Sidney Poitier Makes Film (Business) History with ‘To Sir, With Love’ - Coming for the First time, Remastered, to Blu-ray
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Sidney Poitier Makes Film (Business) History with ‘To Sir, With Love’ - Coming for the First time, Remastered, to Blu-ray

nullThe premise

of a young teacher who inspires a group of undisciplined, uncouth young

people headed for dismal futures, is an ages old

story. You can trace it back to the old Bette Davis 1945 Warner Bros chestnut "The

Corn is Green," and it goes back even farther than that. There have been many

variations of the same story, from MGM’s 1955 "The Backboard Jungle" co-staring a young Sidney Poitier as a manipulative juvenile delinquent, to "Up the Down Staircase," "Stand and Deliver," "Lean on Me," "Dangerous Minds" and similar others.

But for my

money, one of the best is the British made 1967 Columbia Pictures movie, "To Sir

with Love," written and directed by James Clavell, and starring Sidney Poitier, this time, moving up from a delinquent to the teacher who’s combating some wild youth, seriously in need of life makeovers.

Part of what

makes the film special is the fact that the story is based on a memoir written by E.R. Braithwaite (still alive now

in his mid-90’s) – a Guyanese/ British author, based on his real life experiences as a

teacher. Though with a Ph.D in Psychics, Braithwaite was not able to find a job

in his field and became a teacher who decided to throw away the class books, and teach

his unruly students about life and becoming self respecting young men and

women.

Braithwaite himself,

after teaching, became a novelist, concentrating on social issues and

racism, and went on to an extraordinary career as an ambassador, as well as an internationally

renowned education expect and consultant. For a while, he also worked for the

United Nations.

But the film

itself is genuinely engaging and  heartfelt, with real a charming quality to it, mainly thanks to the period and place the film was made – the psychedelic

“swinging London” of the mid-60s, when everything was “fab” and “mod,” with the mini dresses and go-go boots.

The movie

was a box office smash and not only solidified Poitier’s status as one of the

biggest movie stars in the world at the time, but also spawned a hit song by the then popular singing sensation, Lulu, who also has a supporting role

in the film.

The writer

and director of the film, James Clavell, also wrote the screenplay for the original version of sci-fi classic "The Fly," as well as a

really solid but overlooked and underrated sci-fi paranoid thriller, "The Satan Bug," and the World War II movie classic, "The Great

Escape" – the last two both directed by John Sturges.

And later in

the mid-70s, now working as a best selling novelist, Clavell wrote the mega

blockbuster book "Shogun," which became the basis for the 1980 NBC TV mini-series, which is still one of the most watch programs

in TV history.

But what is

little known is how Poitier changed the game in the movie business with "To Sir, Love," which had an effect that carried on into today. Something which I didn’t know myself – until

I read an interview with Clavell (who died in 1994): Columbia Pictures was eventually not all that convinced on the film and, as a result, gave it a very modest production budget of around

$700,000 (which would be around $5.2 million today). But Clavell

and the producers badly wanted Poitier for the lead role of Braithwaite, since it

was perfect casting, and there was no one else at the time who would have played

the role better.

The problem was

that, by the mid-60’s, Poitier was one of the biggest movie stars in the world, commanding

$1 million a picture – a staggering sum for an actor back then. So getting Poitier

for their very modestly budgeted film was going to be a real problem.

However, Poitier, the filmmakers and the studio made a

deal that, at the time, was novel and quite radical, and totally changed how business was done in Hollywood. The deal was for Poitier to make "Love" for scale, the lowest amount of money you could pay a

lead actor in a feature film at the time, according to the Screen Actors Guild. But, in exchange, Poitier got a back-end deal of a percentage of the net gross of the

film, also known as “dollar one participation."

Now I’m not

talking about a percentage of the net profits. That has been around for decades, and, in fact, big name actors started getting that type deal in the early 1950’s, which meant that an actor got a percentage of the profits of a film after the

studio deducted production, marketing and distribution costs, and whatever accounting

chicanery, to make it appear that a film was still in the red, even though it was well into the black.

But Poitier’s

deal meant that he got a percentage of the world wide box office gross from the

first ticket sold, and not from the movie profits, if the studio ever decided

that the film had made one. Not surprisingly, he made more money from "Love" than

if he had just been paid a flat salary. And, of course, net gross deals have become very common today for many A-listers, but someone had to do it first.

And with all

this background, I can now tell you that "To

Sir, with Love" is coming out, for the first time, remastered on blu-ray, from

Twilight Time, on February 10, 2015. And that’s the story of how a little low budget

film secretly transformed Hollywood.

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