The Pop History Dig

“Of Bridges & Lovers”
1992-1995

Cover of deluxe edition DVD of the 1995 film issued by Warner Home Video in June 2008.
Cover of deluxe edition DVD of the 1995 film issued by Warner Home Video in June 2008.
     A surprise best-selling book that dominated the charts in 1993-94 was The Bridges of Madison County, a story about an Iowa farm wife who meets a National Geographic photographer by chance while her family is away at the Illinois State Fair.  The two strangers from different worlds — Robert Kincaid, the free-roaming, globe-trotting  photographer, and Francesca Johnson, the Iowa-bound farm wife – strike up an intense, short-lived love affair.  But  circumstance and responsibility intrude as the two  lovers, torn by the reality of separation, return to their previous lives with thoughts of what might have been.  The Bridges of Madison County, set in mid-1960s Iowa with its rustic covered bridges, tells their story.  The book  became a word-of-mouth sensation and dominated bestseller lists all across America.  It was followed in 1995 by a well-received Hollywood film of the same name starring Meryl Streep  and Clint Eastwood.  Throughout the early- and mid-1990s,  there was notable TV and radio coverage of the story, the book, and the film, as well as marketing of related books, music, photography, and tourism in Madison County, Iowa.  How this story swept over America is quite a tale in its own right.  First, the book’s story — told in part below with the help of screen shots from the 1995 film.

Original edition of 'Bridges' by Warner Books, 1992.
Original edition of 'Bridges' by Warner Books, 1992.
 

The Author

     The Bridges of Madison County came from a somewhat unexpected and unknown author – a Midwest born and bred economics professor named Robert James Waller.  Born in 1939, Waller had grown up on a farm in Iowa, and had become something of a basketball player while in high school, winning a four-year athletic scholarship to the University of Iowa. However, after a year, he left the university and his scholarship, transferring to Iowa State Teachers College, later named Northern Iowa University. There he continued to play basketball, though quitting the sport in his senior year to pursue other interests. At Northern Iowa he received a BA in Business Education, met his wife, and began to develop interests in music and literature. By 1964 he also earned a Masters in Education from Northern Iowa. He then went to Indiana University where he received his PhD in 1968, becoming a professor of economics and business management that year back at the University of Northern Iowa. He would become dean of the business school there for a time as well.

     Although active in his academic field, Waller also had interests in music and writing.  In 1988, he published a collection of essays with Iowa State University Press, followed by three more collections. He was also something of a photographer, and one day he was out taking pictures of covered bridges in Madison County, Iowa. That’s when lightening struck, as they say; when Waller first got the idea for his book. He was also a guitar player and song writer, and remembered a song he had written about a woman named Francesca, and the dreams she had of love and a better life.  That was essentially the kernel of the idea for the book’s story — of an Italian war bride named Francesca brought back to middle America to live the life of an Iowa farm wife; a woman who becomes devoted to her marriage and family until one day when a stranger happens into her life. Once Waller had his core idea in place, he went on a non-stop writing binge, completing the book’s manuscript in about two weeks.

Francesca Johnson, standing on her farmhouse porch after sending her family off to the state fair.
Francesca Johnson, standing on her farmhouse porch after sending her family off to the state fair.
A stranger, Robert Kincaid, a photographer, stops by asking for directions to the Roseman covered bridge.
A stranger, Robert Kincaid, a photographer, stops by asking for directions to the Roseman covered bridge.
After failing to easily describe how to get to the Roseman bridge, Francesca decides to show him the way...
After failing to easily describe how to get to the Roseman bridge, Francesca decides to show him the way...
In Kincaid’s truck, Francesca learns about his work, as they listen to jazz music on the truck radio.
In Kincaid’s truck, Francesca learns about his work, as they listen to jazz music on the truck radio.
Kincaid explains that he is working for National Geographic and will need to photograph the bridge from many different perspectives.
Kincaid explains that he is working for National Geographic and will need to photograph the bridge from many different perspectives.
Francesca walks on the bridge as Kincaid sets up his equipment on the ground below.
Francesca walks on the bridge as Kincaid sets up his equipment on the ground below.
From the bridge, Francesca observes Kincaid at work...
From the bridge, Francesca observes Kincaid at work...
Kincaid gives wildflowers to Francesca as thanks for bringing him to the bridge, explaining he will have to return and shoot again the next day. She invites him back for ice tea.
Kincaid gives wildflowers to Francesca as thanks for bringing him to the bridge, explaining he will have to return and shoot again the next day. She invites him back for ice tea.
Back in Francesca’s kitchen, the two share a few beers, cigarettes, storytelling, and dinner.
Back in Francesca’s kitchen, the two share a few beers, cigarettes, storytelling, and dinner.
Later that evening they share some brandy, but Kincaid takes his leave, needing to rise early for the next day’s shoot. (photos continue below at "Hollywood Film").
Later that evening they share some brandy, but Kincaid takes his leave, needing to rise early for the next day’s shoot. (photos continue below at "Hollywood Film").

 

The Story

      Robert Kincaid is 52 years old when he arrives in Iowa on a professional photographic assignment.  It is August 1965.  He has come to Iowa from his home in Bellingham, Washington to take pictures of historic covered bridges for a National Geographic magazine article.  The bridges are located in Madison County.  Kincaid is a basic kind of guy, drinks Budweiser and smokes Camel cigarettes.  But he also has another side; a bit softer, more creative, quoting famous poets now and then.  Kincaid features himself as something of romantic and contrarian, and he’s not always comfortable with the ways of the modern world.  And in his worldly travels, he has also had his share of women.

     Francesca Johnson is a 45 year-old farm wife, married to Richard Johnson, a good but unromantic Iowa farm man who she met in her native Italy during World War II.  Johnson made Francesca his war bride and she consented because of his kindness and the promise of America.  By 1965, Francesca and Richard have two teenage kids.  Francesca is educated, has a degree in comparative literature, and has done some teaching at the local high school.  She dearly loves her family, but is often isolated, lacking in intellectual engagement.  So, in August 1965, with her family away at the Illinois State Fair for several days, her life suddenly takes a new turn when Robert Kincaid pulls his pickup truck into her farm driveway.  He has stopped to ask for directions to the Roseman covered bridge.

     Since the rural roads to Roseman Bridge are not clearly marked,  and Francesca has difficulty explaining how to get there, she offers to show him the way, riding along in his pick-up truck.  When they arrive at Roseman bridge, she stays and watches him work as he shoots the bridge.  Kincaid takes various shots of the bridge, some at a distance.  However, he is losing the light he needs for certain shots and will return the next day to shoot more. 

     When they arrive back at Francesca’s homeplace, she asks him in for a glass of iced tea, and after a bit of  conversation, invites him to stay for dinner.  In her farm kitchen, he helps her prepare vegetables for the meal, they share a few beers from his cooler, and exchange their life stories.  After dinner they take a short walk in the pasture, followed by coffee and brandy back in the kitchen. 

     The evening ends as Kincaid takes his leave, needing to rise early for the next day’s shoot.  But something in Francesca has been stirred.  Knowing that Kincaid will return to the bridge the next day, she drives there that night and tacks up a note where she knows Kincaid will find it.  It is an invitation to dinner the following evening.

     At dinner the next evening at her home, Robert and Francesca realize they have fallen in love, as their intense affair begins.  During their four days together, they have much intimacy and tender conversation.  He asks her to come away with him, but she cannot because of her sense of responsibility to her husband and family.  Robert still wants her to leave with him and she actually packs her bags to go with him at one point.  But in the end, she cannot abandon her husband and her two children.  She explains that she could never bring such pain and humiliation to her family.  She knows they would not survive the gossip and censure that would certainly follow such an event in the conservative farming community.

     Kincaid relutantly leaves to continue his life of travel and photography, but Francesca is always on his mind and he on hers.  They have only a couple of written contacts over the years, but never meet again, each holding fast to memories of their affair.  During their four days together, Francesca gave Robert an ornate, hand-wrought medallion with her name etched on the back. 

     After Kincaid has died, a package reaches Francesca that contains his cameras, the medallion she had given him, the old note she had tacked to the bridge.  In the package there is also an explanatory letter that informs Francesca that Kincaid has passed away.  She also learns that his cremated remains were scattered at the Roseman Bridge.  Francesca’s own husband by this time has passed away, and she lives out her days alone remembering her time with Robert.  One day, at age 69, she is found dead slumped over her kitchen table.  Francesca, however, has left instructions requesting that she be cremated and her ashes scattered at Roseman Bridge.  This is something of a puzzle to her two grown and married children, since the family plan had been to bury her alongside their father.

     In the book, the story is set up with an opening preface and frame of reference set in 1989, shortly after Francesca’s death.  Her passing has brought her two grown children back to the Iowa farm and the discovery of their mother’s affair by way of Francesca’s journals, an explanatory letter she has left for them, and a box full of Robert Kincaid mementos.  In the book’s preface, the two grown children have contacted the story’s narrator, a writer, asking him to tell their mother’s special love story, which then becomes the novel.

 

The Backstory

     After completing his manuscript for The Bridges of Madison County in 1990, Robert James Waller began his hunt for a publisher.  Waller had published his earlier essay collections with Bill Silag, managing editor of Iowa State University Press, and the two had become friends.  Silag’s ex-wife was novelist Jane Smiley, who had written the best-seller and Pulitzer Prize-winning, A Thousand Acres (1991).  She referred them to her agent in New York, Aaron Priest of the Aaron Priest Literary Agency.  Priest, however, did not handle Waller’s book at first, nor did he read the manuscript.  A junior member of his firm did, and later convinced Priest to read it.  But Priest was not all that excited by Waller’s book – at least initially. He told Waller in one phone call that the book was not really a novel at 42,000 words and was “pretty odd.”  It was not, he said, “the kind of stuff that sells.”  But he told Waller he’d call him back.  A few days later Priest did call back after taking the book to three publishers.  One of these, Warner Books, part of the Time-Warner Corporation, offered to publish it. Steven Spielberg bought the movie rights 17 months before the book’s publi- cation. A new editor there named Maureen Egen who had come from Doubleday with long experience, made it her first acquisition.  She offered a $32,000 advance. That was September 1990.

     Then in November 1990, Waller got even better news from Aaron Priest. Steven Spielberg wanted to buy the movie rights for the book for his Amblin Entertainment film production unit, then part of Dreamworks. This was 17 months before the book’s publication; certainly a good sign, but no guarantee of success, as hundreds of books are acquired for films, but few ever make it to the big screen.  Still, a producer at Ambiln, Kathleen Kennedy, 36, who had made films such as, E.T., Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and others, took a particular interest in Waller’s story. She liked it and “found it moving.”  She especially liked that its characters were “mature” and the storyline was “not about a couple of 20-year-olds.” And as she explained later, “…For me, it tapped into something deeper than a mid-life affair.  I believe that a lot of people have the potential to fall in love with any number of people.  You don’t know what fate has in store.” Still, at this stage, The Bridges of Madison County wasn’t even a bona fide book.

Warner’s Book Flaps
[inside book-leaf, 1992]
_______________

     There are songs that come free from the blue-eyed grass, from the dust of a thousand country roads. This is one of them.

     And so begins a story that you will never forget. . .

THE BRIDGES Of
MADISON COUNTY

     . . . is the story of Robert Kincaid, a world-class photographer, and Francesca Johnson, an Iowa farm wife. Kincaid, fifty-two, is a photo- grapher for National Geographic. A strange, almost mystical traveler of Asian deserts, distant rivers, and ancient cities, he is a man who feels out of harmony with his time. Francesca Johnson, forty-five and once a young war bride from Italy, lives in the hills of south Iowa with flickering memories of her girlhood dreams. Each of them is content, yet when Robert Kincaid drives through the heat and dust of an Iowa summer and turns into her farm lane looking for directions, their illusions fall away, and they are joined in an experience of uncommon and stunning beauty, an experience that will haunt them forever. As the photographer Kincaid uses light to reveal not objects, but rather his own kind of truth, what occurs by the old bridges of Madison County becomes a prism transforming the ordinary emotions we think we understand into something rare and brilliant. The result is a passionate, deeply moving experience in lyrical prose, an achievement that puts Robert James Waller in the forefront of this country’s new fiction writers.
_____________________
From front & back inside book flaps, 1992.
    

     As Bridges was being edited and readied for publication and marketing, it turned out that the big book chains weren’t interested in the book, and would not be pre-ordering or stocking it.  So the book’s editor, Maureen Egen sent out four thousand “reading copies” of Bridges – copies with a printed cover, not bound galleys – to independent booksellers.  She also sent a letter with the book, praising it and citing its “universal truths.”  Egan also urged the independents to “handsell” the book, which meant to employ a technique in which the seller engages directly with the customer while “clutching” the book – “even clutch the customer,” Egan advised.  “Sincerely confide to the customer,” she stressed in her note, “‘you’ve got to read this’.” This strategy would later prove helpful to the book’s success.  The “packaging” of the book was also a factor, as it was smaller in format than many big novels, with an attractive, understated cover, generous page margins, and slender in size at 171 pages. Or as Egen would put it, the”special look and feel of Bridges was “part of its charm”. Some would even call the look “literary,” a point of contention later for critics regarding the book’s content. The publisher’s book-leaf descriptions and back-jacket excerpt were also part of the book’s marketing (see sidebars).

 

Sleeper to Best-Seller

     Warner Books first published The Bridges of Madison County in hardback in April 1992.  The initial print run was a generous 29,000 copies for a first-time novel.  In the book’s first month back in Iowa, author Robert James Waller could be found at the B. Dalton Books in the Cedar Falls, Iowa mall waiting at the author’s table in vain for someone to buy his novel.  Some passers-by noticed the cover of the book and thought it might be about covered bridges.

     The book’s reception in some early reviews of 1992 was not very good.  Library Journal in March found a “contrived, unrealistic dialog,” while the The Washington Post in early April called the storyline “trite.”  But other reviewers were kinder.  Sara Jameson of The San Francisco Chronicle wrote in her review of April 26, 1992: “Readers looking for meaning and weary of rapid relationships will be drawn to this tale of lasting love.”  Jameson also advised, somewhat presciently, that readers “should resist efforts to pick apart this delightful story.”

     But by mid-summer of 1992, something started to happen with this book.  Customers who had read it began returning to stores to buy multiple copies — up to 17 in one reported case. The book was being given out as a gift and as a pass-along to friends and family.  At about that same time it was also being reported that Warner Books was providing “co-op money” to some book stores to help move the book. 

“He Noticed
All of Her”

     He could have walked out on this earlier, could still walk. Rationality shrieked at him. “Let it go, Kincaid, get back on the road. Shoot the bridges, go to India. Stop in Bangkok on the way and look up the silk merchant’s daughter who knows every ecstatic secret the old ways can teach. Swim naked with her at dawn in jungle pools and listen to her scream as you turn her inside out at twilight. Let go of this”- the voice was hissing now – “it’s outrunning you.”

     But the slow street tango had begun. Somewhere it played; he could hear it, an old accordion. It was far back, or far ahead, he couldn’t be sure. Yet it moved toward him steadily. And the sound of it blurred his criteria and funneled his own alternatives toward unity. Inexorably it did that, until there was nowhere left to go, except toward Francesca Johnson.
____________________
Back jacket book excerpt, hardback edition.
 

     In July 1992, Publishers Weekly reported that Warner’s polling had found independents selling the book in “astounding numbers” – exceeding the rate for average titles and even bestsellers.  Specific stores in Florida, California, Connecticut, Nebraska, and other locations were reporting higher than normal sales.  Warner, meanwhile, was also placing a few strategic ads for the book here and there, as in a full-page ad in the Time-Warner owned People magazine in July 1992.  Favorable reviews were also appearing around the country.  George Myers, Jr. of The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio wrote in a July 24, 1992 reveiw that Bridges was a “beautifully written . . . triumphant first novel.”

     Other reviewers from Midwest newspapers in the summer and fall of 1992 were also praiseworthy.  In mid-September 1992, Irene Nolan of The Louisville Courier-Journal wrote that, “overly sentimental or not, The Bridges of Madison County is a haunting tale. . . . Waller has crafted a deeply moving story that is cleverly told.  His spare writing and his lovely use of the language make it even more compelling.”  Judith Kelman, wrote in The Plain Dealer of Cleveland, Ohio of November 14, 1992, that Bridges was “a memorable, magical read…”

     In the book trade meanwhile, Bridges made its first appearance on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list August 10, 1992.  A week later it hit the New York Times list at #12, a major accomplishment for a first-time novelist.  Bridges would remain on the Times list for the next 23 weeks, fluctuating during that time between #6 and #12.  Word-of-mouth sales and sales by independent book stores were believed to have propelled the book to best-seller status.  Charles Champlin, writing in the January 17, 1993 edition of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, described the book as a “sleeper;” one that takes off slowly without benefit of splashy advertising, book-club promotion, or a flood of rave reviews, “but that ends up on the best-seller list the old fashioned way – because readers fall in love with it and tell their friends.”  And that’s exactly what had happened.  But the surprise best-selling reign of this book was just beginning.

 

National Exposure: NPR

     On January 12, 1993, author Robert James Waller, appeared as a guest on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered show. He was interviewed by NPR’s Noah Adams.  It was the first time that Waller, as Bridges’ author, would talk about the book before a national audience.  NPR had Waller on the show because his book had then been on the bestsellers list for 22 weeks and he was an unknown author from Iowa.       By late January 1993, The Bridges of Madison County was No. 1 on the New York Times best sellers list. During the interview, Waller spoke of people calling him on the phone and explaining how much they liked the book, some crying when they read it.  He also mentioned on that show that Steven Spielberg had bought the movie rights.

     The NPR exposure helped the book gain a bit more notice, pushing it up the New York Times bestseller list.  By the January 24, 1993 listing, it had moved from #7 to #2.  It was now ahead of competitor titles such as John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief and Danielle Steel’s Mixed Blessings, among others.  On the next week’s list, Bridges hit #1 for the first time.  In February 1993, Cosmopolitan magazine published excerpts from the novel. Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks, meanwhile, were running Valentine’s Day specials on the book.  The big book chains, following the reports of the independents, had begun ordering and stocking Bridges in the second half of 1992.  Bridges was now ranked #1 on their bestsellers lists, too.  And the book continued to receive attention in the print media through early Spring.  In May, Ladies Home Journal published excerpts of Bridges in its magazine.  Then came national television.

 

Oprah Boosts Book

Oprah's TV show in Iowa, May 1993, boosting book.
Oprah's TV show in Iowa, May 1993, boosting book.
     The Oprah Winfrey Show in 1993 was the highest-rated talk show in America.  Broadcast out of Chicago, the syndicated television show had a devoted following of some 8 million or so viewers, mostly women.  On May 21, 1993, the show was filmed on location, at the Cedar Bridge in Winterset, Iowa – “the location where the fictional Robert Kincaid and Francesca first met,” as Oprah would later say. The Oprah TV episode was entitled “Bridge of Love,” and the show featured the book, its author, and other guests. At the outset of the show Winfrey called Bridges her “favorite book of the year . . . one of the most romantic, stirring tales of true love I’ve ever read”. 

     Oprah also engaged her guests in conversation about their “real-life love affairs.”  The show also reunited a man with a woman he fell in love with 20 years earlier, “just like in the book.”  Waller and his wife Georgia Ann also appeared.  At one point Waller sang ballads from a forthcoming album of songs, The Ballads of Madison County issued on Atlantic Records, a Time-Warner company.  On the TV show, Oprah called it her “favorite book of the year.” One of the songs, “Madison County Waltz,” written by Waller, is about the book’s story.  On the show, Winfrey thanked Waller for writing the book, calling it “a gift to the country,” and said the reason they were doing the show in Iowa was to share the story with the nation.  Oprah admitted to crying when she read the book, said she had recommended it to many people, including her best friend Gayle, who also cried while reading it.  At this point in Oprah’s career, she had yet to form her Oprah Book Club, which would in later years have an important impact on particular titles she mentioned or endorsed.  Still, club or not, Oprah’s blessing for Bridges was a huge boost — resulting in sales of an additional 250,000 copies — even though the book was already a solid bestseller and had been at #1 or #2 on the New York Times bestsellers list for over five months.

     On the show, Winfrey thanked Waller for writing the book, calling it “a gift to the country,” and said the reason they were doing the show in Iowa was to share the story with the nation.  Oprah admitted to crying when she read the book, said she had recommended it to many people, including her best friend Gayle, who also cried while reading it.  At this point in Oprah’s career, she had yet to form her Oprah Book Club, which would in later years have an important impact on particular titles she mentioned or endorsed. Oprah “leaned over to [Waller] on a commercial break, and said, ‘By the end of this weekend, you won’t be able to buy a copy of The Bridges of Madison County in America.’” Still, club or not, Oprah’s blessing for Bridges was a huge boost even though the book was already a solid bestseller and had been at #1 or #2 on the New York Times bestsellers list for over five months.

     Oprah’s show helped propel the book even more into popular discourse, adding to its luster and further enhancing sales.  Reportedly, during taping of the show, Oprah “leaned over to [Waller] on a commercial break, and said, ‘By the end of this weekend, you won’t be able to buy a copy of The Bridges of Madison County in America.’” Indeed, following Oprah, more publicity and marketing came for the book and for Iowa.  On the cover of the June 14, 1993 issue of Publishers Weekly – which sells its cover space to advertisers – Warner proclaimed Bridges as, “[T]he All-Time Word of Mouth Bestseller.”  Back in Iowa, a parade of other national media followed Oprah’s lead, exploring the story and the place: Charles Kuralt, VH-1, news crews from NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN, some covering the impact of bestseller on the local community.  Oprah’s show also made real the setting for the story by filming the TV show at the actual bridge in Iowa, which would help the local economy there by boosting tourism, magnified later by the subsequent filming of the movie there.

CD of "The Ballads of Madsion County," issued in 1993.
CD of "The Ballads of Madsion County," issued in 1993.
     Warner Books, meanwhile, had also issued some related Bridges products.  Two audiobook versions of Bridges appeared in 1993, licensed to Dove Audio. The first version, read by Waller, was released in February.  The second, released in July, featured celebrity voices, among them Ben Kingsley as Kincaid, Isabella Rossolini as Francesca, and Curtis Mayfield as Nighthawk” Cummings, Kincaid’s jazzman friend.

     In July 1993, Atlantic Records, a Warner subsidiary, released an album of original and cover songs sung by the book’s author, Waller, a sometimes singer and guitar player.  Titled The Ballads of Madison County, the CD included similar cover art from the book and a lyric booklet featuring the same Waller photographs of the bridges found in the book.  Liner notes from Waller in the CD package described the songs as the kind of country music Robert and Francesca might have heard on Robert’s truck radio or in the farm house kitchen.  The CD, however, did not do well.  The book, however, was still #1 on the New York Times list selling at a rate of between 40,000-to-50,000 copies a week.

 

New York “Gatekeepers”

     Despite its huge popularity, however, the book had its critics.  A literary backlash had begun with some New York and other “gatekeepers” as they were called, debating whether the book should be called literature or pulp romance.  On March 28, 1993, for example, the New York Times Book Review published its first review of Bridges. Eils Lotozo, filing a brief article on the book the “In Short” section said Waller failed to develop “believable characters” and that the love between Kincaid and Francesca “belongs more to the world of fantasy than reality.”  He also suggested the book was not literary fiction.  A second New York Times review came on July 25, 1993 from Frank Rich, who ripped the book apart in a full-page Sunday New York Times Magazine piece entitled “One Week Stand.”  Although Bridges came under withering attack in some corners, the criti- cism had little apparent effect on the book’s con- tinuing popularity. According to Rich, the book “presents itself as God’s gift to women even as it furthers their subjugation.”  He painted Robert Kincaid’s character as “the old hero of a thousand puerile traveling-salesman jokes resurrected in noble threads for a contemporary audience.”  In his critique, Rich also disputed Oprah Winfrey’s contention that the book was a “gift to the country,” quoting one Manhattan book store owner who called Bridges “mass dressed up as class.”

     Outside of New York there were also critics.  Pauli Carnes, a female reviewer writing freelance for the Los Angels Times in April 1993, called Waller’s book “porn for yuppie women.”  She especially disliked the escapism and fantasy in the novel, and felt it was the “story of a life wasted.” Chicago Tribune columnist Jon Margolis, writing in June 1993, also condemned the book, calling it “an insipid, fatuous, mealy-mouthed third-rate soap opera with a semi-fascist point of view.”  However, little of this critique – nor that of others to follow through 1993 and 1994 – had any  apparent or lasting effect on the popularity or sales of the Bridges of Madison County.

By the fall of 1993, a second Waller novel, capitalizing on the popularity of "Bridges," also became a bestseller.

     The book continued to ride high on the New York Times and other bestsellers lists.  Malcolm Jones, Jr., writing in Newsweek in August 1993 said that Bridges now owed its sales success to the fact that it had been on the New York Times bestseller list for a solid year: “Bridges is a bestseller because it’s a bestseller.”  Jones explained that “when a book lands on the list, its luck improves enormously.  Chain bookstores will stock and discount it.  So will price clubs and airports and drugstores, places where only bestsellers get sold.” By late August 1993, Bridges was still selling at a rate of about 50,000 copies a week, and Robert James Waller was no longer the neglected author of the Cedar Falls, Iowa shopping mall.

 

More Waller Books

     In fact, by August 1993, Waller had completed a second novel, Slow Waltz in Cedar Bend, which was also published by Warner Books.  In November 1993, that book debuted at #2 on the New York Times list behind only Bridges.  The two books would stay paired on the list – #1 and #2 for eleven weeks – the first time in history an author had the top two spots on the hardcover novel list. Helping things along, the Book-of-the-Month Club, a Time-Warner company, offered Slow Waltz as a main selection in a discounted package with Bridges   By mid-April 1994, Waller had 3 top-ten books on the New York Times bestsellers list. The two books together had a good run on the New York Times list for some time, with Bridges typically one slot above – falling to #2 and #3 for four weeks, then lower and lower as a pair, but giving ground very slowly.  By mid-April 1994, a third Waller book, a collection of essays also published by Warner, Old Songs in a New Café, appeared on the Times bestseller list – this one in the nonfiction category.  Bridges by this date was still at # 2 and Slow Waltz at # 5.  Now Old Songs joined them at #10 on the nonfiction list.  Waller now had three top-ten bestselling books on the New York Times booklist.  Warner published yet another Waller book in 1994 – Images: Photographs by the Author of The Bridges of Madison County, a tear-out book of postcards.  Through all of this, however, Bridges was still the main attraction.  As of July 1994, booksellers nationwide were still reporting brisk sales of the book.  But gradually, all of these Waller books began a slow descent off the bestsellers list.  Still, for The Bridges of Madison County, there was more life ahead.

The next day on the bridge, after Francesca has invited Kincaid for a second dinner, he turns his camera on her.
The next day on the bridge, after Francesca has invited Kincaid for a second dinner, he turns his camera on her.
Back at the farmhouse, before dinner that evening, Francesca is thinking about Kincaid as she takes a bath.
Back at the farmhouse, before dinner that evening, Francesca is thinking about Kincaid as she takes a bath.
In their "first touch” scene, with Francesca in her new dress, she places her hand on Kincaid’s shoulder as she takes a phone call.
In their "first touch” scene, with Francesca in her new dress, she places her hand on Kincaid’s shoulder as she takes a phone call.
As the kitchen radio plays a slow, sultry jazz tune, Francesca & Robert share a long, slow dance as they move to consummate their passion.
As the kitchen radio plays a slow, sultry jazz tune, Francesca & Robert share a long, slow dance as they move to consummate their passion.

 

The Hollywood Film

     The film version of The Bridges of Madison County, based on novel by Waller, came out in mid-1995.  It was a joint project of Amblin Entertainment, Malpaso Productions (Clint Eastwood’s company), and Warner Brothers.  The film was produced and directed by Clint Eastwood with Kathleen Kennedy as co-producer.  It was filmed in Winterset, Iowa in late summer 1994, cost about $22 million to make, and was released to movie theaters in June1995.  On its opening weekend, it was # 2 at the box office.  It would go on to gross some $182 million worldwide.  Meryl Streep was nominated for, but did not win, an Academy Award for her role as Francesca.  Streep was also a runner-up for best actress of 1995 in voting by the National Society of Film Critics.

     Reportedly, there was a fierce competition for the role of Francesca in the film.  Among those considered or mentioned for the part were: Jessica Lange, Isabella Rossellini, Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, Lena Olin,  Sonia Braga, Cher, Anjelica Huston, Emma Thompson, Geena Davis, and Mary McDonnell.  For the role of Kincaid, Robert Redford was among those considered.  Eastwood, who got the lead role, also became the film’s director when he replaced Bruce Beresford after Beresford objected to Steven Spielberg’s script changes.  Eastwood apparently favored Streep for the role, and agreed to pay her $4 million for the filming, plus a share of the gate.  Eastwood shot the film in 42 days.

     The reviews of the film were quite favorable, in some cases receiving better critical reception than the book.  In an early June 1995 review of the film for The New York Times, for example, Janet Maslin – no fan of Robert James Waller’s prose – called the script writing for the film “tacitly ingenious.”  She also praised the directing: “Clint Eastwood, director and alchemist, has transformed The Bridges of Madison County into something bearable — no, something even  better.  . . . Mr. Eastwood locates a moving, elegiac love story at the heart of Mr. Waller’s self-congratulatory overkill.  The movie has leanness and surprising decency, and Meryl Streep has her best role in years.”

     Other reviewers agreed.  Variety called it “…A handsomely crafted, beautifully acted adult love story,” adding, “[Streep] has never been so warm, earthy and spontaneous…”  The Chicago Sun-Times of June 2, 1995 found it “…Deeply moving.”  USA Today gave it 3.5 of 4 stars.  Entertainment Weekly, on June 9, 1995 wrote: “…Touching in a delicate, almost lyrical way.  It’s a wonderful surprise – an honest weeper for adults… Rating: A.” 

          Film critic Robert Ebert said that Eastwood and Streep had made the book “into a wonderful movie love story.”  He also went to the core of the film and why the story was striking a chord with its audience:  “We know, of course, that they will meet, fall in love and part forever.  It is necessary that they part.  If the story had ended ‘happily’ with them running away together, no one would have read Waller’s book and no movie would exist.”  For Ebert, the emotional peak of the film is “the renunciation, when Francesca does not open the door of her husband’s truck and run to Robert.”  This moment, says Ebert, and not when the characters first kiss or make love, “is the film’s passionate climax.”

Robert & Francesca sharing a bath.
Robert & Francesca sharing a bath.
     But back in early 1994, it wasn’t clear the film would be made at all.  The first scripts for the movie adaptation didn’t quite hit the mark for Spielberg.  His company then hired 35 year-old Richard LaGravenese to write a script, which was eventually the one used.  It was tweaked a few times, and incorporated elements that weren’t in the book, such as bringing Francesca’s children into the film more, and creating a new character, a woman in town; an outcast having an affair, who Francesca befriends. Eastwood, as the film’s director, was careful not to stray too far from the book, and wanted to make sure the core of the story and the memorable scenes were kept; the scenes readers would come to look for.  He also wanted to show and keep the everyday realism in the film.  The movie version also shifts the story more to Francesca while toning down some of the book’s more macho Kincaid moments without hurting his character.  Yet Francesca is at the film’s center; her choices and her life-long anguish.  Near the end of the film, Francesca’s grown children offer some lessons learned, taking heed of their mother’s experience in examining their own marriages.  The daughter decides on divorce, the son renews his marriage commitment.

In a park away from the farming community, Robert and Francesca anguish over their future.
In a park away from the farming community, Robert and Francesca anguish over their future.
At their final dinner together, Kincaid tries to persuade Francesca: “I’ll only say this once. I’ve never said it before. This kind of certainty only comes but once in a lifetime.”
At their final dinner together, Kincaid tries to persuade Francesca: “I’ll only say this once. I’ve never said it before. This kind of certainty only comes but once in a lifetime.”
Unhappy Francesca facing future without Robert Kincaid.
Unhappy Francesca facing future without Robert Kincaid.
After Francesca’s family returns, and during a trip to town with her husband on a rainy afternoon, she sees Kincaid in the middle of the street, drenched by the rain.
After Francesca’s family returns, and during a trip to town with her husband on a rainy afternoon, she sees Kincaid in the middle of the street, drenched by the rain.
Kincaid has remained in town solely on the chance that Francesca might reconsider.
Kincaid has remained in town solely on the chance that Francesca might reconsider.
Her hand on the truck’s door handle, she considers bolting from her husband to join Kincaid, but cannot do it...
Her hand on the truck’s door handle, she considers bolting from her husband to join Kincaid, but cannot do it...

 

Farmhouse Jazz

     Among some of Eastwood’s more interesting and subtle touches in the film are the scenes using and incorporating jazz tracts from Johnny Hartman, Dinah Washington, Irene Kral, and others.  These tunes are played on the kitchen radio in the Johnson farmhouse, heard on a truck radio, or played by a roadhouse band when Francesca and Robert visit an out-of-the-way dance bar. 

     In one of Eastwood’s earlier directing roles, Play Misty for Me, he built much of the film’s storyline around an Errol Garner love song of that same name.  In Bridges, Eastwood’s use of the music is never dominant, but typically in the background.

     After Robert and Francesca have taken their trip to the Roseman Bridge, and Kincaid has come inside her home for iced tea, he fiddles with the kitchen radio, finding Dinah Washington singing “Blue Gardenia,” befitting the blue wildflowers he picked for Francesca at the bridge, now on the kitchen table.  As they exchange their stories in the kitchen, jazz and blues tunes continue to play from the radio, among them, “When You’re in Love” by Johnny Hartman.  Francesca has asked him to stay for dinner.  As they both prepare the food for their meal, Dinah Washington is heard singing “I’ll Close My Eyes.”  Post meal, “Easy Living” by Johnny Hartman is heard.  Francesca that evening has left her note on the bridge inviting Robert to dinner the following day.

     On her way into town that day to buy groceries, Dinah Washington’s “Soft Winds” plays on her pickup truck radio.  While in town, she decides to buy a new dress.  Later that night at their second dinner, meeting in the kitchen, Robert is again tuning the radio, then turns to see Francesca in her new dress as the Johnny Hartman tune “I See your Face Before Me” plays in the background.  A phone call interrupts for a moment, but they soon have their first moments of touching – she smoothing his collar while on the phone, and he taking her hand after the call, leading to a slow dance around the kitchen as Johnny Hartman sings his tune.  The love making is not far behind.  Later, as the two share a steamy bath, Irene Kral sings “This Is Always.”  Near the end of their four days together, they visit a roadhouse with jazz band and dance to Johnny Hartman’s “For All We Know,” as its lyrics “we may never meet again,” presages their unhappy end.

     Back at the farmstead on their final night together, Francesca has packed to leave with Robert.  But as they share dinner, Johnny Hartman’s “It Was Almost Like A Song” plays in the background as Francesca realizes she cannot leave her family.  “They would not survive the talk,” she says of the small-town censure and gossip mill. 

     After she and Kincaid have parted from their four-day affair, and when Francesca comes to town a few days later with her husband on errands, there is the scene in the pickup truck with her husband when she sees Robert standing in the middle of the the road in the rain.  As the family pickup pulls away, Francesca has her hand poised by the door handle, but she does not bolt from the truck.  She returns home and is shown in a later scene leaning against the kitchen wall sobbing as Irene Kral’s “It’s A Wonderful World” plays.  Francesca will never see Robert Kincaid again.

 

Companion album of jazz music.
Companion album of jazz music.
Music Sales, etc.

     In addition to providing an intimate backdrop of music to compliment the on-screen relationship of Robert and Francesca, the film’s music also did well among its fans.  Clint Eastwood’s label, Malpaso Records, a division of Warner Brother’s Records, released two CDs: the original soundtrack, Music from The Bridges of Madison County, and Remembering Madison County, a companion disc of more jazz tunes.  The soundtrack volume alone sold more than 250,000 copies the first month it was released – May to June 1995.

     People magazine at the time of the film’s release did a cover story on Meryl Streep featuring a screenshot from the film with her in the embrace of Clint Eastwood.  “Meryl’s Passion,” was the headline for the magazine’s June 26th, 1995 edition, which added:  “She has four kids and more than 40 years.  But Meryl Streep is burning up The Bridges of Madison County – and hitting a nerve about lost love and midlife desire.”

June 1995: "People" magazine cover story on Meryl Streep & "Bridges" film.
June 1995: "People" magazine cover story on Meryl Streep & "Bridges" film.
     Book sales in early Summer 1995 surged in response to the film, pushing the Waller book back up to #9 on the New York Times bestsellers list.  By June 11th it was #4, and by June 25th, 1995 – nearly three years after its debut on the list –The Bridges of Madison County was #1 again.  It stayed in the top five through late August, fell off the list in late September, then returned briefly at #15 for the first part of October 1995 before leaving the New York Times bestseller list.  The Bridges of Madison County by this time — still in its hardback edition — had sold over six million copies in America and over ten million worldwide.  In fact, Bridges was so successful in its hardcover format that Warner Books found it unnecessary to issue a paperback version until June of 1997, when a first printing of a paperback came out at 1.5 million copies.

     But with the Hollywood film, Warner Books also published two other book tie-ins: The Bridges of Madison County: The Film, a coffee table book of film-related photos, and The Bridges of Madison County Memory Book, which was a journal with quotes from Yeats and some photos taken by Eastwood on the set as he was playing Robert Kincaid with a loaded camera.  Warner printed about four times the number of these movie tie-in books than it had for the first printing of the original book: 80,000 copies of The Bridges of Madison County: The Film and 70,000 copies of The Bridges of Madison County Memory Book.

Warner Books published about 80,000 copies of this coffee table book of photography as a tie-in to the film.
Warner Books published about 80,000 copies of this coffee table book of photography as a tie-in to the film.
     There were also an array of other Bridges‘ tie-in products licensed by Warner Brothers, including tote bags, polo shirts, a cookbook, and picture frames with the Bridges imprint.  Warner Brothers even licensed a Bridges fragrance line through a company named Tsumura, which had previously done bath and body tie-in products for children related to movies such as The Lion King.  The Bridges fragrance, bath and body products, and scented candle lines were launched in department stores with a  $2 million print and spot TV ad campaign that included romantic movie bills and imagery similar to the film’s.

     A DVD version of the film was first released for sale not long after the film had its first run in 1995.  A “deluxe edition” DVD of the film (see cover, first photo above) was released by Warner Home Video in June 2008.  Among the extras included in this package are an audio commentary by editor Joel Cox and director of photography Jack N. Green that covers production details, sets, music, and more.  Also included is a half-hour documentary entitled “An Old-Fashioned Love Story: Making The Bridges of Madison Country,” with comments by Eastwood, Streep, scriptwriter LaGravenese, and producer Kathleen Kennedy, as well as clips from the movie and on-set footage. A music video is also part of this package, and includes the song “Doe Eyes,” an instrumental track from the score, with a collage of footage from the film.

 

Robert James Waller

R. J. Waller, 2005.
R. J. Waller, 2005.
     As for author Robert James Waller, he went on to write several other novels.  In addition to Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend (1993), he also published Border Music (1995), Puerto Vallarta Squeeze (1995), A Thousand Country Roads (2002), High Plains Tango (2005), and The Long Night of Winchell Dear (2006).  Along the way, he moved to Texas in 1994 and bought a ranch, and later, several thousand acres of land.  His first marriage ended in 1997 amid an affair he was having, the details of which became public in both People and Texas Monthly magazines, prompting some parallels to characters in Bridges and his other books. He later remarried.

     In 2000, Waller named his graduate school alma mater, Indiana University, to an estate gift estimated to be “well into seven figures.”  In 2002, his novel A Thousand Country Roads, published as “an epilogue” to Bridges, follows an older Robert Kincaid on a journey to Iowa in hopes of seeing Francesca again. However, the two do not reunite.  Although this book did make the New York Times bestsellers list for seven weeks in May and June of 2002 peaking at #5, it was not another Bridges.  Yet it did allow some reviewers, with the perspective of time, to reflect more favorably on Bridges.  Reviewing A Thousand Country Roads for USA Today in July 2003, Deirdre Donahue wrote:  “A decade ago, when this reader first read The Bridges of Madison County… I would periodically hurl it down, denouncing its stupidity.  But a very wise older man told me I was too young to understand Bridges’ resonance with middle-aged readers. …Maybe it’s my own trick knee and middle-age blues, but now I understand why all those millions of people loved Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County…”

 

One Story’s Legacy

Cover of 1990s DVD home video release.
Cover of 1990s DVD home video release.
     When it was all said and done, The Bridges of Madison County, in its time, had one hell of a run.  To date the book has reportedly sold more than 50 million copies worldwide and has been printed in some 23 languages.  In its prime-time occupation of the New York Times bestsellers list during 1992-1995, it out-performed its competitors in total sales and duration on the list.  Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses,  Michael Chrichton’s Disclosure,  John Grisham’s The Rainmaker, and Danielle Steel’s The Gift – also on the bestsellers list then – each spent between 22 and 26 weeks on the list before dropping off. Bridges, by comparison, did much better, eclipsing all of these – and in fact, surpassing them in their combined total weeks on the list.  Bridges spent 164 weeks on the New York Times bestsellers — over three years — a record at the time (August 16, 1992 to October 8, 1995).  It also held the #1 spot for 37 weeks, clearly helped by the film in its later run.  Still, in its day, it surpassed Gone With the Wind as the best-selling hardcover fiction book of all time.  In 1993 alone Bridges sold more than 4.3 million copies, one of the highest single-year sales of any fiction or non-fiction hardcover bestseller in the previous 20 years or so.  In 1993, it was also awarded the American Booksellers “Book of the Year” Award as well as the Literary Lion Award from the New York Public Library.

     Yet in subsequent years, all of Bridges’ sales and publishing records would be broken by other authors, bestsellers, and first-run phenomena, such as: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Da Vinci Code, and Harry Potter to name a few.  Still, the book to this day remains controversial, with people divided into fans and foes of the story.  Some regard it as romance, others accept it as literature, and still others call it an adult fairy tale.  Regardless of what it’s called, the story holds a fascination for people because of the popular themes it explores: love, passion, opportunity, regret, loyalty, consequence, and responsibility.  One summary of the story’s appeal is found in the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture:

. . . No one can deny that Robert James Waller has managed to present a story that deals with engrossing themes.  People grow up with ideas of romantic love, nourished — especially in the United States — by the media and visions of celebrities engaged in storybook romances.  Due to the uncanny nature of love, there is much room for people to fantasize, and fantasies are not usually practical.  Because it is questionable just how much control individuals have over their lives, fate and destiny are appealing and common musings.  Romantic love has dominated the subject matter of songs and stories for millennia, and continues to do so.  What makes a story like the one in The Bridges of Madison County resonate is its attempt to portray the choices that people must make regarding their happiness, and the idea that fate can bring two unlikely people together.

     Periodically, it seems, popular love stories come along unpredictably – as they have through time.  They appear to be welcomed in whatever form, and continue to capture the public’s imagination and support – whether Romeo or Juliet, its musical successor West Side Story, Casablanca, An Affair To Remember, Love Story, Dr. Zhivalgo, and countless others.  Surely, we are better to have had them than not, irregardless of their literary rank or comparative greatness.  After all, a story is a story, and if it gets people thinking and feeling, isn’t that enough?  The Bridges of Madison County — in print and on the big screen – surely did that.

     For other book publishing or film-and-Hollywood stories at this website, please see those respective category pages.  Readers who enjoyed this story may also find “The Love Story Saga” of interest.  Thanks for visiting. - Jack Doyle.

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Date Posted:  25 June 2008
Last Update:  10 January 2012
Comments to: jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Of Bridges & Lovers, 1992-1995,”
PopHistoryDig.com, June 25, 2008.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

1965: Francesca Johnson in her Iowa farmhouse kitchen.
1965: Francesca Johnson in her Iowa farmhouse kitchen.
1989:  Nearly 25 years later, Francesca’s children begin learning about their mother’s affair with Robert Kincaid.
1989: Nearly 25 years later, Francesca’s children begin learning about their mother’s affair with Robert Kincaid.
Francesca has left behind a box of letters, photos, a journal, and Robert Kincaid memorabilia that tells of their affair.
Francesca has left behind a box of letters, photos, a journal, and Robert Kincaid memorabilia that tells of their affair.
The Kincaid box inlcudes photos he took of Francesca at the Roseman Bridge in 1965.
The Kincaid box inlcudes photos he took of Francesca at the Roseman Bridge in 1965.
Francesca’s two children are stunned by what they find in Francesca’s journal.
Francesca’s two children are stunned by what they find in Francesca’s journal.
Screenshot of title frame, "The Bridges of Madison County."
Screenshot of title frame, "The Bridges of Madison County."
Robert Kincaid taking a few shots of his favorite lady.
Robert Kincaid taking a few shots of his favorite lady.
Francesca on Roseman Bridge looking down on Robert Kincaid taking his photographs shortly after they met.
Francesca on Roseman Bridge looking down on Robert Kincaid taking his photographs shortly after they met.

The following Ph.D. dissertation was a key source in helping construct the history of the book, its publication, and its popular reception: Gregory R. Wahl, The Bridges of Madison County and Iowa: Production, Reception, and Place, Ph.D. Dissertation, Graduate School of the University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland, 2005, 309 pp.

The Bridges of Madison County,1992, “20th-Century American Bestsellers,” Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, Researcher, Carey Karpick, accessed 2008.

For the section on “Farmhouse Jazz,” a key source is: Janis Gomes, “Jazz in the Movies,” Total Swing Online, Total Swing.com, January 14, 2005.

Sara Jameson,”Lives Connect on a Bridge of Love.” San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday Review, April 26, 1992, p. 8.

John Mutter, “Love at First Read,” Publishers Weekly, July 20,1992, p. 16.

Irene Nolan, “Madison County is Slim Read, But Big on Value,” Louisville Courier-Journal, (Louisville, KY),  Sept 14, 1992.

George Myers, “Two Impassioned Novels Make Falling in Love So Easy,” Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), July 24, 1992, p. 10-D.

“The Booksellers’ Art of Persuasion.” Newsweek , September 7, 1992, pp. 54-55.

Judith Kelman, “A Magical, Unforget- table Love Story,” Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), November 14, 1992, p. 5-F.

Charles Champlin, “Sleepers,” Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 17, 1993, p. 14.

Daisy Maryles, “Behind the Bestsellers.” Publishers Weekly. January 25, 1993, p. 12.

Pauli Carnes, “Waller Book: Porn for Yuppie Women?,” Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 18, 1993.

Jon Margolis, “What’s Pop Culture? Politics, Show Biz and Total Inanity,” Chicago Tribune, June 29, 1993, p. 15.

Frank Rich, End Paper/Public Stages, “One-Week Stand,” The New York Times Magazine, July 25, 1993.

John Leo,  ” ‘Covered Bridges’: Written Proof of People’s Private Desperation,” U.S. News and World Report, August 9, 1993.

Sarah Lyall, Book Notes, “A Big Year for ‘Bridges’,” New York Times, July 28, 1993.

Daisy Maryles, “Behind the Bestsellers,” Publishers Weekly, August 23, 1993

Daisy Maryles, “Behind the Bestsellers,” Publishers Weekly, November 8, 1993, p. 16.

“The Bridges of Madison County,” Film Review, Variety, May 22, 1995.

Janet Maslin, Film Review, “Love Comes Driving Up the Road, and in Middle Age, Too,” New York Times, June 2, 1995

“The Bridges of Madison County,” Film Review, USA Today, June 2, 1995, p.1-D.

“The Bridges of Madison County,” Film Review, Chicago Sun-Times, June 2,1995, p.29.

Karen Angel, “Building Bridges: Will the Film Boost Sales of Waller’s First Novel?” Publishers Weekly, June 5, 1995, pp. 19-21.

Bernard Weinraub, “Rebuilding ‘Bridges’ Without Leaving The Novel Behind,” New York Times, June 6, 1995.

“The Bridges of Madison County,” Film Review, Entertainment Weekly, June 9, 1995, pp.34-5.

“The Bridges of Madison County,” Film Review, Rolling Stone, June 15, 1995, p.47-8

Daisy Maryles, “Behind the Bestsellers,” Publishers Weekly, August 7, 1995.

Claudia Glenn Dowling, Afterword, in, Ken Regan, The Bridges of Madison County: The Film, New York: Warner Books, 1995.

“The Bridges of Madison County”  (book), Wikipedia.org.

“The Bridges of Madison County”(film), Wikipedia.org.

Deirdre Donahue, ”Passing Years Make Crossing These ‘Bridges’ Sweeter,” Book Review, A Thousand Country Roads, by Robert James Waller, USA Today, July 22, 2003, p.1-D.

“The Bridges of Madison County,” in Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast (eds.), The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, Gale Group, 2000.





“Disney’s Movie Vault”
1984-1998

The 1940 film Pinocchio wasn’t released for home video sale until 1985, when it first sold 600,000 copies.
The 1940 film Pinocchio wasn’t released for home video sale until 1985, when it first sold 600,000 copies.
      In the early 1980s, as the home video market began to emerge, the Walt Disney Company was reluctant to release its classic animated movies for home use.  The video market began primarily as a rental business, and later moved to sales.  In 1983, the home video market was small, with only about 10 percent of U.S. homes having video cassette recorders (VCRs).  Disney at the time was involved in limited rentals, and to a lesser extent, some sales of old cartoons and action films.  But in 1985, none of the Disney classics such as Snow White (1938), Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950) or Sleeping Beauty (1959) had been released for home video use – rental or sales.  Disney kept these classics locked up in its vault, regarding them as a kind of Disney gold, only to be “marketed” through controlled release to movie theaters.  It was Disney policy and economic strategy that these films should not be available for home rental or purchase.  That philosophy would soon change, however,  as Disney began to see – and became a primary force in creating – the huge and ever-expanding home video market.  But first, consider the classic film Pinocchio as Disney struggled internally with the changing market in 1985.

 

Pinocchio’s Profits

     Pinocchio had been released to theaters in 1945, 1954, 1962, 1971, 1978, and 1984.  The strategy ingrained in the company was to release their classics to theaters every 7-to-10 years or so, and then back to the vault.  That was about the right time interval according to Disney; time enough for a new generation to see the film for the first time. As the company then calculated, this limited exposure would be repeated for each new generation while preserving the film’s economic value.  Releasing its classic films for sale on home video, went the company’s thinking at the time, would mean losing control of major assets by permanently moving them into the homes of millions of Americans.  So Disney rationed its classic animated films — only to theaters.

     This logic continued to reign at Disney until 1985 when an internal debate began over whether to release Pinocchio that summer on home video and how to price it.  The continuing internal argument against home video release was that Disney would lose the value of the movie by selling it.  A somewhat odd middle course to marketing the film was then taken: Disney would price the movie for sale at $79.95, a price so high that management figured people would rent it at a cheaper price rather than buying it. “The initial fear of diluting the value of our classics… began to pale beside the enormous profits we could earn…”
      -Michael Eisner, CEO
Video stores, however, wouldn’t buy the film at that price. Disney then revised its plan in August 1985, pricing the Pinocchio VHS video for sale at $29.95.  It sold 600,000 copies with only a modest marketing effort, suggesting to Disney there was a lot more market here than they first thought.

     But the debate continued internally over the two strategies: home video sales vs. theater release only. There were still prominent voices within Disney for protecting the value of its classics.  In November 1985, the next film to be considered was Sleeping Beauty (1959).  The film had been released theatrically in 1970 and 1979 and was scheduled again for a theater release in 1986. But now it was also up for release as a home video.  Again came the questions: “Could releasing the animated classics on video undermine their uniqueness by making them too widely available in viewers’ homes?” and, “Might such a move cheapen Disney’s image and undermine the brand?”

In 1986, Disney released the VHS edition of 'Sleeping Beauty' (1959).
In 1986, Disney released the VHS edition of 'Sleeping Beauty' (1959).


Doing The Math

     During the internal discussions, estimated revenues were offered for movie box-office returns vs. home video-sales. Releasing Sleeping Beauty four more times for theater-only showings over the next 28 years — i.e., once every seven years — would generate a total box office of $125 million.  But a single home-video release of Sleeping Beauty in the near term would generate sales of at least $100 million.  That quicker return, while a lower number, proved the more persuasive strategy since inflation would ravage the longer-term, theater-only box office returns. “The net present value of earning $125 million from Sleeping Beauty over the next twenty-eight years in theaters is less than $25 million,” concluded one of Disney’s analysts at the time.  “It makes a lot more economic sense to earn $100 million from home video during the next six months.”  And the money Disney earned from its video sales in the near term could be invested on other projects to produce further value for the company.  The video sales strategy was the clear winner, and Disney began to push harder on this front with the Sleeping Beauty release.

The 1988 VHS of this 1950 Disney classic generated nearly 100 million in home video sales.
The 1988 VHS of this 1950 Disney classic generated nearly 100 million in home video sales.
     In the fall of 1986, Disney put up an unprecedented $7 million marketing campaign for the Sleeping Beauty video, priced at $29.95, using the theme “Bring Disney Home for Good” as part of its sales pitch. The campaign helped sell 1.3 million copies of the cassette, doubling the performance of Pinocchio and making Sleeping Beauty one of the largest-selling videos at the time.  “The initial fear of diluting the value of our classics in future theatrical release began to pale beside the enormous profits we could earn immediately through home-video sales,” later explained Disney CEO Michael Eisner.  “Nor did it cheapen Disney’s image in the marketplace.  The best possible impact on our brand turned out to be having our classic films in people’s homes, where they were watched over and over.”

 

Cinderella Story

     In 1988, the next Disney classic to come up for video release was the 1950 hit Cinderella. During the previous year in 1987, over the Christmas holidays, Cinderella had its latest scheduled movie theater release and had earned a respectable $34 million. But by this time Disney was also developing an improved strategy for marketing its home videos. It was now going beyond just the video stores. Disney began to link up with big mass-merchant retailers who had not previously sold home videos.In the late 1980s, Disney began to link up with big mass-merchant retailers like Target and Wal-Mart who had not previously sold home videos.  Their first partner was Target but they soon joined with other big stores, including Caldor and Wal-Mart.  By mid-year 1988, sales of the Cinderella video hit nearly 6 million copies, generating revenues of about $100 million, or nearly three times its previous years’ box office.

     Disney further refined its video marketing network in 1989, eliminating middlemen and taking over distribution. Overhead costs came down, joint marketing campaigns were launched with large retailers, and computer-based accounting kept track of it all. The Jungle Book — a 1967 Disney film based on the Rudyard Kipling story, and the last film that Walt Disney himself had worked on before his death – was released on home video in 1991. It sold almost 9 million copies.  Next up was 101 Dalmatians, a 1961 Disney film. Released on VHS for home vide sale in 1992, it sold more than 14 million copies.

'Snow White' -- 1994 VHS.
'Snow White' -- 1994 VHS.

 

Snow White’s 50 Million 

     But even in the early 1990s there was still a reservoir of the old protective Disney at work, especially when it came to the classics Snow White and Fantasia, which Walt Disney himself had produced.  Special care and restoration were taken with each of these films. The age of Fantasia left its color lacking, but with computerized technology, perfect color was restored, making the home video version better than the original.  In its first release for the home market in 1991, Fantasia sold nearly 15 million copies. Snow White, Walt Disney’s first classic animated film released originally in 1937, was considered for home video release in the early 1990s.  In this case, however, some external forces helped expedite the decision, as in Italy, the film was soon to move into the public domain, which meant it would be fair game for pirates and widespread copying. Snow White was released on VHS in 1994, and would break all records for Disney’s animated classics, selling nearly 50 million copies worldwide. The enormous market Disney discovered in selling older films, under- scored the “huge potential upside” in stepping up production of new ones.
       
           
- Michael Eisner
It was the last of the early Disney animated films released for home video. Disney was also able to extend the copyright for Snow White.

     The success of Disney’s animated classics in the home video market, and the apparent good prospects for feature animation in the movie market generally, helped to bolster Disney’s resolve in the late 1980s to make more animated films.Michael Eisner put it this way: “The enormous [home] video market for our animated films prompted a second epiphany, namely, the huge potential upside to be realized in stepping up production of new animated films.” In the 1970s and early 1980s, the film-making process at Disney had become slow, turning out unremarkable products. And the films produced no longer seemed to have that Walt Disney quality. But after Michael Eisner arrived as CEO in the mid-1980s, things began to change.

CD cover, 'Roger Rabbit' soundtrack, 2002.
CD cover, 'Roger Rabbit' soundtrack, 2002.

 

Enter Speilberg    

     In June 1988, Disney released Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film that mixed live action with traditional animation – that is, “toon” characters played alongside real actors, marking a turn in the making of U.S. animated films.  Disney teamed up with Stephen Speilberg’s Amblin Entertainment to make Roger Rabbit, which cost $70 million to produce, one of the most expensive films at the time.  But the film earned over $150 million during its original U.S. theatrical release and more than twice that worldwide.  Another film that year, Oliver & Co., loosely based on Oliver Twist, was also produced as a new animated feature and as a musical, reviving that format.  It was released in late Novermber1988 and had an initial U.S. box office of more than $50 million, reaching nearly $75 million after a later second release.  “In the aftermath of Oliver and Roger Rabbit,” says Michael Eisner, “we set a goal of producing one [animated film] every twelve to eighteen months.”

Disney’s
Animated Economics

1988-1999

Film/Date  Global Gross 
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
1988
$329,803,958
Oliver & Co.
1988
  $75,000,000
The Little Mermaid
1989
$222,300,000
Rescuers Down Under
1990
  $47,431,461
Beauty & The Beast
1991
$403,476,931
Aladdin
1992
$504,050,219
The Lion King
1994
$783,841,776
Pocahontas
1995
$347,179,773
Hunchback of Notre Dame
1996
$325,500,000
Hercules
1997
$252,712,101
Mulan
1998
$304,320,254
Tarzan
1999
$448,191,819


A Very Good Decade

     And Disney kept to that schedule over the next decade, producing a string of successful films, many of which were major hits: The Little Mermaid (1989), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), Hercules (1997), Mulan (1998), and Tarzan (1999).  In the process, Disney touched off something of renaissance in animated film-making through the 1990s, taken to new levels with computer-based production techniques, as well as new marketing joint ventures and merchandising tie-ins.  Disney’s feature animation department  during that time underwent a significant expansion, rising from about 300 artists in 1988 to 2,400 by 1999.  Also by this time, many of the Disney classics that had been released in earlier VHS format were now being released as DVDs and a new round of sales.

     Today, of course, Disney’s animated film business is huge, both at the box office and in DVD sales. Many of its animated films have become the equivalent of stand-alone businesses, each with related merchandising, music sales, and in the case of the Lion King, a Broadway production.  In 2006, Disney’s power in animated film making was made even more awesome with the $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar, the computer-based film production company responsible for such animated blockbusters as Toy Story (1995, $354 million), Finding Nemo (2003, $864 million), and Cars (2006, $460 million).  Yet in the brief space of about 15 years, dating from the mid-1980s, the entire business of animated film making and marketing was transformed, with Disney playing an important role in that process, in part, by taking a new look at its old assets.

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Date Posted:  29 March 2008
Last Update:  5 December 2010
Comments to:  
jdoyle@pophistorydig.com 

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Disney’s Movie Vault, 1984-1999,”
PopHistoryDig.com, March 29, 2008.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

Michael Eisner, Work in Progress, New York: Random House, 1998, pp. 186-191.

Jerry Beck, The Animated Movie Guide, Chicago: Reader Press, 2005.

“The Walt Disney Co.,”Wikipedia.orgSee also profiles on individual Disney movies.



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