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.