The Dollar Baby (or Dollar Deal) is an arrangement where best-selling author Stephen King grants permission to students and aspiring filmmakers or theatre producers to adapt one of his short stories for $1. The term is used to refer to the film or play itself, or the maker (for example, "The Sun Dog" was made as a Dollar Baby, or writer/director Frank Darabont was a Dollar Baby). The production budgets range from a few hundred dollars to over $60,000 (Umney's Last Case) and the film formats range from home video to professional 35 mm film. A book about the Dollar Baby films was released in July 2015 by Dollar Baby filmmaker Shawn S. Lealos. It tells the story of 19 of the Dollar Baby filmmakers as they talk about making their movies and their careers following their Dollar Babies.
As King explained in his introduction to the published shooting script for Frank Darabont's The Shawshank Redemption (based on his Different Seasons novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), "Around 1977 or so, when I started having some popular success, I saw a way to give back a little of the joy the movies had given me.
- "'77 was the year young film makers - college students, for the most part - started writing me about the stories I'd published (first in Night Shift, later in Skeleton Crew), wanting to make short films out of them. Over the objections of my accountant, who saw all sorts of possible legal problems, I established a policy which still holds today. I will grant any student filmmaker the right to make a movie out of any short story I have written (not the novels, that would be ridiculous), so long as the film rights are still mine to assign. I ask them to sign a paper promising that no resulting film will be exhibited commercially without approval, and that they send me a videotape of the finished work. For this one-time right I ask a dollar. I have made the dollar-deal, as I call it, over my accountant's moans and head-clutching protests sixteen or seventeen times as of this writing ."
Once the film was made and King received his copy he explains, "...I'd look at the films... then put them up on a shelf I had marked 'Dollar Babies'."
Then 20-year-old Frank Darabont's Dollar Baby adaptation of "The Woman in the Room" was eventually released in 1986 on VHS by Granite Entertainment Group Interglobal Home Video as part of the Stephen King's Night Shift Collection along with New York University film student Jeff Schiro's adaptation of "The Boogeyman", and John Woodward's "Disciples of the Crow". Darabont went on to direct three feature film adaptations of Stephen King's work: The Mist, The Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile, the latter two of which were nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture.
One of the first to bring the Dollar Deal to the public eye was author Stephen J. Spignesi in his exhaustive volume The Stephen King Encyclopedia, wherein he writes about two student short adaptations: "The Last Rung on the Ladder" (1987) by James Cole and Dan Thron and "The Lawnmower Man" (1987) by Jim Gonis.
As Dollar Babies were not intended to be seen by the public beyond film festivals and school presentations, and not commercially sold or openly traded prior to the advent of the Internet, many of them have eluded the King fan community. In 1996, when King first publicly discussed the Dollar Deal policy, he mentioned "sixteen or seventeen" such Dollar Babies. It is difficult, if not impossible, to account for them all without access to King's designated Dollar Baby shelf. Although Frank Darabont originally requested to make his adaptation of "The Woman in the Room" in 1980, it took him three years to complete the film. The known Dollar Babies between 1977 and 1996 are:
- "The Boogeyman" (1982) by Jeffrey C. Schiro
- "Disciples of the Crow" (1983) by John Woodward
- "The Woman in the Room" (1983) by Frank Darabont
- "Srajenie" (The Battle) (1986) by Mikhail Titov
- "The Last Rung on the Ladder" (1987) by James Cole and Dan Thron
- "The Lawnmower Man" (1987) by James Gonis
- "Here There Be Tygers" (1988) by Guy Maddin (never produced)
- "Cain Rose Up" (1989) by David C. Spillers
- "The Sun Dog" (1993) by Matt Flesher
- "The Man Who Loved Flowers" (1996) by Andrew Newman
In 2000 Dollar Babies came back into the public eye when Los Angeles based filmmaker Jay Holben made an adaptation of "Paranoid: A Chant," a 100-line poem that appears in Skeleton Crew. Paranoid was the first Dollar Baby to be released with King's permission for a limited time on the Internet in 2002. Again with King's permission, the film was then the first Dollar Baby released on a commercial DVD, in a package with Total Movie Magazine, a short-lived offshoot of the UK publication Total Film.
In September 2004, fellow Dollar Baby James Renner ("All That You Love Will Be Carried Away") put together the first public film festival presentation of Dollar Babies. The festival was held in the D. P. Corbett Business Theater at the University of Maine, Orono, Stephen King's own Alma Mater (1966–1970) where he wrote for The Maine Campus newspaper. Renner followed the festival with a second incarnation in September 2005 at the same location.
On the Internet, the largest public collection of the Dollar Babies has been put together by Bernd Lautenslager from the Netherlands. Many of the films listed above were available for download at a site called Stephen King Short Movies, but at the request of Stephen King's representatives, the films are no longer available for download. To date, the only short specifically granted permission to play for a limited time on the Internet was Paranoid.
In October 2009, director/producer J.P. Scott completed the first full length Dollar Baby. His adaptation of "Everything's Eventual" tells the story of a young man with mysterious powers who is recruited by an equally enigmatic corporation. Shortly after receiving a copy of the movie, Stephen King viewed the film and was "very impressed" by it, so much so that he granted J.P. Scott the rights to theatrically distribute the film.
The only other time that commercial distribution rights that have been given to a Dollar Baby was with Frank Darabont's "The Woman in the Room" and Jeff Schiro's "The Boogeyman," which was released as "Stephen King's Nightshift Collection."
It is a common misconception that the filmmakers of the Dollar Babies have optioned or obtained the legal rights to the stories the films are based on. In fact, author King retains all rights and merely grants the permission to the filmmaker to make a non-commercial adaptation. As in the case of The Woman in the Room, The Boogeyman, and "Disciples of the Crow", Granite Entertainment Group Interglobal Home Video negotiated and purchased the rights to commercially release the shorts on video in 1986. The non-public details of these agreements are well beyond the original $1 for Dollar Baby permission. These films were originally announced for home video distribution by Gerard Ravels' Native Son International, but after Frank Darabont discovered that Ravels did not secure proper rights to the stories, the release was scrapped. As part of the agreement with Stephen King, all Dollar Baby films must include the specific phrase "© Stephen King. Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved."
This rather unorthodox arrangement is the reason the films cannot be commercially released nor can the filmmakers garner any profit from the works, and accounts for adaptations of the same source material by multiple filmmakers. For example, "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away" was adapted seven times by James Renner, Anthony Kaneaster, Scott Albanese, Chi Laughlin & Natalie Mooallem (as All That You Love), Robert Sterling and Brian Berkowitz (as The Secret Transit Codes of America's Highways).
King's phrase "so long as the film rights are still mine to assign..." actually has two meanings. This refers to King retaining rights to the original material in order to sell them to a legitimate buyer in the future, and also to material that has not been previously sold (i.e.: material to which King still holds all the rights). If another company or individual has purchased the film rights to one of King's stories, he no longer has legal authority to grant permission to a Dollar Baby as the rights are now held by the buyer.
Filmmakers cannot upload their films (Dollar Babies) onto video-sharing websites like YouTube or Vimeo.
Some Dollar Baby filmmakers have mistakenly assumed that Stephen King's explicit permission to make and showcase the adapted filmwork automatically qualifies the film for a possessory credit (e.g. "Stephen King's Silver Bullet" as opposed to just "Silver Bullet"). In actuality, this is a specified legal usage of the author's name and King does not grant permission for Dollar Baby filmmakers to use his name in this manner. The possessory title is only used on projects in which King has a direct and considerable involvement.
Previously, this title was applied more liberally until it was abused with the release of Brett Leonard's The Lawnmower Man. The film, which bears little to no resemblance to King's short story, was originally released as Stephen King's The Lawnmower Man, but the possessory title was removed following a lawsuit filed by King against the filmmakers. A federal court ruled in King's favor, and a Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that King's name should be removed from the title.
As Stephen King himself commented, "Many of these adaptations weren't so great, but a few showed at least a smattering of talent... in many cases one viewing was all a person could bear." As many, if not the majority, of the Dollar Baby films are made by student or tyro filmmakers, the quality is often sub-standard, although there are a few notable exceptions. King offered praise to "...a fairly impressive eighteen minute version of 'The Sun Dog'". Darabont's The Woman in the Room, in addition to being photographed by the renowned cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia (Glengarry Glen Ross), made the semi-finalist list for Academy Award consideration in 1983. King is also quoted as saying that "The Woman in the Room" is "clearly the best of the short films made from my stuff."
Paranoid is among the most critically acclaimed Dollar Babies. Rolling Stone magazine's David Wild said of the film "Rarely has paranoia been so much fun... Jay Holben has created a stunning and artful rendering of madness, turning a poem by Stephen King into a vivid and compelling nightmare vision."
- Lealos, Shawn S. "Dollar Deal: The Stephen King Dollar Baby Filmmakers". Amazon. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
- Lealos, Shawn S. "Dollar Deal: The Story of the Stephen King Dollar Baby Filmmakers: Now Available". The Official Website of Shawn S. Lealos. Retrieved March 3, 2015.
- "The Shawshank Redemption: The Shooting Script" Darabont, Frank Newmarket Press 1996 introduction King, Stephen pp. ix-x
- "Interview: Frank Darabont". Lilja's Library. Retrieved February 6, 2007.
- Spignesi, Stephen J.The Stephen King Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Works of America's Master of Horror. Contemporary Books, 1991. "Student Cinema" pp. 602–605, "The Woman in the Room" pp. 578–579, "The Boogeyman" pp. 588–589.
- Saavedra, John. "The Legend of the Stephen King Dollar Baby". Den on Geek. Retrieved October 2, 2014.
- Lilja's Library
- Paranoid, the Official Website
- "2004 Dollar Baby Film Festival". Dollar Baby Film Festival. Retrieved March 2, 2015.
- "Stephen King Short Movies". Retrieved April 2, 2013.
- "Paranoid". jayholben.com. Retrieved March 2, 2015.
- "Stephen King's Nightshift Collection". Amazon.com. Retrieved March 2, 2015.
- Lealos, Shawn S. "What Are the Stephen King Dollar Baby Films?". The Official Website of Shawn S. Lealos. Retrieved August 16, 2012.
- Zipser, Robert. "How to Option a Book for Film Adaptation". Filmmaker Magazine. Filmmaker Magazine. Retrieved August 8, 2013.
- Jones, Stephen (2001). Creepshows: The Illustrated Stephen King Movie Guide Titan Books. p. 75
- "The Lost Work of Stephen King: A Guide to Unpublished Manuscripts, Story Fragments, Alternative Versions and Oddities" Spignesi, Stephen J. Birch Lane Press 1998 p. 332
- "Stephen King at the Movies" Horsting, Jessie Signet Press / Starlog Press 1986 pp. 94–95
- "Creepshows the Illustrated Stephen King Movie Guide" Jones, Stephen Titan Books 2001 pp. 132–135
- "The Essential Stephen King" Spignesi, Stephen J. Career Press / New Page Books 2001
- "Why Kitty Absolutely Had to Die, or How I Made A Movie of a Stephen King Short Story for a Buck" Cole, James appearing in "The Lost Works of Stephen King: A Guide to Unpublished Manuscripts, Story Fragments, Alternative Versions and Oddities" Spignesi, Stephen J. Birch Lane Press 1998 pp. 346–350
- "Stephen King's poetry comes to the red screen" Hollyer, Mary-Beth Rue Morgue Magazine 'Dreadlines' #21 May/June 2001 pp. 26 Marrs Media Inc.
- "Who's Watching Me" Holben, Jay American Cinematographer Magazine 'Short Takes' vol 82 no 11 November 2001 pp. 111–112
- The Official Stephen King Web Presence
- Dollar Babies on FaceBook
- Stephen King Short Movies
- Liljas Library, extensive fan site (see interviews with filmmakers and reviews of Dollar Babies)
- Dollar Deal: The Story of the Stephen King Dollar Baby Filmmakers (official website for the book)