Vanity Fair posted a fascinating article yesterday about how The Shawshank Redemption went from a box office failure with a title no one could remember to being one of the most beloved films of all time.
Like all great stories, there are plenty of lessons to be learned from this one. Here are my takeaways:
Be True to Your Art
Frank Darabont was broke. He says in the article he was barely making enough to pay the rent. Then his screenplay adaptation of Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption found its way to Castle Rock Pictures.
And they loved it.
Rob Reiner offered Darabont somewhere in the neighborhood ofÂ three million dollars for the script. But there was a catch: Reiner wanted to direct the movie himself.
It was Darabont’s dream to direct this movie. So he said no.
Castle Rock countered with this: In addition to the money, we will also greenlight any other one movie you want to direct. As long as Reiner gets to direct this one.
Darabont said no again.
Which was a crazy risky move. Even after they agreed to let him direct, there were no guarantees. As Darabont says in the article: “Contractually, [Castle Rock] could fire me after the first meeting, say I wasnâ€™t hacking it, and, oh, gee, weâ€™re just going to bring in Rob Reiner.â€
Darabont took the risk because he realized there were other ways to make three million dollars, but there was only one chance to direct his dream project.
Keep Your Eyes Open
The crazy part of this story? Rob Reiner had already directed Stand by Me, based on King’s novella The Body.
The Body appears in the collection DIFFERENT SEASONS. The next story in the collection? Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.
From the article: â€œRob joked, â€˜[Different Seasons] is on my desk for years. You would have thought weâ€™d have read the next story! But we didnâ€™t.â€
Rob was so busy going from project to project, he didn’t notice the potential movie sitting right in front of him.
Be In the Right Place at the Right Time
Frustrating as it is, luck often plays a role in success.
The Shawshank Redemption was not a hit at the box office. Like, at all. Darabont shares the story of going to the theater on opening night and trying to convince random movie-goers to buy a ticket, saying Castle Rock Pictures would refund their money if they didn’t like it.
But its poor box office performance was actually a good thing in the long run. See, years later Ted Turner was looking for cheap-but-good programming for the TNT network. Since movie licensing fees are generally based on box office performance, he was able to show Shawshank very cheaply. And show it he did. A lot.
TNT is where the movie finally foundÂ its audience.
From the article:
And it was through television that the real alchemy between Shawshank and its audience began. The filmâ€™s popularity “wasnâ€™t a weed growing,” says Freeman. “It was kind of an oak tree or something–you know, slow growth.”
Tim Robbins says in theÂ article:
â€œI swear to God, all over the worldâ€”all over the worldâ€”wherever I go, there are people who say, â€˜That movie changed my life.â€™â€‰â€ Even the worldâ€™s most famous former prisoner connected with the movie, according to Robbins: â€œWhen I met [Nelson Mandela], he talked about loving Shawshank.â€
Look, no one reading this is named Stephen King (unless I’m wrong, in which case, hi Mr. King!). Our art may not inspire world leaders,Â persecuted political prisoners, or evenÂ regular Joes.
Then again, it might.
Whatever kind of art you make, it probably feels small and imperfect most of the time. Too often we forget that art is powerful stuff.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite things on the Internet. It’s long, but it’s so good I watch it every few months. It’s a commencement address Neil Gaiman gave at the University of the Arts a couple years back.Â It’s one ofÂ the most useful discussionsÂ of art I’veÂ even seen.
Make good art.