Disney &amp; Dave: <I>Red Fern</I> gets a distributor

The film debut of Dave Matthews, a movie project mired in acrimony and red ink, has finally emerged with a blue-chip distributor.

"We have sold the home video rights to Disney," says Ray Simmons, the manager of credit and delivery at Bristol Bay Productions, one of the owners of the remake of Where the Red Fern Grows.

Disney's first experiment with a live audience for the long-delayed picture came a few days ago at the Jacksonville Film Festival on Saturday, May 15 when it played to a large crowd at the 2,600-seat Florida Theater.

"I've never seen an audience love a film as much as this one," says Wayne Mooneyhan, a Red Fern executive producer. "There wasn't a dry eye in the audience– you could hear the sniffles."

You could also hear the applause. Like the year-ago debut at New York's Tribeca Film Festival, the Florida screening brought waves of appreciation– including a standing ovation as the credits rolled, and another after a 45-minute Q&A with the film's youthful star, Joseph Ashton.

"It was absolutely wonderful," says Ashton, 17, in a telephone interview from the Jacksonville airport. "I'm in a really good mood."

The mood needed some mending. In the autumn of 1999, shooting abruptly ceased when the director ran out of money to pay the cast, crew, and dozens of contractors in tiny Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

After the meltdown, a company backed by Denver-based media billionaire Philip Anschutz emerged with the footage and the rights. That firm, Crusader Entertainment, morphed into Bristol Bay when Anschutz restructured his holdings earlier this year.

The film– a tragic tale of a boy and his dogs in the tradition of Old Yeller– is a remake based on the classic 1961 novel by the late Wilson Rawls. So many teachers have made the book part of their middle school curriculum that Publishers Weekly ranks it #5 on the all-time list of best-selling kids' paperbacks with 6.8 million copies sold. That drubs such well-known titles as Little House on the Prairie, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Little Prince.

That's part of the reason Mooneyhan is pushing Disney for a theatrical release instead of going straight to DVD.

"Moms and dads who read the book will take their kids, and many of the Dave Matthews fans who travel thousands of miles to see him in concert will certainly buy a ticket," says Mooneyhan.

"I really believe if Walt Disney were alive today he would give this film his top priority," says Mooneyhan. "It will be a Walt Disney classic."

Besides Matthews, a musical star since the early 1990s, the film features several megastars of the 1970s: Kris Kristofferson, Ned Beatty, and Mac "I Believe in Music" Davis.

Matthews brings his well-known affability to his earnest role as the boy's dad, Will Colman. The sight of Matthews in a broad-brimmed hat and hard-worn overalls may bring chuckles to his legion of tie-dyed fans. "It's great to see a big coonskin on the smokehouse wall in the morning," he proclaims in the picture. He was unavailable for this article.

At one point, Matthews lent more than $150,000 to keep the cameras rolling, but it wasn't enough to keep several Tahlequah merchants from being stiffed. The director, Lyman Dayton, went on to declare bankruptcy– and lose control of the film that had been his life's passion.

"It's hard to be in my situation," says Dayton, "and be really objective. Because I know what it could have been."

Dayton claims Matthews offered to provide the music for the film but backed off when the three investment groups Dayton recruited decided to finish the picture without him. "When they got close to the situation, they said, 'What do we need Dayton for?"

While the bankruptcy judge denied Dayton's claim of collusion, he's still pursuing civil claims in federal court in Los Angeles.

Having produced the 1974 film version of the Depression-era tale, Dayton hoped that his remake would pick up the pace for modern audiences– especially by showing more raccoon hunting. Ironically, most of the animal sequences were shot by the clean-up director, Sam Pillsbury.

Simmons says he doesn't know what the Walt Disney Company paid Bristol Bay for the rights. But if Disney doesn't act quickly to distribute the film, the company Walt built might lose bragging rights to Dave's debut.

Last fall, around the time his first solo CD was released, Matthews went to Napoleonville, Louisiana, to shoot another family drama, Because of Winn Dixie. In the film– leavened with lots of small-town comedic touches– Matthews plays Otis, a shy ex-con. It's slated for an early 2005 release from Twentieth Century Fox.

Joseph Ashton and Dave Matthews take direction on location.


[The Hook erroneously described Dayton's role in making the 1974 version of the film; it has been corrected in this online edition.–editor]