Ripped From the Headlines: Americans Love a True Story

Hollywood producer Mark Clayman was channel-surfing in bed with his wife when they became mesmerized by a scene on ABC's "20/20" -- Chris Gardner, a successful stockbroker who had once been homeless, was guiding reporter Bob Brown through the seedy San Francisco subway bathroom where he had once been forced to bathe his son.

"My wife was bawling, I was bawling," said Clayman. "I told her I wanted rights to the story, and this would be Will Smith's home-run role."

The movie -- "The Pursuit of Happyness" -- directed by Gabriele Muccino, did get made, and it debuted as No. 1 at the box office last weekend, where it grossed $27 million. Clayman took the film to Todd Black, co-owner of Escape Artists, who developed the film with Will Smith.

The feel-good film follows the real-life story of Gardner, a salesman and single father on the brink of losing everything, who overcomes homelessness to become a self-made millionaire.

"It hits on the biggest fear of any parent, providing for their children," said Black, who, as a father of two, was immediately moved by the "20/20" tape. "You will protect them at any cost."

In the last decade, eight news reports by 30-year journalist Bob Brown were transformed into TV movies or feature films, satisfying the public's hunger for life-affirming stories about real people.

"There is probably no one in the company, or in the industry for that matter, that blends poetry, precision and insight into television writing as well as Bob does," said "20/20" executive producer David Sloan. "His magazine stories have a quiet power that stirs the heart. That's why so many of his pieces have been made into motion pictures."


The cross-pollinating of journalism and entertainment is on the rise, say media watchers, and Hollywood producers understand the lure of a true tale -- especially if its theme is uplifting.

"In a time when we worry about our economy and Iraq, people want to embrace something positive that shows the triumph of the human spirit," said Clayman, then working independently, hit his own "home-run" as executive producer on "In Pursuit of Happyness."

Universal Themes

Brown's reporting for "20/20" has led to at least five other TV movies or Hollywood films, but he insists he's not a screenwriter. Nor does he profit from his work.

"I don't think any journalist should do a story thinking about what its future value might be," said Brown, who won an Alfred I. DuPont Award -- the broadcast equivalent of a Pulitzer -- in 1994 for "A Gift of Life," about a Vietnam veteran whose life had been saved by an Army surgeon. "These stories are done for the public."

Two of his most-famous movie cross-overs were "Father Goose," which was made into "Fly Away Home" in 1996, about a family of orphaned geese finding their way home, and "Life of Salesman Bill Porter," which became "Door to Door" in 2002, about a 35-year-old salesman afflicted with cerebral palsy. Starring and co-written by William H. Macy, the latter won an Emmy for the best TV movie.

It is precisely these universal and enduring themes that attract moviegoers, according to Robert Thompson, a professor of film and popular culture at Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television, Radio and Film.

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