When Bangor native Jeff Schiro was a film student at New York University in the early 1980s, he asked his favorite writer, fellow Bangorian Stephen King, if he could make a film of his short story “The Boogeyman,” from his 1978 collection “Night Shift.”
Schiro had no idea that his student project would be the first of a lesser-known phenomenon that, over the past 35 years, has spawned more than 300 short films adapted from King short stories.
“The Boogeyman” was the first so-called Dollar Baby, a unique agreement between King and up-and-coming filmmakers that allows them to make short films from his selected short stories.
The stipulations of the deal are that the film can’t be distributed commercially, screened in theaters, put online or be used to make money in any way. It can only be used as an educational tool, and shown as part of a film festival. The cost for the rights? One dollar.
Schiro, who has worked in film and TV since graduating from NYU in 1982 and now lives in Los Angeles, recalls asking King simply because he was a fan.
“I was for sure an early fan of his, since at that point I’d read everything he’d ever written,” said Schiro, a 1977 graduate of Bangor High School. “I just asked him if it was OK if I did it. I think the fact that I was a Bangor kid didn’t hurt in his wanting to say yes. Of course, I had no idea that this all would continue.”
Around the same time King granted permission to Schiro, another young filmmaker asked to adapt the author’s story “The Woman In The Room.” That filmmaker was then-unknown Frank Darabont, and that film led to an ongoing relationship with King, which eventually resulted in Darabont’s 1994 feature length directorial debut: “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Because the films can’t be put online or distributed commercially, the vast majority of them have never been seen by anyone other than those who have attended a Dollar Baby film festival, of which there have been many over the years. Only a tiny handful are available to view online, including both Schiro and Darabont’s efforts, and “Paranoid: A Chant” by Jay Holben, all of which have King’s explicit permission.
Shawn Lealos, an Oklahoma native, directed a Dollar Baby (“I Know What You Need” from “Night Shift”) when he was a student at the University of Oklahoma. He stayed interested in the phenomenon, and in 2015 published a book, “Dollar Deal: The Story of the Stephen King Dollar Baby Filmmakers.”
In his research, Lealos found there’s just one other famous author that has offered a similar deal to aspiring filmmakers: Ray Bradbury, who wrote over 600 short stories over his long career.
For King, letting certain stories go for essentially free is about helping creative people gain valuable experience.
“I think, in the beginning, he was struggling to make a living as a writer. He was teaching, Tabby [Tabitha King, his wife] was working in a laundromat. It wasn’t until his fourth book that he hit it big,” said Lealos. “He knows what it was like to struggle, and he likes to help people push their creativity. So this is how he could help with that.”
The quality of the films that have been made varies wildly — some are acclaimed, like Darabont’s and Schiro’s, but others are clearly made by amateurs with very low budgets.
Good or bad, King’s intrigued by all of them.
“Hemingway said that the best thing that can happen to a writer is when they pay you a lot of money for it but never make the movie,” said King, in an interview in October with Vulture. “I’ve never felt that way. I’m always anxious to see what they do with it.”
Some are made as part of a college curriculum. Frank Welch, who teaches video production at the New England School of Communications in Bangor, had wanted to make a Dollar Baby film for years. When he started teaching at NESCOM, he had his chance — and the opportunity to use it as a teaching tool for his students. “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” made as part of his video production class, came out in 2011.
“It’s really an amazing thing to add to a demo reel, because it’s a real production with a major name attached to it,” said Welch. “When you’re sending it off for potential jobs, that really matters. It makes a huge difference.”
The added benefit of name recognition also helps.
“When you’re doing a student film, it can be hard to get really talented people to audition, but as soon as we did a casting call announcing it was a Stephen King adaptation, we had dozens of people call,” said Welch.
King likened the deal to seeing a promising young baseball player in action before he’s signed.
“It’s just an effort to give a little back. Plus, I get copies of the films, which are usually interesting and sometimes quite brilliant, he said in a statement from King published in the Oklahoma Gazette when Lealos’ book came out. “In a way, it’s like being a baseball scout in the minor leagues.”
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