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How did 'One False Move' become a sleeper hit?

A gritty little thriller becomes a big deal

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In a season that usually favors Cheez Doodle-light screen fare, One False Move—a moody, independent feature about a trio of sociopathic drug dealers—seems an unlikely pick for a summer sleeper. But in what critics are calling a classic Cinderella story, the film has enjoyed a spectacular reversal of fortune since its limited May theatrical release. After Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert saved the movie from early oblivion with two emphatic thumbs-up, One False Move began packing art houses in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles. While its financial success is still somewhat short of modest (it cost $2.3 million and has grossed $1.3 million to date), its director, Carl Franklin, and stars, Cynda Williams, Bill Paxton, and Billy Bob Thornton, have become the hot properties of the moment. ”It’s been a real vote of confidence,” marvels Franklin, whose grandest work until now had been three B movies for Roger Corman’s studio.

The battle began five years ago, when screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton, 37 (who plays the crazed redneck addict), and Tom Epperson, 40, began shopping their script to the major studios. ”They all pounced on it,” Thornton recalls. ”But once they mulled it over they said, ‘We can’t make a movie like this.’ It didn’t have a rocket launcher or an oversized baby.” The project languished until independent producers Jesse Beaton and Ben Myron finally got it made at L.A.-based I.R.S. Releasing. But even after completion in May 1991, Move got off to a slow start. ”I.R.S. had pictures backed up waiting to be released before this one, and it took a while to figure out how to market it,” explains Myron.

Enter the critics, who caught Move at several film festivals around the country, and for once, played the white knights. After viewing the film separately, Siskel and Ebert began championing Move, plugging it on their show as one of the year’s best. ”All six characters in the film are fully written,” says Siskel now. ”In most Hollywood films, you don’t get any kind of writing past the first two.” Other reviewers found a heady sense of discovery in Move. ”There wasn’t a tremendous amount of hype associated with it,” says Variety’s Richard Natale, ”so many of us could discover it by ourselves, which is a rare joy in movies.”

Though the film may never make much money—it should screen in 40 to 50 markets before its September video release-its principals have already found work, which is no mean feat. Franklin is now directing an HBO series, Shelton Avenue, and will soon start an independently produced baseball movie. A small triumph: No one has pigeonholed him yet. ”Half the people calling my agent don’t know I’m black,” Franklin, 43, claims.

Actress Cynda Williams and the writers, all currently working on an indie movie called Grey Night, are also very much in demand. ”When Tom and I go in for a meeting now, it’s like, ‘If you guys want the job, you can have it,”’ marvels Thornton. He laughingly boasts that their asking price has skyrocketed since they received the option money for One False Move: one dollar each.