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Hope Stout’s parents dreamed of making a movie in her memory. It became a nightmare.

It had taken more than 14 years — longer than she’d lived on this earth — but Hope Stout was finally going to achieve her dream of becoming a movie star, in spirit.

The film would focus on how the spunky, red-haired middle-schooler inspired the Charlotte area by leading a charge to raise $1 million to grant wishes for other children also suffering from life-threatening illnesses. It was to be a full-scale Hollywood production: The screenplay had been penned by the Academy Award-winning writer of “Brokeback Mountain”; and on Feb. 26, 2018, it was announced that Queen Latifah would star as the Make-A-Wish Foundation higher-up who helped power the fund-raising drive, with Warner Bros. set to distribute the film, called “Hope’s Wish.”

Her parents — Stuart and Shelby Stout of Weddington, who viewed it as their purpose to get this movie made about their daughter, for their daughter — were perhaps as happy as they had been since Hope lost her battle with a rare form of bone cancer in January 2004.

But less than six weeks after the big reveal about Queen Latifah, the Stouts’ dream became a nightmare.

On Saturday, April 7, 2018, Stuart Stout got a call from his attorney while he was in the grocery store: There’s no easy way to tell you this, she said. They’ve shut the movie down, and they’re pulling out.

Stuart Stout doesn’t remember if he walked out with his items without paying for them, he doesn’t remember if he even left with what he went in to get, and he doesn’t remember driving back home. All he remembers is walking in the front door, relaying the info to his wife, and bursting into sobs.

“It’s nothing like losing a child,” he says now, reflecting on that day, “but —”

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Hope Stout’s ashes are buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Weddington. Courtesy of Stuart Stout

“It brought it all back,” Shelby Stout interjects.

“— this is very, very close, because it brought it all back,” Stuart continues.

“We both just fell on our knees,” Shelby says. “It was like we were living her death again. And to feel that pain again ... that’s something you never want to do as a parent.”

Once the shock wore off and the grief began to subside, they started looking for answers. But nearly 14 months later, the questions remain basically the same: Who was responsible for the movie shutting down? What led to the failure? How? Why?

And where does their dream of bringing their daughter’s story to the big screen go from here?

A little girl’s very big wish

In fifth grade, Hope Stout created a school project that outlined three wishes: to be a movie star, to be the first female president, and to marry Brad Pitt.

More generally, though, she just wanted to be famous — and she realized that dream, shortly before she died two months shy of her 13th birthday.

Hope became one of Charlotte’s biggest stories of 2003 by declining a donation gifted to her via the Make-A-Wish Foundation in November and wishing, instead, for the 155 children on the organization’s waiting list to each have their individual wishes granted.

Hope Stout’s sixth-grade class photo from Weddington Middle School. Courtesy of Stuart Stout

And there were layers to her bittersweet story that made it even more powerful, even more cinematic.

A month earlier, she’d struck up a friendship with Carolina Panthers guard Kevin Donnalley, having made a big impression on him when the two were introduced before a home game. He wound up visiting her regularly at the Stouts’ home as well as in the hospital, and he would eventually spearhead efforts by the Panthers to help make her ambitious wish come true. During one fund-raiser for Hope’s wish hosted by the team, a ball autographed by players sold for $30,000, all of which went to Make-A-Wish.

Hope’s wish had initially seemed impossible (social media and online crowdfunding platforms weren’t around yet to help). But a push from local media and a massive groundswell of community support — from elementary-schoolchildren donating change to NASCAR power players like Joe Gibbs and Tony Stewart writing substantial checks — led to roughly $500,000 being raised within just over a month, as Hope’s life neared its end.

Two weeks after Hope’s death, at a fund-raising gala held in her honor in January 2004, organizers announced that the total had swelled to more than $1 million. Two days after that, Donnalley and the Panthers won the NFC Championship and punched their ticket to their first Super Bowl.

The team fell short of winning it all, but thanks to both its improbable run and to Hope Stout, the city was as inspired as it had ever been. On top of that, how’s this for a Hollywood ending? By the end of the following November, all 155 children had been granted their wishes.

Stuart and Shelby Stout would quickly create a charitable foundation to support families with children facing a life-threatening illness or injury; it was called the March Forth With Hope Foundation, playing off of Hope’s birthday, March 4.

And on the day she would have turned 15, in 2006, they self-published “A Legacy of Hope,” a book about their daughter’s big, public dying wish. (Publisher Thomas Nelson picked it up in 2008, re-titling it “Hope’s Wish.”) Then the Stouts went on a mission to try to fulfill her smaller, more-private one: to be a movie star.

It would be a much, much more daunting challenge than they ever imagined.

Carolina Panthers player Kevin Donnalley poses with Hope Stout at a Carolina Panthers game in October 2003. Observer File Photo

A long road to nowhere

The original movie project seemed to spend an eternity in gestation.

As early as May 2005, local filmmakers were talking about turning Hope Stout’s life into an independent feature film titled “Not Without Hope.” The tentative plan was to begin shooting in Charlotte in the fall, with local producer Bert Hesse taking the lead.

Not long after, Charlotte’s Joanne Hock was hired to write a screenplay that she finished in 2006.

But the project encountered delay after delay. In January 2007, Stuart Stout told the Observer his group was hoping to begin filming that summer. In March 2008, Stout told the Observer that shooting in Charlotte would begin “soon.” The tentative release date was sometime that December. At next check, it was sometime in December 2009.

Then in early 2009, just days after shooting finally started, that particular project was shut down permanently. (Hesse recently told the Observer it was due to “the worldwide financial crisis of ’09.”)

All was quiet on the movie front until, nearly two years later, Stout announced he had teamed with Charlotte banker-turned-L.A. indie-film producer Jonah Hirsch to develop, finance and produce a new project, with a new screenplay to be written by Oscar winner Diana Ossana.

Her longtime writing partner — Oscar and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry — was on board as one of the film’s executive producers. (Hirsch and Stout say they raised about $1 million through private investors, with the majority of that money being used to pay for the script.)

Writers Diana Ossana (right) and Larry McMurtry arrives at the 78th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California, Sunday, March 5, 2006. (Michael Goulding/Orange County Register/KRT) Michael Goulding KRT

Their luck was changing — for the better, at first, then ultimately, for the worse.

A dream come true

The filmmaker the Stouts and Hirsch originally hired to direct Ossana’s script, Charlie Stratton, seemed especially well-suited for the project, they say, because he had a niece who was afflicted by the same rare type of cancer as Hope’s.

Then in 2016, they say, Stratton introduced them to Steve Wegner, an independent producer who was formerly an executive at Alcon Entertainment, which had produced feel-good hits like “The Blind Side” and “Dolphin Tale.” Stuart Stout says Wegner agreed to sign on as producer after falling in love with the story.

The Stouts and Hirsch say Wegner brought into the fold co-producers Val Hill and Yale Badik, who’d previously worked with Alcon on “Blade Runner 2049” and would be responsible for arranging financing for “Hope’s Wish.” They also say Wegner felt it was necessary to bring aboard a bigger-name director; Wegner would eventually replace Stratton with Charles Martin Smith, with whom Wegner had worked on “Dolphin Tale” and its 2014 sequel.

The Stouts felt horrible about firing Stratton, but in general, they were thrilled to be working with people they perceived to be Hollywood heavyweights who knew what they were doing and who knew how to navigate the studio system.

Another curveball came when Smith dropped out in September 2017 to direct “A Dog’s Way Home” for Columbia Pictures, the Stouts and Hirsch say, but they were happy with his replacement: Laurie Collyer, who had directed Maggie Gyllenhaal in 2006’s “Sherrybaby” and had two children around Hope’s age.

Progress picked up speed from there.

The NFL, the Panthers and Make-A-Wish were in separate discussions with the producing team about partnering with the film. A deal was signed to lease space in the old Raceworld USA, the facility that was once the center of operations for Michael Waltrip Racing in Cornelius. The filmmakers moved into production offices in late January, and construction began on sets soon after.

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Stuart Stout works in his office at the production facility. Over his shoulder hang photos of actors who the producers had gotten commitments from, including Queen Latifah, Kyla Matthews, Luke Wilson (who was to play Stuart) and Rebecca Nicole Ray (who was to play Austin Stout, Hope’s older sister).

People working on the set buzzed as news circulated that Luke Wilson would be playing Stuart Stout. A child actor from Canada, Kyla Matthews, had been tapped to star as Hope. Costumers descended on the Stouts’ house and worked with Shelby Stout to select boxes full of items from Hope’s room that could be used in the film.

The Stouts’ dream — Hope’s wish — was becoming a reality. And then...

A state of confusion

On Feb. 26, 2018, The Hollywood Reporter’s website published an “exclusive” story that came as a surprise to the Stouts and to Hirsch: “Queen Latifah to Star in Alcon Drama ‘Hope’s Wish.’“ Nearly identical stories followed within the hour on other trade websites, including Variety’s and Deadline’s.

It wasn’t the Queen Latifah part that caught them off guard — they’d heard she was in negotiations to play the wish-granter. No; the surprise, they say, was that the movie was being announced despite the fact that no one had cut a formal deal with the family.

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A screen shot of the Variety story announcing the film.

“We were like, ‘What’s happening here?’” Stuart Stout recalls. “I mean, they didn’t have the rights to the movie! ... At the same time, I thought, ‘Well, there’s no turning back now. They’re in it to win it.’”

Or so he thought.

Two weeks later came the first sign that there was a problem with the financing. The production shut down for more than four days, Hirsch says, because the union employees working on the set weren’t getting paid.

Someone cut a check to get them through that crisis, but then the other shoe dropped: On Friday, April 6 — right before Kyla Matthews was set to fly to Charlotte to begin work on her role, says her mother, Kirsty Matthews — “Hope’s Wish” was permanently shut down when a financier or financiers abruptly backed out.

“It was a big surprise, because we were so far in,” says Collyer, the director. (According to multiple people interviewed for this story, roughly $3 million had already been spent on pre-production.) “I mean, we built a hospital, more or less, on this stage. That cost, I don’t know, tens of thousands of dollars. But at the same time, by that point, I knew we didn’t have underlying rights to the material, I knew we didn’t have any actor deals ... so I was surprised-slash-not surprised.”

Collyer says she thinks Val Hill and Yale Badik — the financing producers — “lost their financing, so I would say they were directly at fault.” But she was unaware where the financing was coming from. (Neither Hill nor Badik responded to numerous emails, texts and calls from the Observer.)

The Stouts and Hirsch, though, initially thought it was obvious. They blamed Alcon. After all, they were under the impression that Wegner worked for Alcon, and that Alcon had a significant financial stake in the project.

But Alcon co-founder Andrew Kosove tells the Observer: “Alcon Entertainment was providing distribution — and nothing but distribution — for this movie. We were excited to distribute the movie, and were disappointed that the people who were providing the production financing for the movie decided to abandon the film.”

(Kosove also says Wegner’s employment with Alcon ended five years ago, but that he continues to work with Alcon “on individual projects as his own self-proprietor.”)

Attempts by the Observer to determine the source of the funding, why it was pulled, or what otherwise caused the project to fall apart were unsuccessful:

Wegner declined to comment for this story. A spokesman for Walden Media, which was listed as being “set to produce alongside” Wegner, Hill and Badik in the articles announcing the film, also declined. A spokeswoman for Warner Bros. referred all questions to Alcon.

At one point, months after the shutdown, Hirsch and the Stouts say they were told that financing had been provided by — and this might seem like it comes completely out of left field, but — the Knights of Columbus.

However, the Knights’ chief communications officer, Kevin Shinkle, provided this response to the Observer: “The extent of the Knights of Columbus’ involvement in this project was to provide a short-term bridge loan. We never agreed to invest in this production.”

The world’s largest Catholic fraternal service organization, the Knights of Columbus has nearly 2 million members and an asset management subsidiary that manages about $24 billion in investments. Badik is the son-in-law of Knights of Columbus’ top executive Carl A. Anderson, and Shinkle confirms that the organization was made aware of the project by Badik.

But, Shinkle says, “When the financing failed to materialize, we ended our involvement.”

So what, then, really happened?

A family clinging to hope

The Stouts and Hirsch say they’ve been down many of these same roads trying to find out, and that they all lead them and right back to where they started — with more questions than answers, in the middle of a giant mess.

Stuart and Shelby Stout want to move on, but they and Hirsch say there are multiple unresolved issues.

For one, they feel their original investors are owed their money back, and the Stouts insist that whoever is responsible for pulling the rug out from underneath them should also be responsible for reimbursing those investors.

Furthermore, even though the Stouts never transferred or optioned their ownership rights to their book — or their family’s life rights, or the screenplay — Hirsch says that due to the failed effort, they need all the parties involved to revert any rights they may claim to own back to the family.

He also says they need written assurances that there aren’t hidden obligations or debt incurred by the failed effort that will come back to haunt the production if and when the project is re-booted.

It’s a huge headache, the Stouts say.

And yet, they say, it’d be easy to make all the pain and suffering they’ve been through over this go away. They just want to get their daughter’s movie made. And there’s nothing, they say, that will stop them from one day — finally — fulfilling Hope’s wish.

Never did I foresee all of this happening,” Stuart Stout says. “But there’s somebody out there who will get this done for us, someone who’ll do it and do it right. ... We’re ready. We’ve always been ready.”

Stuart, a banker, is now 62. Shelby Stout, a retired schoolteacher, is 60. They have two other daughters: Austin Stout, 34, and Holly Stout Figueroa, 31. Hope would have turned 28 this past March 4, and as the Stouts point out, she’s been gone longer than they had her.

Shelby and Stuart Stout with their daughters, Holly and Austin, at a fundraising gala for Hope’s namesake March Forth With Hope Foundation in 2013. Daniel Coston

“God says in the Bible that we’re all masterpieces, and some masterpieces get finished, and some die before they get finished,” Shelby Stout says. “Hope’s was finished. Her masterpiece of who she was, carrying her name proudly, showing her faith, and doing what God asked her — after all these years, I know that that was her purpose. And I can say she finished it in 12 years. But I’m not finished yet.

“That’s why I’m still here. ... It’s really hurt our other two daughters, because we have carried this with us, and sometimes they’ve felt neglected ... they will tell us, ‘Guys, we’re still here.’

“But we felt like this was our purpose.”

Théoden Janes has spent 12 years covering entertainment and pop culture for the Observer. He also thrives on telling emotive long-form stories about extraordinary Charlotteans and — as a veteran of 20-plus marathons and two Ironman triathlons — occasionally writes about endurance and other sports.
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