in the media that it was an example of white paternalism. Kosove points out that the film was nominated for four NAACP Image Awards.
African American audiences, Johnson said, responded to Michael Oher's tenacity, not just in football but academically as well. "It's not like he just got a handout," Johnson said. "It's not just Leigh Anne and the Tuohys doing this for him."
In addition to the show programming, the studio aired television commercials that emphasized the film's comedic elements. The film garnered little attention in major media centers and reviews were average, but the services that track the films' pre-release exposure showed such keen interest that Johnson and Kosove didn't believe them.
"If I look at those numbers and it wasn't my movie, I would say that this movie is going to open at $30 million, but that's impossible," Johnson told Kosove.
The Blind Side opened nationally on November 20, and by that night Fellman had received the film's cinema score, which measures how paying audiences responded, from Warner Bros. In 2009 it was the only film besides "Up" to receive an "A+". The Blind Side grossed $34 million in its opening weekend, well behind New Moon's $143 million. Hollywood attention.
Ticket sales have been weak in major cities, where the industry typically measures its box office success, but huge in places like Sacramento and Plano, Texas. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, the film broadened its national appeal and has stayed in the top 10 for the past nine weeks.
Although the film was well received, its first weekend audience was 65% women over 35, a consistently underserved demographic in the film market.
Truly uplifting films, especially those that feature an unusual true story and stunning visuals (like a white supermom and a hulking African-American football player), are hard to emulate, notes DreamWorks President Stacey Snider.
But The Blind Side is a "nice reminder," she says, "when you find something that deeply moves you personally and offers something new, even though it's a genre that's not popular -- drama -- driven by a demographic." the wary of you—adult women—should put those concerns to rest.
"The world doesn't revolve around the coast, although if you live here you think it is," Kosove added. "There's a whole country that wants healthy entertainment. They want a film that speaks to the best part of human nature.”