The movie has a very emotional message that I think people wanted to hear: that even when faced with a troubled situation, one individual can make a difference in America.
When football coaches wanted to rev up their team for a big game, they would close the locker room doors and deliver an inspirational pep talk. But all across America these days, coaches have found another way. They've been taking their teams to see the Denzel Washington - starring "Remember the Titans," the rousing story of a newly integrated 1971 high school football team that learns to win by putting its racial differences aside and playing together.
Determined to end his team's woeful four-game losing streak earlier this month, UC Berkeley football coach Tom Holmoe took his squad to a Friday night showing of "Titans." The next day Cal shocked nationally ranked UCLA beating the Bruins, 46-38, in three overtimes.
With his job on the line after three early season defeats, University of Alabama coach Mike DuBose took his team to see the Disney film the night before the Crimson Tide played previously unbeaten South Carolina. The outcome: Alabama 27, South Carolina 17.
If football fans were stunned by Cal's upset of UCLA, you can imagine how Hollywood has reacted to Titans surprise success. Dismissed by critics for its earnest "jock-lite camaraderie" and initially turned down by virtually every studio in town, including Disney, the movie has taken in more than $77 million in four weeks of release - including about $10 million last weekend - and is on track to be a $100-million hit. Made for $27 million, Titans could end up being Disney studio's most profitable live-action film of the year.
Maybe Disney should run some football player reviews in its newspaper quote ads. "The movie was unbelievably motivational for us," Alabama left guard Griff Redmill told a reporter after seeing the film. "Everybody was heads up, eyes open, listening. They couldn't have hit the nail on the head any better with this team than things coming together and loving your brother, no matter what the circumstances."
Even Titans producer Jerry Bruckheimer is a little surprised by the film's across-the-board appeal. The producer had three movies in theaters in the past four months, but everyone expected that his other two films, Coyote Ugly" and Gone in 60 Seconds, would be the box-office heavyweights. "I thought if we did it right that maybe we could make $40 [million] or $50 million," says Bruckheimer. "But I would've given pretty long odds for Titans to be the biggest hit of them all. But from the start, it's been a real underdog."
Written by Gregory Allen Howard, the film is based on the real-life story of Herman Boone, a black coach who took over a racially mixed Alexandria, Va., football team after the local school board had been forced to integrate a local black school with a white one. Most studio executives viewed the project as more of a TV movie, believing it would be hard to get young movie audiences to see a period drama about race relations.
Bruckheimer first gave the script to then - Touchtone Pictures chief David Vogel. He passed on the project, as did studio chiefs at several other studios. Undeterred, Bruckheimer, the most powerful producer on the Disney lot, went over Vogel's head and gave the script to then - Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth. Roth read the script and says he liked it so much he briefly considered directing it himself.
What happened next is open to interpretation, complicated by the fact that Roth has left Disney to run Revolution Studios. Disney is now in the hands of Peter Schneider, who ran the Walt Disney Pictures division under Roth. Both men say they played an instrumental role in getting the film made - and Bruckheimer diplomatically gives both executives credit for making vital contributions along the way.
"Everyone agrees on one thing: The key decision behind the film's success was cutting all of the rough language out of the script, which transformed the movie from a gritty, R-rated drama to a feel-good PG film. In the original script, for example, white athletes taunted African American players with a racial epithet, which is now conspicuously absent from the film.
Roth says he made the call to go with a PG rating: "I thought it would feel fresher and have a higher purpose if we took out the locker room language and made it as a Disney label movie. By being less about what the kids called each other in the locker room, it became a more universal story."
Schneider says he told Bruckheimer that the foul language had to go. "I loved the script but every other was the F-word or the N-word," Schneider says. "I told Jerry that I'd make the movie if it could be a Disney movie with Disney values. I think it came as a shock to Jerry and the screenwriter at first, but making it a PG film was essential to the success of the movie, because it made the film accessible to everybody."
The other key decision was casting Washington. Bruckheimer says that Schneider was initially against the idea, so the producer called Roth and lobbied him: "Somehow Joe got it done," Bruckheimer says. "Denzel was always the right actor for the part. He's a great actor who's great at playing real heroes."
Schneider says his opposition was only based on economics, he wasn't willing to pay Washington his full $12-million salary, which could have pushed the movie's budget into the $40-million range. After some negotiation, Washington and Bruckheimer agreed to work for half their normal fees, though they kept their back-end participation, which should be substantial in light of the film's box-office performance.
The movie was still not viewed as a major priority at Disney until its first test screening, which was held in late March in Pasadena. "The test scores were huge," recalls Geoffrey Ammer, Disney's co-president of marketing. "But what really stood out was that people came out of the theater and asked us if we were with the movie and started telling us how they wished Hollywood would make more movies like this. You could tell they were really moved by the picture."
As a reality check, the studio held a second test screening in Arizona to see if the Pasadena numbers were a fluke. They weren't. Assured that the picture was a crowd-pleasure, the studio scheduled the film for a late September release - right in the heart of football season and during a relatively quiet moviegoing period - so the film would have a chance to find an audience.
The studio put the film's trailer in front of its summer releases, giving it exposure to a broad spectrum of moviegoers. Disney also sent Bruckheimer out on a 10-city tour where he showed the film to everyone from school principals and coaches to radio deejays, politicians and African American organizations.
As it turned out, the timing of the film's Sept. 29 release was as good as it gets. "It had been a long time since there had been a mass-appeal film in the market," explains Paul Dergarabedian, head of Exhibitor Relations. "So audiences were starved for a movie that appealed to the whole family." Disney had the crowd largely to itself. Titans opened at No. 1 in a week when seven of the other nine Top 10 entries were R-rated movies.
It didn't hurt either that Titans opened in the wake of Senate hearings in which Hollywood executives took a pounding for marketing violent, R-rated fare to young people. The film was embraced by Washington: At a press gala screening, President Clinton praised it for "getting people talking to each other."
The movie's biggest supposed drawbacks - that is was a period drama dealing with race relations - didn't keep audiences away. Unlike Almost Famous" which is set during the same period, Titans didn't have wall-to-wall music from the era to remind moviegoers that they were being sent back in time. In fact, audiences watching the film's trailer, which was packed with football sequences, hardly knew what period the movie came from.
The marketing materials also downplayed the film's racial conflicts, focusing on the inspirational aspects of the team coming together instead of being torn apart. "I remember sitting at a dinner party and pitching the movie to my wife and our friends, and everyone responded to the heart of the story," recalls Schneider.
"The journey of the movie is familiar, but it works because you want to be on that journey. The movie has a very emotional message that I think people wanted to hear: that even when faced with a troubled situation, one individual can make a difference in America."