Watching Secretariat fighting for box office air against much more muscular earners like comic actioner Red ($43.5 million after two weeks), the David Fincher/Aaron Sorkin rendering of the birth of Facebook in The Social Network ($72 million in four weeks), Ben Affleck’s gutsy crime thriller The Town ($84.7million in six weeks), and box office steamrollers Jackass 3-D ($86.9 million in two weeks) and Paranormal Activity 2 ($40.7 million in its first week), reminds one just how hard it is for sports-themed movies to hit the box office sweet spot Gary Ross nailed so squarely with Seabiscuit back in 2003 ($120 million domestic gross; seven Oscar noms). As it is, Secretariat – with $37.4 million at the box office at the three-week mark, a second week drop in earnings of about a third followed by a third week drop of 44%, and saddled with middling reviews — will have to struggle just to make breakeven (probably somewhere in the $80 million range).
Studios have been looking for that next inspiring triumph-of-the-underdog sports flick since Seabiscuit with mixed results. They’ve looked to football (Friday Night Lights , remake The Longest Yard , Invincible and We Are Marshall [both 2006], The Blind Side ), boxing (Million Dollar Baby , Rocky re-boot Rocky Balboa ), and, naturally enough, horse racing (Hidalgo , Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story ).
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It’s about a fifty-fifty split between underperformers and titles that hit the mark with quality and acclaim no guarantee of commercial success. Sports movies with a higher profile and greater critical cachet than Secretariat have had just as hard a slog at the box office. Case in point – and easily one of the best sports films of the last decade — was 2005’s critically-lauded, Oscar-nominated Cinderella Man, written by Cliff Hollingsworth. The story behind Hollingsworth and Cinderella Man is every bit as much an against-the-odds, come-from-behind tale as the one on the screen..
Raised in Barnwell, South Carolina, Hollingsworth went to the University of South Carolina in the 1970s with no particular interest in writing or even in film. He majored in broadcast journalism and went on to a master’s degree in teaching. It was during his years in grad school he began to consider writing a screenplay.
“My first try was so long it was absurd,” says Hollingsworth. He wrote the screenplay out by hand, but as soon as he began reading it over “realized it wouldn’t work.” And there was that issue of the length: “It would’ve been a five-hour movie!”
Still, he continued to write, and, in 1982, headed to Los Angeles with a handful of what he hoped were marketable screenplays. However, as a novice screenwriter with no representation or connections to the industry, he had no access at any level of the business. He supported himself with work as a security guard while also taking a writing class at Sherwood Oaks Film College. It was the support of his instructor, Barry Snider, which helped keep his spirits up. “He told me I had talent and to stick with it,” and Hollingsworth put enough stock in Snider’s opinion for it to keep him motivated.
Two years later, Hollingsworth still hadn’t placed any work, and now his mother was in failing health. He didn’t think it was fair for him to be chasing a dream in Los Angeles while his brother, Mike, was home shouldering the full responsibility for taking care of their mother. The brothers struck a deal: Hollingsworth would spend six months in L.A., then come back to take care of their mother for six months, then go back to L.A. and so on.
“That put a big crimp on things,” acknowledges Hollingsworth. The bouncing back and forth between coasts was wearing. Each time he returned to L.A. he had to get a new apartment, new phone number, new job, etc. He lived this way from 1984-1997, all the time trying to break into the movie business during his six month sprints on The Coast. During his L.A. periods, he worked as a security guard at a number of places including Universal (ironic since this would ultimately become the home for Cinderella Man). In 1986, he began substitute teaching which didn’t pay all that much better than security work. “I lived in some real dumps,” says Hollingsworth. “I’d buy a mattress from the Salvation Army, I’d have it on the floor. That and a table would be my only furniture.” In 1997, with his mother’s condition worsening, he returned to South Carolina permanently, taking care of her until she passed away.
Sometime around 1994-1995, Hollingsworth wrote Cinderella Man; the Depression Era true story of the comeback of one-time light heavyweight boxer James J. Braddock. Hollingsworth tracked down Braddock’s two sons and spent hours with them listening to stories about their father. “They were invaluable,” says Hollingsworth, providing him with the kind of information “…you couldn’t get from books.”
The appeal to Hollingsworth – to any writer, in fact – was obvious: champion boxer loses almost everything during The Depression, his situation becomes so desperate he nearly loses his family, then he mounts a bruising comeback.
Says Hollingsworth, “It was a fantastic story. If I’d written it as fiction, nobody’d believe it.” The story had everything, thought Hollingsworth: a strong, human element, the triumph over adversity, a rags-to-riches arc, an always-darkest-before-the-dawn suspense line, and improbable but true turn-arounds.
For instance, taking on small-time fights to make a few dollars, Braddock breaks his right hand. He takes a job moving cargo on the docks only able to use his left hand. When he returns to the fight game, the constant working of his left has turned him from a one-handed fighter into a two-handed puncher: what had been the worst possible turn of events actually helps turn his career around.
“There’s usually enough drama as it is in fighting for a heavyweight title,” says Hollingsworth, but ratcheting the suspense elements up still more were the real-life circumstances surrounding Braddock’s climactic match with reigning champ Max Baer.
Baer had been considered responsible for the death of two of his opponents (one died in the ring against Baer, while another died in a bout against another fighter though it was speculated his death might actually have been a delayed result from the beating he’d taken in an earlier fight against Baer). There was a feeling the older Braddock might be risking more than just a lost fight climbing into the ring against Baer.
The first year Hollingsworth had come to Los Angeles, a waitress at a night club he’d met had introduced him to her husband, Abraham Gordon, who, at the time, was heading story development for a small direct-to-video company, Spectacor. Gordon encouraged Hollingsworth to go forward on the Braddock story, and tried to help him get an agent. Gordon called several reps, but none would read the material. Based on the pitch, they unanimously felt Cinderella Man might be a great story, but it was “just” a sports story. “It didn’t help that I was a new writer,” adds Hollingsworth, or that the story was a probably costly period piece (Cinderella Man’s production budget: $88 million). Only Abraham Gordon believed in the piece, seeing it as less of a sports story, and more of a triumph of the human spirit.
A Hollingsworth friend, Ed McCormick, had recently launched a talent agency to represent musicians back in Denmark, South Carolina, working out of an office in the back of his used furniture store. McCormick also saw the potential in Hollingsworth’s script, and, for Hollingsworth’s sake, became a signatory with the WGA so Hollingsworth could now have representation. McCormick and Mike Hollingsworth began making calls pitching Cinderella Man. In the summer of 1996, Mike Hollingsworth managed to get a pitch in with someone at the production company of Laverne & Shirley star cum directorPenny Marshall. Though Marshall’s box office track record was mixed, two of her five previous films had been huge hits: Big (1988), and A League of Their Own (1992). That same summer, he also got a pitch in at Turner Communications. Both companies read the screenplay, and both wanted it.
Mike Hollingsworth’s contact at Marshall’s company passed it on to the director with a “recommended.” Marshall gave it a read and decided she wanted the property. Thereafter, things happened quickly.
Marshall then had offices on the Universal lot – the same lot where Hollingsworth had been working night shifts as a security guard just a few years earlier. Universal decided they wanted the project as well. Turner, still wanting the property, called Marshall and told her, “If Universal doesn’t make it, bring it to us.”
By then, Hollingsworth was back in Carolina tending to his ailing mother. Irby Walker, a long-time friend and a Conway, South Carolina attorney, teamed up with Gordon to negotiate the deal with Universal. According to Hollingsworth, “Both Irby and Abraham did a terrific job. Irby did most of the negotiating with Abraham advising him, and making a few calls, too. They got an excellent deal for me, and a tremendous deal for the Braddock family. It had to be especially gratifying for Abraham to be part of the negotiations. After hearing from agent after agent that he was wrong, and that it wouldn’t make a good movie, here he was helping negotiate the contract for the script that every agent he’d pitched it to had snubbed.” Before the deal was finalized, Universal flew Hollingsworth to New York to meet with Marshall and discuss script changes.
After Hollingsworth delivered his rewrite, another writer was brought in, and then the project seemed to momentarily stall. “For a while, I thought I was getting it back,” says Hollingsworth. Other parties were already interested, including Harvey Weinstein who was still at Miramax at the time. But then Universal exercised their option and purchased the screenplay outright.
For a while, the project followed a maybe-yes/maybe-no course. At one point, Marshall was out and Billy Bob Thornton was attached as director with the possibility of Brad Pitt starring, but a threatened strike caused everyone to hesitate and, during the interval, the Thornton/Pitt team came apart. Then, Lasse Hallstrom, coming off the Oscar-winning hit The Cider House Rules (1999), was supposed to direct, but that arrangement, too, unraveled.
The project finally began to gel when Russell Crowe expressed an interest in playing Braddock. At the time, Crowe was on a streak, coming off of two massive hits – Gladiator (2000) and A Beautiful Mind (2001) – and a highly praised performance in the Napoleonic War adventure, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). Crowe sent the screenplay to producer/director Ron Howard with whom he’d had a productive relationship on the Oscar-winning Beautiful Mind, which had earned Crowe a nod for Best Actor as well as a U.S. box office of $170.7 million — a remarkable take in an era when dramas rarely earn blockbuster revenues. Once Howard signed on, the project was underway.
Universal released Cinderella Man in early June 2005. Conventional Hollywood wisdom was against a summer opening for such an adult-skewing story, since the season’s box office was primarily driven by young ticket-buyers usually attracted to stories of the fantastic boasting large-scale action and spectacular special effects. That May had already seen the release of the remake The Longest Yard and the concluding chapter in the Star Wars saga, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. The weeks after Cinderella Man’s release would see Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, Warners’ franchise re-launch Batman Begins, TV spinoff Bewitched, another remake in the horror flick George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and action comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith – all in June; and then in July, would come Tim Burton’s extravagant fantasy remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, franchise launch Fantastic Four, action thriller Stealth, big budget sci fier The Island, and two more horror entries, The Devil’s Rejects and Dark Water; and finally, summer would wind down in August with suspense thriller Red Eye, special effects fest The Brothers Grimm, and another TV spinoff, The Dukes of Hazzard.
Universal was undoubtedly hoping for a repeat of its 2003 summer coup with another suspenseful sports tale, Seabiscuit. Released a month later in the summer than Cinderella Man, and up against equally stiff youth-skewing competition (including Pixar’s animated Finding Nemo, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, The Hulk, S.W.A.T., and sequels 2 Fast 2 Furious, The Matrix Reloaded, Bad Boys II, and X2: X-Men United), Seabiscuit went on to an impressive $120.1 million domestic.
Universal had other reasons to be optimistic as well. Howard’s previous ten films had had an average U.S. gross of over $101 million per title, and Crowe’s previous five pictures had averaged just about the same as well as bringing the actor a Best Actor Oscar and two nominations.
At first, it seemed Universal’s instincts had been on-target. Cinderella Man opened to nearly unanimously positive reviews (a canvass of 198 reviews by www.rottontomatoes.com showed 80% positive). Roger Ebert called the movie, “terrific,” Variety labeled it, “exquisite,” and Peter Travers at Rolling Stone declared it “(Ron) Howard’s best movie.” Many reviewers considered Cinderella Man an early Oscar contender. Still, the movie opened somewhat weaker than Seabiscuit despite a heftier rollout ($18.3 million from 2,812 screens v. $20.9 million on 1,987 screens).
The movie never seemed to gain traction with the audience, and by the time it concluded its run in November, domestic grosses had capped out at $61.6 million; respectable in terms of admissions, but disappointing in light of the movie’s $88 million cost. Even foreign returns — $46.9 million – weren’t enough to bring Cinderella Man close to breakeven (typically, at least twice the production cost).
It should be pointed out, however, that Cinderella Man’s box office numbers may have been less a product of Universal’s flouting the conventional wisdom of summer releases than a symptom of larger problems in the industry at the time. Both attendance and box office for 2005 had been running behind 2004 since the beginning of January, and would remain so for most of the year. Year’s end would see 2005 turn out to be the latest chapter in an ever-lengthening losing streak for Hollywood, attendance having dropped each year since 2002.
That aside, there was little difference between Cinderella Man’s earnings and those of other equally-acclaimed releases that year. The average box office for the five films nominated for the 2005 Best Picture Oscar (Brokeback Mountain, Capote, Crash, Good Night, and Good Luck, Munich) was just under $50 million, with Brokeback Mountain at the high end with $83 million, and Capote at the low end with $28.8 million. Only two non-action-driven, non-fantasy films made it into the year’s Top 20 earners: biopic Walk the Line (at #16), and claustrophobic suspenser Flightplan (#20), with most of the top earners being typically lightweight summer fare: Star Wars: Episode III, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, War of the Worlds, the remake of King Kong, franchise launch Fantastic Four, and the like.
There were more disappointments for the film when the 2005 Academy Award nominations came in. The oft-predicted nods for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor never materialized (Cinderella Man did receive noms for editing, make-up, and for Paul Giamatti’s supporting role as Jim Braddock’s manager, but scored no wins). A late-year surge in quality films – including, along with the Best Picture nominees, the likes of Syriana, The Constant Gardner, and A History of Violence – appeared to have edged the front-runner out.
But, the less-than-optimal box office and the lack of awards don’t take away from the quality of what remains an immensely respected, entertaining, and oft-touching movie, and certainly one of the all-time great sports movies. And, when hundreds of screenwriters try and fail to make any inroads into a hard-to-crack and fiercely competitive business, that one novice screenwriter toughed out the rejections year after year to win himself an impressive debut with a major, much-lauded film like Cinderella Man, is more of a fairy tale ending than most ever get.
– Bill Mesce