The Legend of the Stephen King Dollar Baby

Want to make a short film based on one of Stephen King's stories? Chances are that it'll only cost you a dollar...

In case you didn’t know, Stephen King is a bit prolific. With over 50 novels, 6 nonfiction books, and 200 short stories to his name (or Richard Bachman’s), King has one of the hardest-working pens/typewriters/laptops in the writing world. And best of all, when it comes to King’s work, quantity DOES equal quality. 

That’s probably why Hollywood is constantly optioning his countless works for big blockbuster film adaptations. Guys like Frank Darabont, Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, George A. Romero, John Carpenter, Lawrence Kasdan, and Robert Reiner have all taken stabs (no pun intended) at his work. Many of them are even great films that hold their own, which is very rare in the novel-to-film adaptation business, especially when the source material is as high-profile as King’s.

But for every Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile, Carrie, IT, and Shining we see, there is a secret sector of King films that have never seen the light of day beyond a classroom and/or film festivals. They’re called Dollar Babies.

The Dollar Baby is a term coined by King himself, and is the author’s humble attempt to share his work with film students and aspiring filmmakers who are trying to make a name for themselves in the industry. For $1, these young filmmakers can adapt his stories as long as they never commercially distribute the films (yes, that includes uploading them to the internet…sorry!). They also have to send King a finished copy of the film, which is pretty nerve-racking if you ask me. What if Uncle Stevie hates your film more than Kubrick’s?!

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Although the Dollar Baby goes as far back as 1982, King first publicly acknowledged the “dollar deal policy” in 1996 in the introduction for The Shawshank Redemption: The Shooting Script. Despite all the oogie-boogies, creepy crawlies, and generally undead/paranormal things chewing on your flesh, King is a pretty nice guy:

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 filmmakers – 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 [1996].

King, who is a lifelong fan of film (if you read his non-fiction work Danse Macabre, you’ll see just how much he loves the creature features of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff), has shared many short stories with Dollar Baby filmmakers over the years. And it’s no accident that he revealed his dollar deal policy in the intro to The Shawshank Redemption‘s published script, since Frank Darabont was one of the first directors to take advantage of the dollar deal.

Although Jeff Schiro’s 1982 “The Boogeyman” (Night Shift) was the first Dollar Baby, it was Darabont who really capitalized on this deal. He wrote and directed an adaptation of “The Woman in the Room” (Night Shift), which King became so fond of that he allowed Darabont to commercially distribute the short film along with Schiro’s as the Nightshift Collection(you can still find this baby on Amazon).

In an interview in 2007, Darabont spoke to Lilja’s Library, THE Stephen King fan site, about his experience with the Dollar Baby:

I wrote Steve King my letter, he said yes, and it took me three years to make The Woman in the Room. It took a while to raise enough money (from some kindly investors in Iowa) to shoot the movie and get it in the can. But then I had to personally earn the rest of the money needed to put the film through post-production: editing the film, doing the sound, paying for the lab work, etc. By 1983 I was working as a prop assistant on TV commercials — not great money, but it was enough to get my movie finished. I earned $11,000 dollars that year and spent $7,000 of it finishing my movie — how I survived on $4,000 that year is something I still can’t explain; to this day I have no idea how I did it. (The IRS was also quite curious…that was the only year I’ve ever gotten audited for taxes, because they couldn’t believe anybody could survive on $4,000 a year.) All I can say is, my rent was cheap and I lived very frugally. I spent that entire year with a borrowed Moviola in my bedroom, editing the film. I had heaps of 16mm film piled all over the place. At night, I had to move all the piles of film off my bed onto the floor so I could go to sleep. In the morning, I’d have to move the piles of film from the floor back onto my bed so I could walk to the bathroom. Very glamorous!

Darabont was certainly rewarded for his efforts and sacrifice, though, as 1994 saw the release of The Shawshank Redemption, an Academy Award-nominated film adaptation of another King short story. Almost universally considered one of the best films born from King’s work, it is now considered a cinematic classic (it was a box office flop in its first theatrical run). And it is that first Dollar Baby that sparked the collaborative efforts between King and Darabont for Shawshank as well as blockbusters such as 1999’s The Green Mile (also Oscar-nominated) and 2007’s The Mist.

King’s been honest, of course: since most of these films are very low-budget and made by inexperienced filmmakers, many of them are hard to watch twice. Still, for many broke artists, this is a great first shot. Others, like Darabont, have taken a good crack at it.

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2000’s “Paranoid” by Jay Holben is an 8-minute adaptation of a poem of the same name, which was published in Skeleton Crew. The short film premiered on the internet (with King’s permission, of course) for a limited run of 8 months. You can still find the film archived on the web if you look hard enough…

Something to note about Dollar Babies: there does seem to be a give and take. Although the aspiring filmmakers do get the better end of the deal (Hollywood/TV pays REAL good money for King’s stuff), these films do give a lot of King’s lesser known works some time on the big/small/computer screen. And when the films are good, all the better.

Until I started researching for this article, I had no idea anyone had dared to adapt King’s 100-line poem about a paranoid schizophrenic man (a woman in the Dollar Baby) who may or may not be stalked by King supervillain Randall Flagg (see: The Dark Tower series, Hearts in Atlantis, The Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon). It’s kind of difficult to adapt a poem for the movies, isn’t it? Unless it’s something epic with swords, of course.

But that’s the kind of creativity these Dollar Babies nurture. Give a buck and put your all into adapting a story you love. In my opinion, that’s what being a Constant Reader is all about: enjoying the stories and then making them part of your life in a meaningful way. This article, for example, is my way of sharing with you, Less Constant Reader, my love of short films based on King’s work. 

When asked by Lilja’s Library why he chose to adapt King’s poem, Holben said:

I’ve been a Constant Reader (for those non-fans read: constant Stephen King fan) for many years – ever since my brother handed me a copy of Thinner sometime around 1985. Paranoid: A Chant has always been a quiet favorite. It’s a great piece of writing that is often overlooked and forgotten. So many people quickly label King as a “Horror Writer,” but I think he’s much more of a sociologist. He has an extraordinary gift for capturing the souls of people and putting them down on paper. It is his characterizations and expressions of humanity that keep me coming back to King’s words time and time again. Paranoid is a great example of how he gets you inside a person’s head in a short, concise and powerful way. 

Some of these guys just get it, and that’s what makes these Dollar Babies such a great expansion of King’s work — like his secret Expanded Universe that you have to be cool enough to be there for.

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To this day, King still encourages the Dollar Baby. If you visit King’s official site, you’ll find a long list of short stories waiting for the Dollar Baby treatment. The stories on the list come from the author’s major short story collections, spanning much of King’s life and his growth/change as a writer. From classic boogeyman stories such as “I Am the Doorway” (Night Shift) to later stories with a more literay approach such as “The Things They Left Behind” (Just After Sunset), which is now being adapted for TV, there is something for every young filmmaker to sick their teeth into (pun intended).

Even “The Woman in the Room” is still available for a dollar deal. Think you can top Darabont’s version? (You can find his short film on the internet, as well, in case you want to compare notes.) Take your shot for a dollar.

John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek US. Find more of his work on his website. Or just follow him on Twitter.