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Reflecting on the Surprise Success of ‘Field of Dreams’ 30 Years Later

With baseball season in full swing, it’s time to celebrate the 30th anniversary of “Field of Dreams.” The movie, written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson, was part of a run of late-’80s baseball films: “Bull Durham” and “Eight Men Out” opened in 1988, and “Major League” and “Field of Dreams” the next year. Universal had big hopes for “Field,” despite conventional wisdom.

On June 8, 1988, Variety’s Richard Gold declared that there was “a prevalent industry perception that baseball pics are commercial strikeouts,” and even if they perform well domestically, “America’s pastime is mystifying to foreigners.” Also, this was Kevin Costner’s second baseball movie in 12 months, after “Durham.” And it wasn’t a fun film: Variety’s April 19, 1989, review said the lead characters “are all haunted by regrets over failed relationships, life-shattering mistakes and missed opportunities.” Viewers could relate: The movie earned $84 million globally, giving Costner his second home run.

One key element in the film’s success was the marketing. Universal had extensive preview screenings to get word of mouth going. “We don’t consider this a baseball movie,” U exec VP of worldwide marketing Si Kornblit told Variety. The article elaborated, “Universal will advertise ‘Field’ as a film about a man whose ‘dreams came looking for him.’ ”

That wasn’t a stretch. The film tapped into the emotions of anyone who’s ever had unresolved feelings about their father — which turned out to be a decent chunk of the population.

The film’s most-quoted line of dialog is the instruction from a mysterious voice: “If you build it, he will come.” But there’s another key bit of dialogue that many movie fans recall with great emotion: Costner’s “Hey, Dad. You want to have a catch?”

In 1989, Gold wrote a follow-up to his year-earlier baseball-movie article. He observed that Orion’s “Bull Durham” had been a surprise hit and “established new standards by which to measure subsequent baseball films, since it cost $11 million to make and earned $50.8 million in domestic grosses.” However, “Field of Dreams” surpassed that hit, earning more money in America ($64 million) and a healthy $20 million overseas — which is about $20 million more than “Durham” had earned from foreign dugouts.

“Field” was helped by satisfied filmgoers and its three Oscar nominations: for best picture (producers Lawrence and Charles Gordon), Robinson’s screenplay (adapted from the novel “Shoeless Joe” by W.P. Kinsella) and James Horner’s music score.

According to website Box Office Mojo, “Field of Dreams” now ranks fourth in all-time global earnings for baseball movies, a lineup that’s led by “A League of Their Own,” “Moneyball” and ““42.”

 

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