Norman Lear saved ''Stand by Me'' from getting scrapped
Stand by Me, directed by a then-up-and-coming director named Rob Reiner, has been called one of the greatest movies ever made. After a screening, Stephen King, who wrote the short story "The Body" that was adapted into the movie, was so impressed that he had to step out to compose himself. On an $8 million budget, the movie returned over $50 million at the box office, making it a major success.
And yet, without Norman Lear, the film never would have been made.
When the story was being shopped around, Flashdance director Adrian Lyne was attached to direct. However, when Lyne's current film, 9 1/2 Weeks meant that the director had to drop out, the script was sent to Rob Reiner. Reiner was still in his early years as a director but had found some success with comedies like This is Spinal Tap and The Sure Thing. Reiner chose to take on the project after identifying with the character of Gordie, who struggled to measure up to the memory of his late brother. Reiner himself had dealt with issues living in the shadow of his father, Carl Reiner.
Reiner carefully pulled together a cast and a crew. Then two days before filming, the unthinkable happened: the studio pulled the plug.
Well, the new studio. The old one, Embassy, had been sold. Columbia Pictures was the new studio, but their production department had no interest in the movie. One of the reasons is hilarious in hindsight — newspapers at the time talk about how the movie had "no star power" to market. Of course, now we know that the core cast of Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, and Jerry O'Connell would all go on to be massive stars.
Raynold Gideon, one of the writers for Stand by Me, talked about that fraught time after the studio backed out. "It was terrible," he said in a 1986 interview with United Press International, "There we all were in Oregon with no money to make the movie."
This is where Norman Lear steps in. He had been one of the co-owners of Embassy, the old studio, and he had faith in Reiner, who he'd worked with on All in the Family and had known since he was a kid. He loved the script. And he was ready to put his money where his mouth was.
"Norman Lear said that he would personally finance the $8 million budget from his own pocket," Gideon said. "He believed that much in the script and Rob Reiner who had co-starred for him all those years in All in the Family."
The move was all the more risky because even with a budget, the movie no longer had a distributor — which meant even with a finished product, there was no guarantee it would get a wide release. "The amazing thing," Gideon said, "was that Norman was willing to gamble $8 million on a picture that didn't even have a distribution deal with a major studio."
Funnily enough, once the movie was finished and being shopped around, it was Columbia Pictures — the same studio that scrapped the movie in the first place — that realized it would be a hit. The Los Angeles Times Syndicate noted that "the same studio that had turned down 'The Body' script paid Lear more than his money back to distribute 'Stand by Me' worldwide."
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