The Dollar Baby (also sometimes referred to as the Dollar Deal) is a term coined by best-selling author Stephen King in reference to a select group of students and aspiring filmmakers or theatre producers whom he has granted permission to adapt one of his short stories for $1. The term is used interchangeably to refer to the film or play itself, or the maker (for example, “The Sun Dog” was made as a Dollar Baby, or writer/director Frank Darabont was a Dollar Baby). The production budgets range from a few hundred dollars to over $60,000 (Umney’s Last Case) and the film formats range from home video to professional 35 mm film. A book about the Dollar Baby films is planned for an early 2015 release by Dollar Baby filmmaker Shawn S. Lealos. It will tell the story of 19 of the Dollar Baby filmmakers where they talk about making their movies and their career following their Dollar Babies.
As King explained in his introduction to the published shooting script for Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (based on his Different Seasons novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), “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 film makers – 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 .
Once the film was made and King received his copy he explains, “…I’d look at the films… then put them up on a shelf I had marked ‘Dollar Babies’.”
Then-20-year old Frank Darabont’s Dollar Baby adaptation of “The Woman in the Room” was eventually released in 1986 on VHS by Granite Entertainment Group Interglobal Home Video as part of the Stephen King’s Night Shift Collection along with New York University film student Jeff Schiro‘s adaptation of “The Boogeyman“, and John Woodward’s “Disciples of the Crow“. Darabont went on to direct three feature film adaptations of Stephen King’s work: The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, both nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture, as well as The Mist.
One of the first to bring the Dollar Deal to the public eye was author Stephen J. Spignesi in his exhaustive volume The Stephen King Encyclopedia where in he writes about two student short adaptations: “The Last Rung on the Ladder” (1987) by James Cole and Dan Thron and “The Lawnmower Man” (1987) by James Gonis.