‘Million Dollar’ march

Despite rough early rounds, Eastwood's boxing saga beat the odds

June 7, 2004: Production starts.

July 29: “Baby” wraps production in 37 days, two days ahead of schedule.

Late August: Producers show WB first cut of the film.

Sept. 29: Warners announces ‘Baby,’ originally scheduled for 2005, will bow Dec. 15.

Nov. 19: Warner screens “Baby” on the lot for the first time for a handful of critics.

Dec. 1: National Board Of Review announces Eastwood as winner of a special career achievement award.

Dec. 12: New York Film Critics vote Eastwood best director; AFI names “Baby” one of the year’s 10 best.

Dec. 13: “Baby” earns four Golden Globe noms, including best drama picture. Boston critics name Hilary Swank best actress.

Dec. 15: “Baby” opens on eight screens in L.A., N.Y. and Toronto.

Dec. 21: Eastwood is named best director by the Chicago and San Diego film critics orgs.

Jan. 5, 2005: The PGA nominates “Baby” for best pic.

Jan. 6: The DGA nominates Eastwood for best feature director.

Jan. 9: Eastwood accepts director honors from N.Y. Crix; National Society of Film Critics awards “Baby” best pic.

Jan. 10: Swank wins Broadcast Crix’ best actress award.

Jan. 11: “Baby” is nominated for three major SAG Awards.

Jan. 13: Screenwriter Paul Haggis (and F.X. Toole) wins USC Scripter Award and is nominated for a WGA Award.

Jan. 23: Golden Globes go to Eastwood and Swank, but “Aviator” takes best drama pic.

Jan. 25: “Baby” receives seven Oscar noms, including pic and director and actor for Eastwood.

Jan. 28: “Baby” expands to 2,010 screens nationwide and earns $12.3 million in three days.

Jan. 29: Eastwood wins the DGA Award.

Feb. 5: Swank and Morgan Freeman win SAG Awards.

Feb. 8: Eastwood appears on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”

Feb. 27: “Baby” wins four Oscars: best pic, director, actress and supporting actor.

From the opening bell, it was an underdog scrapper fighting an undercard bout — coming out of nowhere to score a late-round knockout. Sound like “Rocky”?

The difference between that 1976 picture winner, Sylvester Stallone’s brainchild and starring vehicle, and last year’s “Million Dollar Baby” is one started out as a million-to-one shot and the other should have been greeted as a sure bet. But despite Clint Eastwood’s cachet as a solid performer at the B.O., and the uphill struggle he experienced at Warner Bros. the year prior with the critically acclaimed “Mystic River,” the actor-turned-director still found himself facing a reluctant WB brass.

As it turned out, the film that nobody wanted to make copped seven Oscar nominations and four statuettes, including picture, and ended up being the biggest grosser of Eastwood’s career, ringing up $207 million worldwide.

The filmmakers might have claimed poetic justice, but at least one of the producers still mulls the question: “How did it ever happen?”

“When Clint got involved along with Hilary (Swank) and Morgan (Freeman) we knew we had a movie. But even then it was difficult to get a studio to put all the money up,” says Al Ruddy, whose 1972 pic winner, “The Godfather,” also had a bumpy ride to the podium. “I mean, my best friends in distribution said, ‘Al, who wants to see a movie about a girl boxer who becomes a paraplegic, chews off her tongue, they cut off her leg and she dies with two old guys?’ ”

But when Ruddy showed Eastwood the script two years ago in Sun Valley, Calif., the star who had vowed never to act and direct again in the same film told him this would be the last time. He had to play the weathered fight trainer, Frankie, and make this movie that originally was to be helmed by scripter Paul Haggis. (Haggis adapted and combined two stories from F.X. Toole’s 2000 “Rope Burns” for “Million Dollar Baby.”)

Warner Bros. initially balked, then agreed to put up only half the $30 million budget (Lakeshore Entertainment put up the other half for foreign rights). WB execs also told Ruddy that there would be no way it would be released in ’04. Then they saw the picture some six weeks after its wrap July 29, just 37 days after shooting started.

“Alan Horn had to take his glasses off he was crying so much,” says Ruddy of the Warners chairman. “But when we came they said, ‘Don’t have any silly ideas of an Academy Award campaign. We have ‘Polar Express,’ ‘Alexander,’ ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘The Aviator.’

“So needless to say you looked out the window every day and something was crashing and burning on the lot and everything started vanishing. I think at any other time we would have no shot. Never. It just turned out that way.”

Once the studio saw the picture and an opening in its fall release schedule materialized (Warners co-production “The Aviator” had been transferred to Miramax domestically), it moved quickly. On Sept. 29, Warners announced that Eastwood’s quiet summer shoot would be rewarded with an Oscar-qualifying engagement Dec. 15, followed by a late-January rollout to coincide with hoped-for Academy recognition.

Still, no one took it too seriously until word started coming out of a small screening held in Room 12 on the Warners lot on Friday, Nov. 19, for a handful of critics including the L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan, Newsweek’s David Ansen and “ET’s” Leonard Maltin — who all spent a good deal of time outside the screening room discussing what they had just seen.

“I consider it a gift that I got to see it early knowing absolutely nothing about it,” says Maltin. “I didn’t know how it would be received. I just knew I’d seen a really good movie.”

Three days later, a rapturous reaction at a Directors Guild of America screening confirmed the viability of Warner’s 11th-hour trump card. Emboldened, the studio’s careful, slow campaign strategy was developed with complete faith in the movie.

“You organically find the right places to put the film and let the movie do the heavy lifting,” says one person close to the project.

Lakeshore topper and co-producer Tom Rosenberg believes that Eastwood himself was key to the picture’s good fortune. “Clint’s whole style as a person, director and actor, and his relationship with the public, helped immensely,” says Rosenberg. “Everything he does I think is appreciated.”

By its mid-December opening in L.A., New York and Toronto, critical raves were pouring in, and it had already earned Eastwood a special achievement laurel from the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle’s helmer kudo, and several noms for Golden Globes including drama pic and director.

As award season rolled on it became clear that Warners’ gambit was the real deal, picking up several prizes from critics groups, including a slew of honors for Swank, the “Million Dollar Baby” of the title. When it won two major Globes on Jan. 23, including actress in a drama (Swank) and director (Eastwood), over sentimental fave Martin Scorsese (“The Aviator”), this last-minute contender became a heavyweight.

On Jan. 25, the day the Academy Award nominations were announced, “Million Dollar Baby” earned seven key noms, trailing “The Aviator’s” 11 but scoring in every key category including pic, director, actress, supporting actor and an unexpected lead actor bid for Eastwood — this despite strong work from “Sideways’ ” Paul Giamatti and “The Sea Inside’s” Javier Bardem, who were left empty-handed.

On the following Friday, Jan. 28, Warners expanded its television campaign and widened the release from 147 to 2,010 screens, enabling the film to earn a resilient $12.3 million at the box office over that weekend.

Some of those closely involved, however, say it was the DGA win the same weekend that really made them believe their “Baby” could go all the way. There was genuine worry that had it gone to Scorsese, all momentum would be lost and it would have been a different ballgame. But Eastwood’s victory set the table for two more important wins at the Screen Actors Guild Awards the following Sunday. With final ballots in voters’ hands, Eastwood made a rare appearance on “The Tonight Show” on Feb. 8; Jay Leno fawned over the movie.

Oscar night, Feb. 27, brought an early sweep of technical awards by “Aviator,” prompting some to believe that “Million Dollar Baby’s” Cinderella story might end prematurely. But after Julia Roberts announced Eastwood as the director winner it was only a matter of moments before presenters Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman (who had once pursued the project himself) would be calling him to the stage again, along with Ruddy and Rosenberg, to accept the picture award.

So how did it get there?

“You had a great story, great actors and a great filmmaker,” says Rosenberg. “It was really an unforgettable thing to be part of — a wonderful experience.”

But those who think they can repeat the stealth-like magic of the “Baby” campaign should probably think again. As one insider puts it, “How do you get all those pieces back in the bottle? There’s only one Clint Eastwood.”

Ruddy is more succinct: “To have a ‘Million Dollar Baby’-type campaign, you gotta have a ‘Million Dollar Baby.’ “