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12.02.09

Sandra's $200 Million Year

After losing her box-office heat, Sandra Bullock blindsided Hollywood this year with two $100 million movies and some Oscar buzz. Kim Masters on America’s Sweetheart’s new clout.

It was Julia Roberts—not Sandra Bullock—Fox wanted to play the lead in The Blind Side.

“Their analysis was we can only make it with Julia Roberts,” says a source who played a key role in the project. “It was a list of one.” But after Roberts walked away, Fox lost interest. And the film, based on the true story of football star Michael Oher, a troubled homeless youth taken in by an affluent family, seemed doomed.

“Leigh Anne showed [Bullock] her cute little pearl-handled Derringer,” Hancock says. “Sandy kept giving me this sideways look like, ‘Get a load of this.’”

There are many reasons why The Blind Side should never have gotten made except, perhaps, as a Lifetime movie. Nothing blows up, for one. And if that didn’t scare away the male audience, the movie has a female lead. A white female lead, an African-American co-star—what’s the target audience for that? (This is how Hollywood thinks.) Then there’s a football theme—so much for the overseas market. Even with a relatively modest budget of $30 million, “it’s the antithesis of what anybody wants to make,” says producer Gil Netter.

Especially without Julia Roberts. Bullock wasn’t even on Fox’s short list for the role of Leigh Anne Tuohy, the larger-than-life conservative Christian woman who took Oher in—literally a pistol-packing mama who raised a future NFL star. Quite a few years had passed since Bullock was pulling in big box office with Miss Congeniality and Two Weeks Notice. As Fox was weighing the fate of The Blind Side in 2007, the studio was struggling with another Bullock film, All About Steve, which eventually wound up with a miniscule 6 percent favorable rating on Rotten Tomatoes. As the insider on The Blind Side puts it, “Sandy Bullock wasn’t hot.” Especially not at Fox.

Now The Blind Side—which dared to go up against New Moon’s vampires and werewolves—has soared past $100 million in its first two weeks. And Bullock seems like a spunky real-life heroine of one her trademark movies. The Blind Side is her second huge hit this year. The first, The Proposal, which grossed almost $300 million worldwide, was a well-executed down-the-middle comedy that showed off the 45-year-old Bullock’s charm and comedic skills.

The Blind Side is a different proposition. There is Oscar talk for her performance. “Sandra Bullock is at a point in her career where most actresses are trailing off,” says Andrew Kosove of Alcon Entertainment, which wound up financing the project. “And to have this kind of year—it’s a game changer.”

The Blind Side has been almost eerie in the way that it has paralleled its subject matter by offering huge opportunities to those associated with it. It gave writer-director John Lee Hancock his first shot at the helm of a movie since The Alamo tanked in 2004. Quinton Aaron, the unknown actor who scored the role of Michael Oher, had figured his chances of getting the part were so remote that he had asked Hancock if he could work security on the set. “His story is almost equal to Michael’s,” says Netter. “He was a security guard. His mom was very sick and he was responsible for his younger brother.”

After Netter read an excerpt of the Michael Lewis book, The Blind Side, in The New York Times Magazine in 2006, he bought the rights to the material and set the project up at Fox. But after Roberts turned it down, the film stalled. Finally, Creative Artists Agency got Fox to relinquish the rights, with the understanding that it would revert back to the studio if the movie hadn’t started shooting within six months.

Other studios passed but CAA had a buyer in Alcon, a company funded by FedEx founder Fred Smith. The Blind Side has been a breakthrough for Alcon, as well. Kosove and his co-chairman, Broderick Johnson, have been at it since 1997 and were still waiting for their first really big hit. When they got the chance to finance The Blind Side, Kosove says they went with “a simplistic analysis” that came out diametrically opposite from the standard Hollywood version: The strong female lead might appeal to women while the football theme might draw in some men. They figured the film could gross about $50 million.

By then, Hancock had already become interested in Bullock. “When you talk about a female character in her forties to head a movie, there’s a fairly short list of people that studios get excited about,” he says. Bullock struck him as similar to Leigh Anne Tuohy in some ways: “Both very driven, both Type A, both get more done by lunch than I get done in a week.” Kosove concurred that she had “that combination of sass and fortitude that is very much like the real Leigh Anne.”

But Bullock hesitated. Kosove says the role of “some Southern Christian Bible-thumping do-gooder” read like a caricature to her. “She was having a difficult time trying to grab hold and gain purchase with the character,” says Hancock. “She kept saying, 'Is she this?’ and I’d say, 'Not really.’ She defies description—and that’s not the answer that an actor wants from a director.”

Finally Hancock flew with Bullock to Memphis to spend a day with Tuohy. “After about five minutes it wasn’t necessary for me to be there,” he says. They talked about kids and dogs and guns. “Leigh Anne showed [Bullock] her cute little pearl-handled Derringer,” Hancock says. “Sandy kept giving me this sideways look like, 'Get a load of this.’”

Hancock says he felt confident that Bullock could handle the comedic part of the role and that she could nail the dialect. But portraying Tuohy would be “a high-wire act” and even Hancock wasn’t completely sure that Bullock could make it work. “After being on the set with her for about an hour, I was so, so happy,” he says. “I hope people appreciate the difficulty. She does it with such ease in the movie.”

Hancock says he felt that Bullock’s dramatic abilities have been underappreciated. Although those who saw her performance as the lonely politician’s wife in Crash got a glimpse of them.

And now is a great time for Bullock, who made her name playing cute and funny, to display those talents more fully. “As you age, you’re not spunky and perky any more,” says a studio executive. “You’re just—older.” Even in The Proposal, Bullock looks a bit... mature to be playing a romantic role opposite Ryan Reynolds, who is 12 years younger. But Bullock has always had a certain resilient quality. And even her middling films did better than they should have. (In the end, the abysmal All About Steve still managed to gross $34 million.) “Her audience is fiercely loyal to her, 100 percent of the time,” says producer Netter.

And if The Blind Side has been good to Sandy Bullock and John Lee Hancock and Quinton Aaron, it may be good for the movie business, too, in its defiance of conventional wisdom. It’s one of several old-fashioned movies that have done very well lately, at a time when the studios are scampering to the supposed safety of comic-book movies and big bangs.

“I like to make movies that make people feel good,” says Netter. “It makes me think I might still have a career.”

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Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.