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Honoring the power of a single good film

6/5/2006

All across North America, flyfishermen are getting their gear out for another season of piscatorial pursuits.

Whether you are the owner of the latest graphite rod and scientifically engineered line or a traditionalist who uses a split-bamboo shaft and ties flies, flyfishing is ultimately not about filling a creel with tasty pink-flesh salmonids.

It's a passion for which the angler draws upon a love of craftsmanship and knowledge of aquatic ecology to try to outsmart a worthy adversary that has a weakness for devouring insects. Even if the human wins, the loser often gets another chance to grow larger and thrill another angler.

Flyfishing is a soulful sport, which makes it appropriate for translation into art.

There have been a number of popular books about trout fishing, but perhaps the granddaddy is Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," a novel that chronicles a Montana family and the two sons of a Presbyterian minister addicted to flyfishing.

Maclean's novel was published in 1976. It has enjoyed more than 20 printings.

Roger Ebert, who calls Maclean's book "one of the few perfect books of the 20th century," writes that it took Robert Redford more than a decade to assemble enough money to make the film, few in Hollywood wanted to invest money in a fishing flick.

Equally challenging was Maclean. It took Redford five years just to get a meeting with Maclean, who was very reticent to allow his book to be adapted for the screen for fear of Hollywoodization. Sadly, Maclean passed away as the film was going into production.

A line spoken by Robert Redford's narrator in the 1992 picture, "Older Norman," captures that family's spirit — and that shared by legions of devoted fly anglers who consider a good trout stream a sacred place:

In my family, there was no clear division between religion and flyfishing.

Made for $12 million, "A River Runs Through It" grossed $43,440,294 at the domestic box office, which isn't bad considering that its widest release was in 1,080 theaters, only about 1/3 of the theaters that are involved with a big release today.

Considering the price of admission in those days was probably about $5, that means more than 8 million people saw the movie in the theaters, also not bad considering there were only 4 million flyfishermen in those days.

While $12 million may sound like a lot of money, by contemporary Hollywood standards it's a low budget for a film. Some stars get more than that for appearing in a blockbuster.

The average studio film released these days costs around $60 million to make, plus another $40 to market and distribute domestically and another $40 million to market and distribute internationally. The international distribution is now about 40 percent of a picture box office gross.

Hollywood studios claim that 60 percent of the films released every year don't make back their money. Anyone who invested in "A River Runs Through It" did well.

The studio gets about 50 percent of the box office back from the theaters, which means a $24 million box office gross gets a $12 million return. Then add in the international box office (not available), television rights, DVD and video sales, for which I cannot find details, but I assume they were sizeable and probably doubled the film's revenues.

For perspective, in 2005 box office ticket sales for feature films were $10.1 billion, but the home video business was worth $24.5 billion and more than 1 billion DVDs were sold. Investing in good movies can be very lucrative.

Financial success wasn't the only positive outcome from "A River Runs Through It."

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports there was an increase of more than 100,000 flyfishermen wading in the streams three years after the 1992 movie, for a total of almost five million. (The number has since gone down to close to four million today.) And the number of days spent fishing per year jumped from 27,567,000 in 1991 to 41,836,000 during that same time period.

Today, incidentally, about 34.1 million people fish every year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I could not find stats for fishing abroad, but I would venture a guess that flyfishing in places like New Zealand and Patagonia really took off after the movie came out, and it certainly helped launch flyfishing expos that now tour the United States.

The same survey found that in 1991, 30.7 million people bought fishing licenses, while in 1994 31.6 fishing licenses were sold. More remarkably, anglers spent nearly $375 million in 1991, while in 1994 fishermen shelled out $525.8 million.

I can't prove how much of it is due to Redford's masterpiece, but the rise in anglers and the economic boom in that industry seems more than coincidence.

A significant chunk of that 1991-1994 dramatic rise in economics was in the flyfishing industry, where there was a threefold increase in business in the five years immediately following the film's release.

Why was Redford's "fishing movie" so successful? Star power — Brad Pitt, Tom Skerritt and Redford's narration never hurts.

But this also is a very good heartfelt story, told with grace thanks to Redford's skill as a director, and beautifully translated to the screen by the cinematographic genius of Philippe Rousselot, who won an Oscar for his work on this picture. In addition there was a great script and a moving musical score.

"A River Runs Through It" was nominated for two other Oscars, musical score and adapted screenplay.

Affirming the belief that good art is a universal language, the film also won the Reader's Choice Award for the Kinema Junpo, the Japanese Oscars, and was nominated for a number of other awards.

Surfing the Internet, the only grousing about the picture I could find was that of Montana state senator Dan McGee, who told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle that after "A River Runs Through It," people from out-of-state poured into the Gallatin Valley and elsewhere, driving up real estate prices for local buyers.

The power of movies to influence social norms is supported by a recent New York Times article that reported that following the successes of the TV series "Lost" and "Survivor" there has been a significant jump in the popularity of wilderness survival and tracking schools.

Aside from paying homage to an outstanding film, I hope that recounting the success of "A River Runs Through It," both financially and socially, will help spur the outdoor sports community to support good hunting and fishing projects for the big and little screens that may draw mainstream audiences.

We've got four or five cable channels devoted almost exclusively to hunting, shooting and fishing shows, but precious little of that audience is mainstream — and we need to reach out to those folks.

A supportive general public reduces the need to fight a seemingly endless series of political and legal battles that gobble up funds that could be better used for conservation and the education of future generations of sportsmen and women. And reaching that mainstream audience is ultimately the work of art, which is a universal language.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.