Jack Black and Greg Miller
Hollywood takes up birding with “The Big Year”
(published 10-4-11)

This could be the biggest thing in the birding world since the announced rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. I’m speaking of “The Big Year,” an upcoming movie based on a true story that is sure to capture the attention of birders and nonbirders alike.

Is America ready for this, a mainstream Hollywood movie about an over-the-top 365-day birding competition? We’ll soon find out. The film opens in theaters on Friday, October 14.

“The Big Year” was a popular conversation topic at the Midwest Birding Symposium last month in Ohio. Most of us who attended agreed that even if the movie lays an egg at the box office it will still bring a lot of attention to our hobby. People who don’t care a lick about birds will go see it, if only for the all-star cast. The main actors are Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.

“The Big Year” was first a bestselling book, superbly written by Mark Obmascik and published in 2004. It was so good that nonbirders read it, too. Excerpts appeared in Sports Illustrated. The book’s broad appeal was surely a consideration when 20th Century Fox decided to bring it to life on the silver screen.

That decision would lead to a dream come true for Greg Miller, one of the real-life characters in the book. He is not exactly a household name in birding circles—certainly not as famous as some other speakers at the Birding Symposium, including Pete Dunne and Kenn Kaufman. But Miller’s star is rising thanks to “The Big Year” movie. His character is played by Jack Black.

It was fun meeting Miller in Ohio, his home state, and chatting about his involvement with the movie. He was on location for 15 days in 2010 as a paid consultant, hired to show the main actors and extras how to look, act and speak like birders. For training, he even took Jack Black on a two-hour bird walk around Stanley Park in Vancouver, B.C. The actor was wowed by the bald eagles.

“I’m pretty un-Hollywood,” Miller said. On the set, “Jack went out of his way to make me feel accepted.”

Miller has not previewed the movie but feels confident that the “heartfelt comedy” will be accepted and enjoyed by birders. He thinks the birding scenes will be realistic and that viewers will not hear random out-of-place bird calls.

In the book, Miller was the one you rooted for, the underdog. His goal was to break the standing North American record for most birds listed in a calendar year (721 species). It was 1998. But unlike his wealthy and retired competitors, Miller was short on cash and pinched for time because he worked for a living. This made his quest a lot more remarkable.

Miller says “The Big Year” film script deviates in many ways from the book. One of the biggest differences is that the story is set in the present. So the actors are seen using modern technology that makes birdfinding today faster and easier—GPS and smart phones, for example.

Air travel, of course, was much different in 1998. Back then, Miller and his two competitors had no problem dashing through airports, hopping on last-minute flights to far-off places. They left a huge carbon footprint but the practice enabled all three to rack up more than 700 bird species for the year, an astounding achievement.

“The Big Year” will surely be entertaining, but will it make our hobby look silly? Miller doesn’t think so, because the story isn’t just about birding. Like the book cover says, it’s “A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession.”

“The thing that I’m most thrilled about is the effect it had on people who are not birders,” said Miller, speaking of his on-set experience. He noted that four out of the 170 people working on the movie became new birders, purchasing their own field guides and binoculars. If the same conversion rate applies to those who watch the movie, “The Big Year” will have a huge positive impact on birdwatching.

Like Miller, I’m all for growing the hobby. Maybe Hollywood—and Jack, Steve and Owen—can help. I’ll be thinking about that when I buy my ticket and popcorn.

Copyright 2011 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.
Photo of Jack Black and Greg Miller by Cam Shaw, Tofino, BC