Michael Oher has seen "The Blind Side" and understands as well as anybody why it's become a word-of-mouth hit, grossing $154 million and still climbing. "I guess people are looking for hope," he said. "They want something to build on."
In fact, the opportunity to launch an inspirational movie with some fresh content and without sentimentality is what snared the interest of producing partners Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove of Alcon Entertainment, who seized the project in turnaround from 20th Century Fox. As the "Entourage" Web site explains, "A project in 'turnaround' has been abandoned by one studio and can be shopped to another." It's common Hollywood practice - and sometimes uncommon films or giant hits come out of it.
Talking to Johnson and Kosove on the phone, both at once, was like being double-teamed - in a good way. Rather than finishing each other's sentences, they embellished each other's points without ego.
They're busy preparing for the January release of "The Book of Eli," the first theatrical feature from the Hughes brothers, Allen and Albert, since 2001's "From Hell," starring Denzel Washington and Mila Kunis in a post-apocalyptic tale with an unexpected spiritual edge. (As a director, Washington is also developing a movie for Alcon about an African-American tank unit at the Battle of the Bulge.) But Johnson and Kosove were glad to steal some time to celebrate "The Blind Side" and brush away some misconceptions that have spread in the wake of its success.
When John Lee Hancock's script came to them, Johnson says, they knew "this movie was intended to lift people up - bring out the best in people, not the worst. The project attracted us not as a sports movie but as the potential to be a family movie that would appeal to Sandra Bullock fans and men and to older children." Johnson agrees with writer-director Hancock that it rests on the maternal bond between Oher and Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock), the mother who brings him into her family. "That," says Johnson, "is the core of the story."
Kosove says, "That is also the key difference between our view and the perception of the project that existed within the industry everywhere and frankly, for some reason, still exists erroneously in the press, which continues to report this as a sports movie. All sports movies have larger themes that are bigger than sports. 'Remember the Titans' is about race relations, not just about football. The difference is that in a sports movie, like 'Remember the Titans' and unlike 'The Blind Side,' the themes are intertwined with the sports. In 'The Blind Side,' Michael Oher happens to play football, so that's part of the story, but the movie is not about how he plays football. It's about how a family comes together, with kindness and warmth and Good Samaritanship. And that's why the film has played well beyond a traditional sports audience."
After all, says Kosove, Oher in his high school years "was not an interesting sports story. He went to a Christian academy and literally destroyed everyone in his path."
Johnson chimes in: "You step back and take a look at the movie, yeah, we show a couple of games, but they're part of the B story-line of what's going on. Obviously, from the marketing standpoint, it's very appealing to men. It's a lure in that regard. But once you get in, it's really about the family, and how they gave him a helping hand, and how he ultimately helps himself."
Oher himself regrets the film's depiction of the football side of the story. "[The film] was all right. It was pretty good. I just didn't like how they made me look like I didn't know football. Like I was new to football. In reality, I started in eighth grade on varsity. So I didn't like that part." But, Oher says, he was "good with it" when it came to his general portrayal in the movie.
The producers rebut the accusation that "The Blind Side" takes a paternalistic - make that maternalistic - attitude toward Oher and by extension to all black people from hard circumstances.
"That's just idiotic," splutters Kosove. Johnson chimes in, "It does make me angry, because I know the values of the movie and the story. Good Samaritanship is a two-way street. You have to be able to receive that kindness in the spirit in which it was given. Michael Oher had to do the classes, he had to make the grade, he had to get on the field and play football - and he had to interact with this family in a way that was mutually acceptable. At the end of the movie, when Leigh Anne Tuohy says that Michael changed their family, they came together as a family regardless of his color. To look at it in some nefarious way is ignorant and reveals more about one's own prejudices than what was portrayed in the movie."
Johnson is black and Kosove is white. They have been business partners for a dozen years. But, Kosove says with a laugh, "We don't meet once a week to discuss the profound racial challenges of being an interracial business partnership."
And what a smart partnership it has turned out to be. Johnson says they worked closely with Warner Bros. on the marketing and release of the movie but had "the ultimate say-so" on "what was spent and how it was spent." The posters and print ad depicting the 5-foot-7 Bullock putting her hand on the small of the football player's massive back became the dominant image of the movie and expressed, in one succinct visual, its compassion, charm and humor. "One of the key ingredients of the movie, and what made it so accessible, is that it's funny," says Johnson. "If you can make people laugh even when there's real drama, it really helps in marketing and the movie."
Let Oher have the last word. "I mean, it's Hollywood. You know how they are with that. But it's a good story. Maybe it'll inspire people."