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.

"Good reporting is about good storytelling," said Thompson. "The kinds of things done on '20/20' -- the treatment, the plot, the whole presentation -- are clearly professionally crafted. Those features are a dress rehearsal for what can be a movie. When good reporters scour the nation for good stories, they are naturals begging to be a movie by Will Smith."

A Life-Affirming Story

"In Pursuit of Happiness," the Brown report on Chris Gardner, aired in 2003. ABC's news team spotted a local television feature on Gardner, then a struggling salesman trying to raise his son, which was taped in a San Francisco soup kitchen.

The intentional misspelling of the movie title refers to a scene in the film in which the word appears on the wall of a day care center where Gardner once considered leaving his infant son, Chris Jr., during some of Gardner's worst days.

Will Smith stars as Gardner with his real-life son Jaden, then 9 years old. Actress Thandie Newton plays the wife who leaves Gardner when he takes over guardianship of their son.

After Brown's "20/20" report, Gardner was barraged with requests for interviews, including a spot on the Oprah show. He later wrote a book about his struggle and has become a motivational speaker on the topic of homelessness.

Gardner, 52, is now owner and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings, with offices in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. He recently told the Chicago Sun-Times that the plot for the movie about the summer of 1981, which he spent with his son sleeping in parks, train stations and a public bathroom, is not just his own personal story.

"It's about every father who had to be both the father and the mother," he said. "It's about every mother who had to be the mother and father. It's the story of my life, but it's not about me."

A common theme in the Brown features that have inspired movies is triumph over adversity.

"Their Second Chance," with Lindsay Wagner, dealt with a young woman given up for adoption who is reunited with her birth parents; "Nicholas' Gift" portrayed an American couple on vacation in Italy with their two children who are attacked and shot by highway bandits; "A Dream Come True" explored the life of a woman who believed she'd been reincarnated; and "A Lifetime of Love" followed two autistic sisters.

In the era of the 24-hour cable news cycle, human-interest reporting is a growing trend that feeds American appetites for reality drama in fictionalized form.

Truth Is Power

"We've always been suckers for a true story," said Syracuse's Thompson. "Journalism tends to be 'just the facts ma'am.' What feature stories allow is taking what we call news and basing it in the experiences of individual people. It takes journalism into the realm of art."

However, some media analysts say that when reporters cross the journalism-entertainment boundary -- no matter how well-intentioned and researched their stories -- they can oversimplify complicated issues like the economics of poverty.

"In general, networks have bent over backward to give us drama at the cost of giving a larger picture," said Joseph Dorman, a former senior producer for PBS's "Media Matters" and a professor of documentary film at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

"It's already hard enough to talk about public policy," said Dorman, himself an award-winning filmmaker. "The minute news reporting focuses on an individual story and tugs at the heartstrings, the triumph or tragedy swamps the larger picture. TV and film have to be careful to always balance grabbing people emotionally with a rationale presentation of the facts and information."

"The Pursuit of Happyness" producers say the story of Gardner's life has heightened awareness about homelessness. But it is the universal story of father and son that has given the film its power, said Clayman.

Clayman admits that Hollywood scouts every medium, including television news, for plots and human dramas.

"The industry needs good ideas," said Clayman. "The industry is hungry for good material, no matter where it comes from."