''The Contender'' -- The Joan Allen film was penned by a former film critic

By Steve Daly
October 20, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

When producers roll out a completed indie movie for acquisition, their best shot at getting distributed is typically through outfits like Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics, or Fine Line — and if not those studio-affiliated companies, then true independents like Lions Gate or Artisan. So how did The Contender, a $9.8 million political thriller starring Joan Allen as an embattled appointee for vice president, become the first wrapped-movie pickup in DreamWorks’ six-year history? And will moviegoers rush the box office for below-the-Beltway intrigue they can get for free at home — on The West Wing?

DreamWorks is betting on it. (Cannily, the studio ran ads for the film during the hit NBC show’s season premiere.) In fact, marketing The Contender will cost more than the movie itself, not to mention the undisclosed sum the studio paid for the right to distribute it. There’s also early talk of a Best Actress Oscar nod for Allen, whose character, Sen. Laine Hanson, must endure approval hearings that recall the Clarence Thomas and Robert Bork free-for-alls — but with an even nastier edge of sexual inquisition straight out of the Ken Starr playbook.

The hype and the buzz are sweet vindication for Rod Lurie, the movie’s 38-year-old writer-director. A West Point grad, Lurie longed to dramatize the political world he’d come to know growing up as the son of award-winning political cartoonist Ranan Lurie. But he embarked on a career as a movie critic and reporter (he also contributed to ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY), in what he calls the ”mistaken, immature belief” that it was a way to break into showbiz. ”I don’t think I was ever a very good film critic,” he admits.

While still a radio host and film reviewer at L.A.’s KABC, Lurie tried and failed to put some movies together. It wasn’t until he talked poker buddy Kevin Pollak (The Usual Suspects‘ Todd Hockney) into playing the President in the nuclear-showdown drama Deterrence (released last April) that the critic finally got a feature in the can. A French TV station put up the $800,000, Lurie says, because ”Kevin had a bit of an upward arc in Europe after The Usual Suspects.”

In January 1999, Lurie had a brainstorm while presenting Joan Allen with a Broadcast Film Critics Association prize in L.A. for her performance in Pleasantville. ”He made a very complimentary speech,” Allen remembers. ”He said something like ‘I should write a screenplay for Joan Allen, because if she’s in a movie, you know it’ll be good.’ Which was great because I didn’t even know him.” Within a few months, Lurie had a draft of The Contender, along with a commitment from Allen. But that was the last affirmative he heard for a while as his producers looked for funding. ”The big Hollywood studios said, ‘We love Joan,”’ recalls Lurie. ”But, there wasn’t a chance in the world they’d bankroll a movie with her in the lead.” Not even with two other Oscar-nominated actors aboard, Jeff Bridges (as a food-fixated President) and Gary Oldman (as a Republican committee chair out to deep-six Hanson’s confirmation).