The journey that took 1992’s A League Of Their Own to the screen saw its price tag go from $20m to $40m before it finally got a greenlight.
It’s not the crushing exclusive I was after to declare to you that Hollywood is a strange place, but, well, it is.
The example in this particular case is 1992’s sporting drama A League Of Their Own, starring Geena Davis, Lori Petty and Tom Hanks. It tells the story of the women’s baseball league that started up in the US during World War II, and in truth the first time I heard of the film back when it was first released in the 1990s was thanks to a news report. The UK release followed the US bow by a few weeks, and the report told me that this was the film that knocked Batman Returns off the top of the box office charts in the States. No small feat, given the Bat sequel had been atop for three weeks, and A League Of Their Own actually jumped to first spot in its second full week of release (its box office dropping a mere 15% as word of mouth of the movie spread).
Yet this was a project with a little bit of a charmed existence. As I covered in a podcast episode here, it began life when director Penny Marshall saw a documentary covering the All American Girls Professional Baseball League – AAGPBL to its mates – on American television. She duly got in touch with the creatives behind the television documentary and got to work on a script, hiring Lowell Hanz and Babaloo Mandel (Parenthood, City Slickers) for the first draft.
Marshall cemented her status at 20th Century Fox when she earned the studio a huge hit with the Tom Hanks-headlined Big. Understandably, Fox was interested in what else she had up her sleeve, and she got the studio interested in the project. Yet Fox got cold feet about the film, that was then budgeted in the $20m range.
Was there commercial appeal in a movie about women playing baseball? The studio thought apparently not. It passed.
Marshall didn’t hang around at Fox – and in fact would not make another film for Fox again – and instead threw herself into making the hugely successful Awakenings for Columbia instead (she worked on this in part because Mandel and Ganz were taking a while to write the screenplay for her baseball movie). That film, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, was both a box office success and a critical triumph, earning Columbia Oscar nominations. It would be nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award, losing out to Dances With Wolves for the top prize.
Awakenings had, incidentally, been offered to Fox, but the studio wasn’t enthused about the idea of it either.
Marshall had currency by this stage, and with three hit movies now under her belt – including her debut as director, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, starring Whoopi Goldberg – she was keen to get A League Of Their Own moving. But Hollywood wasn’t playing ball. In spite of the relatively modest $20m price tag, nobody was interested as the film was shopped around the studios.
What had helped get Marshall through the door at Columbia was the fact that the studio – then under the ownership of The Coca-Cola Company – had hired Dawn Steel to be its president.
Steel’s legend was large around Hollywood, and before her premature death she wrote an outstanding memoir that I never tire of recommending. For the purposes of this story though, she was interested in Awakenings, and key to it happening.
Yet this was a time when Columbia was in flux. Coca-Cola had realised that owning a movie studio was nowhere near as fun as it actually looked, and was in the midst of brokering a deal to sell its interests to Sony. When that deal went through, Dawn Steel would be removed as Columbia president, learning the news in her hospital suite having just given birth (genuinely).
In her place came Jon Peters and Peter Guber, who instilled changes at the studio. Those changes left Marshall struggling to get A League Of Their Own moving. To give a flavour of how the company was under its new chiefs, according to accusations in Premiere’s August 1991 issue, a space that had been reserved for disabled parking was given over to the studio heads, whilst there were allegedly signs saying that the third elevator in the company’s Thalberg building was for the exclusive use of the two bosses. It should be noted that these allegations were just that.
Yet a couple of things changed the fortunes of A League Of Their Own – and also doubled its price.
Firstly, the-then powerful CAA agency in Hollywood, that was just getting into the swing of ‘packaging’ projects. That from its client roster it would bring together a cast and director, giving a studio a simple decision to make. Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel and Penny Marshall were already on its books, and it added into the mix Tom Hanks and Debra Winger.
Madonna, also on the CAA books, was interested in auditioning as well.
This was all sending the price north, not least considering CAA would want a pretty penny for its work. And the film that Hollywood had turned down for the sum of $20m was now costing at least $40m.
But running parallel to this, Columbia itself was going through changes. The expensive Guber-Peters era was ending not that long after it had started (the studio had gone through three chiefs in pretty quite time at this stage, with British producer David Puttnam not lasting two years in the job immediately prior to Dawn Steel’s tenure). But this also meant that the restraints were lifted from Columbia a little, and it had the chance to chase a slightly more expensive project or two.
A League Of Their Own turned out to be just in the right place at the right time. Marshall’s star had risen, and when Winger dropped out Madonna was happy to take on a supporting role too, which bolstered the profile of the movie (Madonna would contribute a song too). The studio was in, and Marshall was finally able to get her film off the ground.
The $40m that Columbia would ultimately spend was rewarded with over $100m at the US box office alone (at a time when that was regarded as a lot of money), and a prolonged catalogue seller for its video and disc operations too (with the film getting a 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release last year). Furthermore, it’s an enduring favourite too, approaching its 30th birthday next year. That’s a birthday likely to be celebrated too, with the film pretty distinct amongst the summer studio releases of the entire decade.
It’s just ironic, perhaps, that it took a doubling of the price tag before it could ultimately get off the ground…
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