The Case of the Missing Encyclopedia Brown Movie

A lot of numbers came up repeatedly in the life of Donald J. Sobol. The author’s most famous creation, amateur sleuth Leroy “Encyclopedia” Brown, was forever 10 years old, with each of his books containing 10 short mystery stories. Brown charged only 25 cents for his detective services; Sobol got $25,000 for the film, television, and licensing rights to the character in 1979.

But while Brown never accounted for inflation, always charging a quarter throughout the nearly 50 years Sobol wrote the books, the $25,000 was a different story. “My father was not a businessman,” his son, John Sobol, told The New York Times after the author passed away in 2012. “His contribution was sort of inversely proportional to his financial compensation.”

The ancillary rights holder, a former immigration lawyer named Howard David Deutsch, had plans to capitalize on the immense popularity of the character, who was often referred to as “Sherlock in sneakers." Despite his best attempts, hardly anything materialized.  

That was due in large part to Sobol's growing unhappiness with the deal, which led the author to sue to get his boy detective back. It would become the only Encyclopedia Brown case with the character’s name listed as a defendant.

 

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Sobol didn’t always want to be a writer. Born in 1924, he had his sights set on playing professional baseball. After graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, he tried out for the Cincinnati Reds but didn’t make the cut. When World War II heated up, Sobol marched into the Pacific as a battalion engineer.

Deposited back in his native New York in 1946, Sobol began a newspaper career, first as a copyboy for the New York Sun and then as a syndicated columnist for the Associated Press. His Two-Minute Mysteries were brief bits of fiction with a solution that appeared upside-down or on another page of the paper, whodunits written with enough brevity to finish at the breakfast table.

Sobol was certainly capable of more substantial work: He had published an adult romance set in medieval times in 1957 and was eager to explore the book market further. The Mysteries, which began in 1959 and lasted nine years, had a format that Sobol thought would lend itself to juvenile fiction. In 1962, he decided to tackle an anthology of short stories with a juvenile detective. Wanting to get across the idea that the boy was intelligent, he first settled on a nickname—“Encyclopedia”—before fleshing out the rest of the formula.

In Idaville, Fla. (named after Sobol’s mother, Ida), Encyclopedia Brown became a child prodigy who could rattle off obscure facts at a moment’s notice. His father, the chief of police, frequently consults with him on cases that are proving difficult for his detectives. In subsequent chapters, Brown usually heads off into the neighborhood to sort out plots involving stolen goods or vandalism. His Watson is Sally Kimball, a pretty classmate who doubles as his bodyguard. She’s able to fend off Bugs Meany, the town bully, with a well-placed right hook. (Sobol, perhaps ahead of his time in the feminist movement, gifted Sally with creditable boxing skills.)

Sobol finished the first book in just two weeks. It was a kind of interactive fiction, with readers able to pick up on clues in the stories that led to a reasonable conclusion. If they were stuck, they could turn to the end of the book for the solution in much the same way Sobol’s newspaper readers flipped the page upside-down.

He circulated the manuscript among 26 publishing houses, all of which turned him down. Finally, Thomas Nelson and Sons was receptive. They offered a contract that eventually stretched to 13 agreements in total by 1976. The first book, Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective, performed well, and Sobol eventually settled into what would become the routine of his writing life: one or two books a year, all bestsellers.

The Dutton publishing company acquired Sobol’s agreement in 1978, which granted them the right to negotiate ancillary opportunities like video games, coloring books, and screenplays. It was through this agreement that Dutton entered into a deal with producer and lawyer Howard David Deutsch. Sobol would later argue Dutton had no right to make a deal without consulting him, but at the time, all parties seemed content with Deutsch handing over $25,000 for the ability to take Encyclopedia Brown into other media.

In time, the Encyclopedia Brown series would grow to more than seven million copies in print in North America alone; it was translated into 12 languages. In Hollywood, that kind of brand awareness was invaluable, and Deutsch had no shortage of suitors. In 1981, Warner Bros. began negotiations to have Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn star in a feature film adaptation. (Whether they would have played his parents or have Chase portray a grown-up detective is unclear.)

At some point, Warner backed out of the deal, leading Deutsch to file a breach of contract suit against the studio. It wasn't the first time Encyclopedia was listed in court documents, though: Sobol had filed a $20 million lawsuit of his own against Deutsch and his Encyclopedia Brown Productions shingle in 1983, contesting Deutsch's claims over the character.

While Deutsch and Sobol tried to reach some kind of resolution, the rights to Brown were still in considerable demand. Both Johnny Carson and Aaron Spelling were looking to secure an agreement to bring the character to television; Hanna-Barbera was interested in animating him. Deutsch had what amounted to a Harry Potter-level property, but the ongoing litigation with Sobol made closing a deal difficult.

Finally, Deutsch reached a deal with HBO in 1988. The network that put Fraggle Rock on the map was interested in expanding their children’s entertainment brand and ordered a live-action Encyclopedia Brown special that led into a recurring series. Producers filmed the pilot in Provo, Utah, and the episodes were well-received.

Deutsch then did something unexpected. After just six episodes, he insisted on breaking away from the network, which puzzled them. “The idea of a producer taking his show off the air that was successful, that was so good, and so far ahead of its time that it made my career is [mind-boggling]," show co-producer Ned Kandel told The New York Times in 2005.

By way of explanation, Deutsch later sued HBO, claiming they had failed to properly publicize the series, and maintaining that they had exhibited the pilot outside of a contractually-ordered two-year window. The court ruled in Deutsch’s favor.  

Deutsch and Sobol were eventually able to settle their own dispute, though the court records are sealed. With newfound freedom to pursue a feature film, Deutsch spoke with Anthony Hopkins, who considered directing. In 2005, Deutsch put together a package in conjunction with Ridley Scott and sent it off to studios in the hopes of inciting a bidding war. But before an agreement could be reached, Deutsch withdrew the package. Encyclopedia Brown had been foiled once more, this time by French hair stylists.

When Deutsch began shopping the property to studios, it became known that he had been convicted of immigration fraud in 2000. According to The New York Times, Deutsch was accused of identifying French hair stylists as executives in order to obtain visas for them: their salon company was looking to expand into the New York market, but to do so quickly, they misrepresented the stylists as high-level managers. Deutsch was sentenced to three years in prison, served 14 months, and was disbarred from practicing law.  

Sources told the Times that it made the situation more “complicated” but that no studios backed out as a result of the discovery, which Deutsch said he had never made a secret of and held no relevance to any potential deal.

That was the last anyone had heard of an Encyclopedia Brown film until 2013, when word got around that Deutsch and partner Ray Lee (The LEGO Movie) were nearing an agreement with Warner Bros. The project has yet to move forward.

By some estimates, 50 million copies of the book series have been sold since it debuted in 1963. They rewarded a reader’s attention and intellect—the puzzles were not easy to solve—and imparted values without preaching, something Sobol actively worked to avoid. Whether Brown finds his way into theaters at some point was probably immaterial to the author, who only wanted to sharpen the problem-solving and observational skills of his readers.

And Encyclopedia Brown's generations' worth of fans certainly do pay close attention. In 1990, Sobol had gotten a fact wrong in one of the books, and numerous kids wrote in to make sure it would be corrected in future editions. They had learned a lot from their kid detective hero.

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Fizzled Out: Why Coca-Cola Purposely Designed a Soft Drink to Fail
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In December 1992, media outlets from around the country filed into the Hayden Planetarium at New York City's American Museum of Natural History for what soft drink giant Coca-Cola was trumpeting as a “truly out-of-this-world experience.” In front of reporters, the company's North American president, Doug Ivester, unveiled a 16-ounce silver can that he hoped would change the landscape of soda.

The product was Tab Clear, a new version of the sugar- and calorie-free diet drink first introduced in 1963. While it retained its bubbles, the liquid was transparent, an obvious nod to rival Pepsi’s introduction of Crystal Pepsi earlier that year.

Publicly, Ivester boasted that Tab Clear would be yet another success in Coca-Cola’s long history of refreshment dominance. But behind the scenes, Ivester and chief marketing officer Sergio Zyman were convinced Tab Clear would be a failure—and that is exactly what they hoped would happen. Flying in the face of convention, the launch of Tab Clear was deliberately designed to self-destruct.

 
 

In the early 1990s, beverage manufacturers were heavily preoccupied with the idea of clear drinks that communicated a sense of wellness. The Coors company even produced a clear alcoholic malt beverage, Zima, to capitalize on the craze, but porting it over to the soft drink market was nothing new. In the 1940s, Soviet leader Georgy Zhukov used his friendly relationship with the U.S. to make an appeal for Coca-Cola to produce a clear version of their drink so he could enjoy it surreptitiously and without being accused of indulging in a capitalist product; the soda maker removed the caramel from the recipe, which essentially de-pigmented it. Coca-Cola also produced Sprite, a fizzy, lemon-tinged drink that didn’t use coloring.

But it wasn’t until Pepsi unveiled Crystal Pepsi in 1992 that marketing departments began to pay close attention to transparency in their product. Crystal Pepsi was essentially a fruit-flavored variation of regular Pepsi, with all the typical amounts of sugar and calories but no caffeine. That light could pass through the beverage was a novelty, albeit one that Pepsi believed could help them carve out a 2 percent slice of the $48 billion soft drink market. And if Pepsi could do that, it would mean less money for Coca-Cola.

Like a boxer preparing a counter-attack, Coke couldn’t simply sit back and allow Pepsi to strike without retaliation. But few within the company were sold on the longevity of the clear soda craze. Worse, the company had stumbled badly with New Coke in 1985, a new formula intended to replace the classic version that drew public criticism and created a public relations disaster. Tempting fate with a Clear Coke was out of the question.

Zyman had the answer. Before coming to Coke, Zyman had been a director of sales and marketing for Pepsi; he defected to Coca-Cola just in time for the highly successful launch of Diet Coke in 1982. After a sabbatical, Zyman—a notoriously combative executive who earned the nickname the “Aya-Cola” for his management style—returned as chief marketing officer and devised an ingenious plan to stifle Crystal Pepsi without risking the reputation of Coca-Cola Classic. His sacrificial pawn would be Tab.

Sometimes stylized as “TaB," the drink had been introduced in 1963 as an alternative for calorie-conscious consumers. Sold in a pink can, it was targeted specifically at women concerned about their weight and marketed as a solution to increase sex appeal. Tab, ads claimed, could help consumers “be a shape he won’t forget … Tab can help you stay in his mind.”

With Diet Coke available to help keep marriages from crumbling, Tab was relegated to an afterthought, falling from 4 percent of Coke's overall market share to just 1 percent. Zyman believed it was expendable. If Tab Clear happened to catch on, fine. If it didn’t, the failure wouldn’t reflect poorly on the Coke brand.

But Zyman wasn’t content to simply try to compete with Crystal Pepsi. In his mind, Tab Clear was what consumer brands refer to as a “kamikaze effort,” a product expected to fail. Zyman believed that the presence of Tab Clear on shelves would confuse consumers into believing Crystal Pepsi was a diet drink. (It wasn’t, though there was a Diet Crystal Pepsi version available.) By blurring the lines and confusing consumers who wanted either a calorie-free drink or a full-bodied indulgence, Zyman expected Tab Clear to be a dud and bring Crystal Pepsi down right along with it.

“It was a suicidal mission from day one,” Zyman told author Stephen Denny for his 2011 business book, Killing Giants. “Pepsi spent an enormous amount of money on the [Crystal Pepsi] brand and, regardless, we killed it.”

 
 

With Pepsi set for a massive ad spend on the January 1993 Super Bowl, Coke rolled out Tab Clear in 10 cities, with national expansion coming mid-year. Their ad spending was minimal. Coca-Cola made just enough noise to reposition Crystal Pepsi from a hot, trendy new drink to a product with an identity crisis.

“They were going to basically say it was a mainstream drink,” Zyman said. "'This is like a cola, but it doesn’t have any color. It has all this great taste.' And we said, 'No, Crystal Pepsi is actually a diet drink.' Even though it wasn’t. Because Tab had the attributes of diet, which was its demise. That was its problem. It was perceived to be a medicinal drink. Within three to five months, Tab Clear was dead. And so was Crystal Pepsi.”

The dissolution of soda products on shelves is not inherently dramatic, and there was no visceral evidence on display that Tab Clear was flailing. But by the end of 1993, Zyman’s prediction had come true. Crystal Pepsi had grabbed just 0.5 percent of the market, a quarter of Pepsi's prediction. Both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi were phased out and Coke was happy to write the dual obituary. “Now both Tab Clear and Crystal Pepsi are about to die,” Coca-Cola chairman Roberto Goizueta told Ad Week in November 1993.

But it was Pepsi that had spent millions in development and $40 million in marketing; it took the company 18 months to formulate their failure. Coke spent just two months on Tab Clear. It was a barnacle that dragged its far more ambitious rival down with it.

Zyman continued to work for Coca-Cola through 1998. Clear products never caught on as some companies anticipated, though they do experience periodic revivals. Zima returned to shelves in 2017, and Crystal Pepsi has had promotional comebacks.

In one final twist, and despite Ivester's earlier declaration that Clear Coke would never see the light of day, the company’s Japanese arm released a zero-calorie Coca-Cola Clear in the country on June 11. This time, they might even want it to succeed.

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When The Sopranos Blacked Out
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The late James Gandolfini, the imposing and formidable character actor who became famous virtually overnight for his portrayal of a mobster who submitted to psychoanalysis for six seasons on HBO’s The Sopranos, told Vanity Fair in 2012 that he had a plain and simple reaction after viewing the show’s finale:

“What the f*ck?”

That brief review would be echoed by critics and fans in the days and months following the episode’s broadcast on June 10, 2007. Titled “Made in America,” The Sopranos's series finale featured one last supper with Tony Soprano (Gandolfini), his wife Carmela (Edie Falco), and children Meadow and A.J. (Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler). Converging at Holsten’s Ice Cream Parlor, the family appears at least temporarily free of the stress Tony’s life of crime has brought into their world. Tony orders onion rings, selects Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” from the tabletop jukebox, and seems relieved his domestic life is intact.

Moments later, the screen goes black. “Don’t Stop Believin’” is cut off so abruptly that many viewers believed they were experiencing a cable outage. It remained that way for 11 seconds before the credits rolled, a curious void of content that quickly became one of the most infamous endings to a series in the history of television. As far as fans were concerned, creator David Chase may or may not have whacked Tony, but he definitely whacked them.

James Gandolfini and David Chase on the set of "The Sopranos"
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When Chase was growing up in Clifton, New Jersey, in the 1950s, his father owned a hardware store, and his business partner had a son. The son’s cousins had an unusual family name—Soprano—that stuck with Chase for decades. After duties on episodic television like The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure, Chase stumbled onto an idea about a mobster who was in therapy. After Fox and other networks passed, The Sopranos landed at HBO in 1999.

Although the channel’s prison drama Oz, which had premiered two years earlier, signaled the network's newfound commitment to hour-long dramas, The Sopranos was cut from an entirely different mold. Novelistic and ruminative, the show seemed to delight in taking the tropes of mob fiction and turning them on their head. When Doctor Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is sexually assaulted, it seemed assured that she’d eventually turn to her patient, Tony, in order to exact vengeance. (She doesn’t.) When Tony’s wife has an affair with one of his lieutenants, viewers braced for an inevitable face-to-face showdown that never occurred. Given near-total autonomy over the tone and direction of the series, Chase was able to embrace his preference for ambiguity.

While it ran for eight years, there were just six seasons; Chase didn’t produce material for air in either 2003 or 2005, nor did he have any desire to overstay his welcome. In 2006, the network aired the first 12 episodes of a planned 21-episode final season. Although it was a long march to the finish line, speculation ran rampant over how Tony's story would conclude.

In later interviews, Chase explained he had the idea for the finale early on. Tony’s unethical conduct seemed to point to only two inevitable outcomes: jail or death. But Chase inserted a third option that most critics and fans hadn’t counted on—that previously expressed love of ambiguity.

Chase would later admit he shot an alternate, as-yet-unexplained ending as a red herring to throw off people trying to find leaks of plot details. The ending he was committed to, however, took place at Holsten’s, a real restaurant in Bloomfield, New Jersey. After disposing of yet another mob rival, Tony greets each member of his family as they walk into the restaurant, a bell chiming overhead. As his son comes in, a man in a Members Only jacket ambles into the location and later enters the restroom.

What happens next is left open to interpretation. Echoing a comment made by Soprano associate Bobby Bacala earlier in the season that you never hear “it” (read: a gunman) coming, it’s possible Chase meant for viewers to experience the suddenness of being clipped from behind, perhaps by the man who had entered the restroom. The abrupt end of “Don’t Stop Believin’” hints at that.

Viewers, however, didn’t want to choose their own climax. As soon as the episode aired, a national outcry bemoaned the lack of any answers. Some thought their cable had been disconnected. Others figured it out once the credits rolled and became so incensed that they bombarded HBO’s official website with complaints. (HBO shut its website down that Sunday night.) According to a Yahoo! spokesperson, searches for “Sopranos ending sucked” poured into the search engine. Wikipedia had to lock pages related to the show because users kept editing entries to reflect the “fact” that Chase had ruined the series.

Chase, who had timed a holiday in France to avoid most of the feedback, granted an interview days later. While he refused to answer the question of whether Tony was dead, he insisted that all the information a viewer needed was in the scene. “Anyone who wants to watch it, it’s all there,” Chase said.

An exterior shot of Holsten's in Bloomfield, New Jersey
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When Chase pops up in media to discuss current projects, talk still usually turns to the furor caused by the blackout. While he has always demurred on the question of whether Tony survived his plate of onion rings at Holsten’s, he did elaborate on some of the decisions made in the scene during a 2015 Directors Guild of America interview.

“Don’t Stop Believin’” was selected, he said, because the lyrics seem to be a close match for the personal journey of Tony and his wife. The “midnight train” referenced in the song was a parallel to the fateful decisions made by the couple years ago—“the dark train,” as Chase put it. The man in the Members Only jacket entered with A.J. so the audience’s attention would be focused more on the face they knew than the suspicious man they didn’t.

The closing shot, a jarring end to what looked to be a peaceful dinner, wasn’t intended to frustrate viewers. “I thought the ending would be somewhat jarring, sure,” Chase said. “But not to the extent it was, and not a subject of such discussion. I really had no idea about that. I never considered the black a shot. I just thought what we see is black. The ceiling I was going for at that point, the biggest feeling I was going for, honestly, was don't stop believing. It was very simple and much more on the nose than people think. That's what I wanted people to believe. That life ends and death comes, but don't stop believing.”

And the theories regarding Bobby Bacala’s comments foreshadowing Tony’s death? “When it’s over, I think you’re probably always blindsided by it," Chase offered. “That’s all I can say.”

It’s hard to know, once the initial shock of the closing moments wore off, whether viewers ever softened their stance on the finale. (At the time, newspapers were filled with quotes by fans calling it “unbelievably cruel” and accusing Chase of some kind of conspiracy to annoy them.) For at least one viewer, it took just one night of introspection to come to an entirely different opinion.

“After I had a day to sleep,” Gandolfini said in 2012, “I just sat there and said, ‘That’s perfect.’”

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