Discover more from Jeff Pearlman's Journalism Yang Yang
The Yang Slinger: Vol. X
With my book, "Showtime," about to become an HBO series (Holy shit! Holy shit!), I break down what it is to have something optioned. Plus, five questions for Mo Patton and the shame of Brian Kilmeade.
In the lord’s year of 2004, I released my first book. It was titled, “The Bad Guys Won!”
In the lord’s year of 2009, I was paid $30,000 for the film option rights to “The Bad Guys Won!”
A film! A FILM!?!?!?!? Holy shit, my book was becoming a film! I couldn’t believe it. A real production company was surrendering actual money to convert the words I’d written into a cinematic format! Unbelievable! And even better—we were already talking directors, producers, actors, executives! Who can play Dwight Gooden? Who can play Gary Carter? Denzel, maybe? How about Clooney? Brad Pitt? There would be reach-outs to Hollywood’s biggest Mets fans. Jerry Seinfeld. Kevin James.
So, of course, I did what all about-to-be-famous authors do in times like these: I told the world. I made calls, sent texts, posted on social media. GUESS WHAT, EVERYONE? ‘THE BAD GUYS WON!’ IS GONNA BE A MOVIE! SPREAD THE MOTHERFUCKING WORD!!!!!!!
And then …
Why? I still don’t know. Supposedly the Mets and Major League Baseball were being pains in the ass. Supposedly buying MLB footage was prohibitively expensive. There was backlash and conflict and … it just (poof) vanished. I kept the $30,000, but all my dreams of having a book turned into a movie died on the vine.
And that was that.
If you’re reading this, and you’re at all familiar with my life of late, you know that wasn’t actually that. A bunch of days ago HBO released the trailer to the upcoming series, “Winning Time,” which is based upon my 1980s Lakers book, “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s.”
And I wanted to use this week’s space to discuss the optioning process, and well as some of the Dos and Don’ts. Because there are plenty.
First, some paperwork …
Over the 17-year span of my book-writing career, I’ve probably had my stuff optioned, oh, eight-to-10 times. And if that sounds like some sort of flex, it’s anything but. Truth is, if you write enough books, odds are pretty good some of them will be picked up by a production company or studio or industrious screenwriter itching for material. Why? Because every year in America hundreds upon hundreds of books are optioned. Maybe thousands. The numbers are in our favor.
Only, it’s not as one might think. That $30,000 check I received a decade back? It was a swan in a flock of pigeons. Every other option opportunity resulted in me being paid anywhere between $0.00 and $2,000—generally closer to $0.00. The pathetic stories are endless, and not even all that entertaining. There was the young writer who gave me nothing, promised nothing and delivered nothing. There was the repeat offender who kept coming back for more months, more material—and produced nada. There was the time a screenwriter somehow was able to get the excellent Mike Tollin on the phone for his grand pitch to turn “The Bad Guys Won!” into a film. I was listening in as he began with, “OK, Mike, so the movie starts with young Jeff Pearlman, age 13, sitting in front of his television … .” As soon as the humiliating session wrapped, I called Mike to apologize for the waste of breath.1
The lowest point, however, had to have been when I was taken to the famed Soho House out here in Los Angeles. This was a power producer wanting to bring his power to my power books, and I was all in … until he whipped out his phone and scrolled through pictures of the army of women he was fucking.
You read that correctly.
Women. Him. Fucking.
They were nudes and half nudes, taken either immediately before or immediately after sex.
We never spoke again.
The point is, it never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever pays to brag to people about having your book optioned. Because the gulf between here (You have a book) … and there (it’s a movie/TV show) is wider than the Atlantic, and it generally results in nothing.
Sometimes it happens. Back when I was at Sports Illustrated, one of the magazine’s best writers was Franz Lidz, a marvelous wordsmith who produced profiles that (quality-wise) I’ve never been able to touch. And in 1995, Franz became a sports media (or, really, media-media) hero when his memoir “Unstrung Heroes,” was turned into a major motion picture.
I spoke with Franz earlier today, and he recalled the whole experience as weird, awful, shitty, profitable, uncomfortable. “Unstrung Heroes” was initially optioned six months before its literary release date, after his reps at ICM shopped the manuscript. There were multiple bidders, and for Franz it came down to choosing between two male producers who were responsible for “Predator” and two female producers who would later do “Grosse Pointe Blank.”
“The women seemed better connected and more in tune with what the book was about,” Franz told me. “I was riding around with them in Los Angeles one day, and they’d see a homeless person on the street, stop and hand him $20. Over and over. It was a little weird, but I figured I’d go with them. Also, I didn’t wanna have to watch ‘Predator.’”
Tony Spiridakis (aka: “This nitwit” in Franz speak) was hired by Paramount to write the script, and Franz smelled disaster. “He came to our house to talk about the movie,” he recalled, “and he draped his coat over the couch very specifically, so we would see the Armani label. It was pathetic.” Spirikdakis’ vision for the movie matched Franz’s book in one way: They both involved words. Otherwise, it was “Unstrung Heroes: The Asshat Remix: Vol I.” Franz’s book chronicles the exploits of his four uncles. Tony wanted there to only be two uncles. There is a scene in the book where Franz’ grandfather carries a canoe to New York’s East River. Tony changed it to two uncles kidnapping young Franz, placing him in the canoe and paddling to an insane asylum where they break out another uncle who then drives a car around Manhattan. By the time the rearranging was complete, Franz had a new name for the project: “Two Uncles Meet a Little Guy and Rainman and Become the Dream Team.”
The project ran dry. Regrettably, it was acquired by a studio, Largo, that hired Beeban Kidron, later known as the director of “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.” A new script also had little to do with the actual book, and when Franz pointed this out, he says Kidron, “cut me out. They didn’t want me to have any creative involvement. I was gone.”
Like Paramount, Largo never made the film. Buuuuuuuut … Hollywood Pictures (in conjunction with Disney) picked up the option, and Michael Eisner said he was happy with the book as long as, “we turn it into a Jewish ‘Terms of Endearment.’” (If you haven’t read “Unstrung Heroes”—which you should because it’s terrific—this makes no sense whatsoever). Suddenly, the focus shifted from Franz’s uncles (the stars of the book) to his mother (not the star of the book). “My mom was becoming the new Debra Winger,” Franz recalled—not happily.
Big names were brought in. Andie MacDowell, John Turturro, Michael Richards, Maury Chaykin. Diane Keaton would make her directorial debut. “They wanted to cast John Candy, but he died,” said Franz. “That would have been the weirdest casting ever—but still better than Richards.” According to Franz, at one point Richards suggested that the uncle he portrayed needed to be a painter of clowns. Um … what? “I just had a dream,” Richards said at the time, “and my character was painting clowns. He needs to paint clowns.”
So, in the movie, he painted clowns.
The entire experience was crushing. “Unstrung Heroes” was Franz’ life, and the motion pictures reflected little-to-none of that. When we spoke, Franz recalled something Rick Telander, author of “Heaven is a Playground” (another book turned to bad movie), told him: “The experience is like standing on a dock, seeing a giant cruise ship off. You’re standing on the platform and the ship goes off and off and off into the distance until it’s a speck on the horizon, and you have nothing left to do with it.”
Because of a clause in his contract, Franz could not criticize the movie upon its release. When asked by reporters what he thought of the film, he said, dryly, “It’s very uniquely typed.”
I love that line.
But here’s the thing.
The very important thing.
For all the misery, and all the antagonism, and for all the contempt Franz Lidz feels toward the movie version of his book, he would change none of it.
“I got that bag of money, and we bought a farm,” he said. “We lived there for 25 years. My daughters grew up on that farm. That alone makes it all worthwhile.”
There are other sides to this, of course. Talk to J.K. Rowling. Talk to Candace Bushnell. Talk to Michael Lewis.
Hell, talk to Jamie Reidy.
Back in the day the former Pfizer sales rep wrote a book, “Hard Sell,” about his experiences with the company (and, specifically, peddling Viagra). His agent shopped the project to various production companues, and before long he was on a California studio lot, serving as the pharma sales technical advisor for a film, “Love & Other Drugs,” that starred Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway and Oliver Platt. I asked Jamie how the experience impacted him. He did not hold back.
“Holy fuck did it change my life,” he said. “They way overpaid for the rights, and that money let me try to be a full-time writer. The coolest moment occurred just a few minutes after I arrived. They were between takes and Jake was standing in the middle of the scene. I was standing against the far wall, behind a bunch of people. Jake looked out at everyone and somehow saw me. He broke into a big smile, pointed right at me, and exclaimed, ‘There's my guy!’ I felt like a high school freshman getting a high five from the senior quarterback in the cafeteria. After that, everybody treated me like gold.”
Like Jamie (and unlike Franz), my experience with the whole Lakers project has been pure bliss.
It all commenced about eight years ago, when I was living in New Rochelle, N.Y., and two movie folk—Jim Hecht and Jason Shuman—reached out to me about my book, “Showtime.” I don’t recall how it specifically began, but I know I was skeptical and dismissive. I went to Jason’s IMDB page, then Jim’s. And while both sported legitimate experiences, well, I’d learned that everyone has some sort of IMDB experiences (and the words usually mean far less than they seem). I’d also grown numb to the bullshit of the business; the high praise and overflowing linguistics and promises of that and this and this and that. So, yeah, both guys seemed nice enough. But I was super jaded. Especially when they offered me little dough and a whole lot of, “We believe in this!”
At one point, Jim asked if I’d be willing to meet. I invited him to my home for our weekly Sunday night family dinners. He arrived via train from Grand Central, armed with a tomato, a block of baking chocolate and some sort of wine drink (not wine). It was the most confusing present the wife and I had ever received.
“Who is this person?” Catherine asked.
“Jim!” I said. “He wrote ‘Ice Age: The Meltdown.’”
“Oh,” Catherine said.
We immediately dug the guy. He was real and honest. You could feel it. No overflowing flattery. No guarantees. Mainly, “I love this book and I think we can do something.”
The years passed. I never had hope, so there was no hope to lose. Outside of occasional phone chats with Jim or Jason, I rarely thought much about “Showtime” becoming anything. It’s actually lesson No. 1 in the Pearlman Family Guide to Existence: Don’t get too positive, because usually it’ll result in disappointment.2
We moved to Southern California in 2014. It had nothing to do with any sort of career in TV or film. More a love of palm trees and warm weather. But one day probably, oh, four years ago, I start hearing stuff from Jason and Jim.
“HBO might be interested.”
“No, seriously. It seems pretty legit.”
“They’re genuinely interested.”
Then, one day, from Jim: “We’re going to Adam McKay’s house on Monday. Can you come?”
I said yes, because … I dunno. Why not? But if I’m being honest (and I am being honest), the name meant nothing to me. Some producer/executive/TV/movie guy-amajig, I guess. Adam McSomething …
Then, while waiting for Jim to arrive, I stood outside Adam McKay’s house and Googled his name.
This came up …
This was Adam McKay? THIS guy? Damn. I’d seen, oh, a half dozen of his projects. Probably more. So I straightened out my four remaining follicles of hair, buttoned my shirt and—alongside Jim—knocked on McKay’s door. The meeting probably lasted, oh, a half hour. He could not have been cooler, and was a legit NBA fan who knew everything there was to know about my book and the 1980s Lakers dynasty.
When we left, Jim smiled. “I’m telling you,” he said, “this is gonna happen.”
And here I sit.
I can’t quite explain how insane this has been, but I’ll try. First, I get paid good money. Not retire-to-a-yacht money, but money that’ll help with my kids’ college educations. Second, they’re turning my book into an HBO series. MY! BOOK! I would say it’s the stuff of dreams, but I never dreamed up such a thing. I’ve been to set multiple times, and—as opposed to Franz—I could not be happier with the casting, the directing, the direction, the attention to detail. Early on, for example, someone from wardrobe called to ask if I knew the material that was used on the 1979 Lakers’ summer league uniforms. It’s that hyper-focused. The three main writers are Jim, Max Bornstein and Rodney Barnes, and they clearly get what it’s all about. There’s talent everywhere. Absolutely everywhere. Sometimes it makes me want to cry tears of happiness. And after two-plus years of shitty COVID life and all the Trump bullshit, the show is well-needed medicine.
It’s also left me with some cool stories. Here are two:
• A few months ago I was strolling across a parking lot filled with trailers. I saw a woman about 10 feet away walking her dog. I blurted out, “Sally Field?”
“Yes?” she said.
“Hi,” I replied. “I’m Jeff Pearlman. I wrote the book that this series is based on. And I just wanted to tell you how honored I am that you’re in it.”
“Oh, wow, well thank you so much,” she said. “That’s really wonderful of you to say.”
We then discussed her dog.
• The wife, kids and I all have small cameos. Those days are, sincerely, Top 5 for my life. Just fun, fun, fun, fun. At one point, before the scene I was in commenced, McKay made an announcement. “Everyone, just so you know this is Jeff Pearlman, the author of Showtime! His book made this happen!”
Everyone clapped. I looked at the wife.
She was smiling from ear to ear.
There’s always an advice component to these segments, and I wouldn’t want to ruin tradition. So here are some things I’ve learned …
• When you’re approached about optioning a book, avoid all temptations to represent yourself. Trust me. Get an agent ASAP. There are far too many things that can go wrong and far too many unfamiliar terms to navigate.
• Don’t take $0. Your work has value. If someone can’t pay a dime, the odds of anything happening: Big zero.
• If you’re looking to shop something, you can’t go wrong with IMBD’s upgraded membership. It costs a few bucks, but provides contacts for pretty much everyone in the biz (usually via an agent).
• Be smart. I ignored Advice No. 2, and paid a price. Years ago a guy came along, said he loved one of my books and wanted to turn it into a screenplay. He couldn’t offer any upfront dough, but knew this guy, that guy, etc. I had a weak moment, signed a one-year option. About six months in someone offered real money for the rights to the book. I told the guy paying me nothing that I needed to take the new deal. “No,” he said, “we have a contract.” I was pissed at him. I should have been pissed at myself.
• Be the spark: For far too long I’ve waited for people to come to me. More recently, I’m going to studios and execs with my books, trying to sell the narratives. Why didn’t this dawn on me years ago? I have no idea.
• Keep a very open mind: If you reach a place where a film/TV show is being made, you can’t expect it to adhere 100 percent to your book or your vision. That’s actually a good thing—different eyes bring different perspectives. What you don’t want to become is the writer who whines and complains and says, “No! In my book the dress was red, not pink!” Reputations spread. Be grateful.
• Be v-e-r-y skeptical if someone trying to buy your property says, “I have a friend whose cousin’s sister knows Tom Hanks, and …” It’s almost always bullshit. And, cliche be damned, so much of Hollywood is bullshit. Flattery is a language in Tinseltown. So are free lunches. Don’t fall for any of it. Be jaded. Be probing. Don’t take any shit. And pay for your own damn lunch.
• If someone shows you photos of all the women he’s fucked—don’t walk. Run.
The Quaz Five with … Maurice Patton
Maurice Patton is the sports editor of the Main Street Maury, a weekly newspaper that covers Maury County, Tenn. He is a former (Nashville) Tennessean reporter who sat about two seats to my left. You can follow Mo on Twitter here.
1. What's the difference between an OK preps writer and a great preps writer?: I think the difference between an OK preps writer and a great preps writer is relationships. Even if you cover a number of high schools, you can still try to get on a personal level with the folks you deal with. Part of that is taking opportunities to interact with those folks when you're not necessarily working on an article. The more comfortable people are talking to you, the more they're going to say to you.
2. What are your life rules if a high school or college kid majorly screws up in a game you're covering? Drops an easy pass? Whiffs with the bases loaded? How hard can you go?: I'm honestly going to bring as little attention as possible to a major screw-up by a high school athlete. I don't feel like they've signed up for that level of scrutiny. If it's critical to telling the story of the game, I'm going to mention it, but I'm not going to bury a kid if I can avoid doing so. Somewhat different rules for college athletics, for the fact that there's a broader audience and it's a higher level.
3. You covered Tennessee when Phil Fulmer was coach. What was he like to deal with as a member of the media?: When I covered Fulmer, everything that was done and said was with an eye toward recruiting. There was a lot of spin. So you knew that, and you took some things with a grain of salt. That said, he was relatively accessible, which is always a positive.
4. Is there hope for local journalism?: I definitely think there's hope for local journalism. It's just a matter of the right people believing that, and people committing to delivering that. There is some information that only local journalism and local journalists can provide, and that information is important.
5. Rank in order (favorite to least): Howard University, Kenny Anderson, winter caps, Robert Downey, Jr., Slim Jims, The Oak Ridge Boys, Amazon Prime, Larry Woody columns, the number 12: Winter caps (I hate being cold); Kenny Anderson; Larry Woody columns; Howard University; the number 12; Robert Downey, Jr.; Amazon Prime; The Oak Ridge Boys; Slim Jims.
Yet another story of one of my myriad career fuckups …
In 1994, I told the editors at The Tennessean that I wanted to write a column about the awful sexism of Hooters, brand new to Nashville’s downtown. They agreed, then I handed this in.
[It never ran—praise Jesus.]
This week’s college writer you should follow on Twitter …
Gillian Manning, Florida Atlantic University senior and editor-in-chief of the @upressonline.
So Gillian Manning has future star written all over her. Her work was sent my way by @RyanLynchwriter, a former University Press staff writer. And, man, he was right on.
First, there’s this outstanding piece from Dec. 9, chronicling the story of an FAU offensive lineman who received a loan for more than $20,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program for a clothing business that, ahem, doesn’t seem to exist.
Then, on Dec. 12, she fired off this piece, headlined, FAU DOES NOT RESPECT THE PRESS. It’s blisteringly good, and is highlighted by this run of awesomeness …
Gillian is on Twitter here. Bravo, kid …
Random journalism musings for the week …
Musing 1: If you read one restaurant review this decade, make it this insanely fantastic takedown from Geraldine DeRuiter of the Everywhereist. It’s nothing short of brilliant, and featuring the all-time line, “The décor had the of chicness of an underground bunker where one would expect to be interrogated for the disappearance of an ambassador’s child.”
Musing 2: A few weeks ago I received a review copy of Dan Shaughnessy’s new 1980s Celtics book, “Wish It Lasted Forever: Life with the Larry Bird Celtics.” My first reaction (to be honest): Why does the cover conceal the basketball? (Memo to designers who don’t do a ton of sports: Never hide the ball). My second (after reading): Hooooooly shit. What an entertaining, engrossing read. My favorite sports book of 2021, and there have been some dandies.
Musing 3: I was 100 percent in favor of CNN firing Chris Cuomo for his myriad conflicts of interest. It was a no-brainer. That being said, watch as Fox News allows Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade to keep their jobs and run free and misinform MAGA zombies as we learn more and more about their involvement in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack. It’s a weird place for a network to be—in favor of its “reporters” (quotes intended) reaching out to a politician and begging him to take action to preserve his legacy. I’m particularly disappointed by Kilmeade—a dumb man, but not (I ever thought) a particularly sinister one. I’ve met him a handful of times, but would do little more in 2021 than spit in his face. What these people have done to our profession’s reputation is tragic. Not to mention our country.
Musing 4: So thrilled to see the NABJ (National Association of Black Journalists) induct the legendary Claire Smith into its Hall of Fame. Back in the mid-1980s, the Hartfort Courant hired Claire to cover the Yankees, making her the first woman assigned full-time to a Major League Baseball beat. Bravo.
Musing 5: This isn’t merely a journalism substack, but a writing substack. So a nod of respect and a somber RIP to Anne Rice, the gothic novelist best known for “The Vampire Chronicles.” On Anne’s Facebook page, her son Christopher wrote: “The immensity of our family’s grief cannot be overstated. As my mother, her support for me was unconditional — she taught me to embrace my dreams, reject conformity and challenge the dark voices of fear and self-doubt. As a writer, she taught me to defy genre boundaries and surrender to my obsessive passions. In her final hours, I sat beside her hospital bed in awe of her accomplishments and her courage, awash in memories of a life that took us from the fog laced hills of the San Francisco Bay Area to the magical streets of New Orleans to the twinkling vistas of Southern California.”
Musing 6: Bonkers story out of Louisiana, covered perfectly by Andrew Capps of the Lafayette Daily Advertiser. Michelle Odinet, a Lafeyette City Court Judge, was caught using the n-word multiple times while watching video of a home robbery attempt. She blamed it all on a sedative. Um, yeah. Here’s the clip …
Musing 7: I’d never heard of Jerry Coleman before tonight, but he’s a verified sports media member who Tweeted this at Kevin Durant …
And I just wanna say, sincerely … Get a life. Seriously, man, get a life. You’re … how old? And you’re talking trash to an NBA player? Um, why? Also, not for nothing, you’re on the Orioles and Ravens beat for the local ESPN radio affiliate. Which is great. But—for journalism; for our business’s reputation—would you consider behaving as a professional (Step 1: Leave Cameo) and act as reporters act? I mean, for Christ’s sake …
Musing 8: This week’s Two Writers Slinging Yang podcast stars Mark Fainaru-Wada, the excellent ESPN.com investigative reporter who co-wrote “Game of Shadows,” thereby crushing me in the Barry Bonds book battle. Link here.
Quote of the week …
“It is one of the paradoxes of journalism: The more servile a reporter is toward his sources, the more authoritative he can appear in print.”
— Andrew Ferguson
Bright side. He’s remained a friend.
It’s an awful way to go through life.