- David Fleming, ESPN Senior Writer
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Dear Pottsville: You were counting on me, I know.
During the past five years I must have heard that phrase a thousand times while visiting your rugged, lovely little town in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. You normally don't embrace outsiders. But in 2004, when I showed up and said I wanted to write a magazine story about your beloved 1925 Maroons, one of the most dominant, influential -- and controversial -- teams in NFL history, you treated me like family and gave me the kind of support most writers only dream about. And when I returned with the idea of writing a book, you were quite clear about what you expected in return: You were counting on me (there's that phrase again) to chaperone this local treasure to Hollywood and make it into the kind of blockbuster movie that would embarrass the NFL into making amends and returning the stolen 1925 NFL championship to its rightful owners.
Well, I've now spent the past four years immersed in la-la land desperately trying to honor our deal. And even though I now feel like I may never be fully clean again, I'm not here to complain, apologize or point fingers. All I really want to do is to explain what happened to our Maroons movie and, if need be, beg you, the good people of Pottsville, for one last favor: Please don't make me go back to Hollywood.
LOOKING BACK, it seems fitting that my first few days in the movie biz were spent on the toilet. In the fall of 2006 I had agreed to travel to Hollywood to meet with movie producers who had optioned my book proposal on the Maroons. On the trip out west, however, I caught a wicked stomach virus and wound up sequestered in the Beverly Garland Holiday Inn in North Hollywood. Forty-eight hours later, my hotel room was littered with crinkled-up script pages, Post-it notes, dirty socks, Pop-Tarts wrappers, wine bottles and Pepto-Bismol empties. It was like a PG-13 version of a Hunter S. Thompson tale, and as I glanced around my trashed Hollywood headquarters, I said to myself: You're sure not in Pottsville anymore, dude.
Neither were the Maroons -- and that was the point. From the very beginning of this project, the team's amazing saga always seemed like a perfect fit for Tinseltown. Forged in the heart of Pennsylvania coal country and spurred by the youthful spirit of the Roaring Twenties, the Maroons dominated the league in their inaugural NFL season. After defeating the Chicago Cardinals 21-7 at Comiskey Park for what was viewed as the NFL championship, the Maroons took on a college all-star team in Philadelphia featuring Notre Dame's legendary Four Horsemen. Local scribes anointed the epic battle "The Greatest Football Game Ever Seen" after the Maroons defeated the all-stars 9-7 on a last-second field goal. The win helped legitimize the NFL, but the league stripped the fledgling team of its championship after bitter, rival owners in Philly claimed the Maroons had violated their territory. Pottsville was devastated. A franchise that could have become the Green Bay Packers of the East was, instead, belly up by 1929.
I knew right away that I had stumbled upon a once-in-a-lifetime story, and before my book "Breaker Boys: The NFL's Greatest Team and the Stolen 1925 Championship" was even done it seemed like several movie producers agreed. Among them was the group that had won an Oscar for "Chicago"; they were looking to break free from the musical genre. (Although you never know ... ) Instead, I went with a woman who seemed the most informed and passionate about the team, the town and the historic injustice. My agent was skeptical but threw out an option price of $17,500 to gauge her interest. She jumped at it. In the land of "Avatar"-type money this is small, blue potatoes, but from my perspective it was pretty darn generous. After all, my book publisher was paying me $35,000 to spend two years obsessively researching, writing and promoting "Breaker Boys" -- and here I was making half that by signing my name.
The five-page, 25-item contract stipulated that if a studio were to put the project in development I'd get another five-figure check. The deal also covered my percentage of merchandise sales, how my name would appear on posters, as well as the kind of travel and tickets I was entitled to for the premiere. I was also to receive 2.5 percent of the movie's budget, with a cap of $650,000. Luckily, before I bought an Armani tux or sent in my notice to ESPN, my wife explained something I had overlooked: I wouldn't get a single penny until the film starts running through the camera. And less than 2 percent of optioned books ever make it that far.
At first, I understood that the deal amounted to little more than the privilege to sound cool by saying I had a movie deal and a reason to dream about trashing hotels with James Franco, walking down red carpets and that exquisite moment when the theater is lit up with the words: Based on the Book by David Fleming. But I was far too mature and experienced to believe for a second that the film would ever get made.
Then, disaster struck, Hollywood-style.
I started to care.
The more time I spent in Pottsville, the more fond I grew of the region and its residents -- and the more livid I became at the dismissive way the NFL had bullied a tiny town and a pioneering team -- just because it could. I considered the descendants of the players my friends. I spent a day 400 feet underground in a mine to better understand the life of a coal miner. I began to feel a deep sense of responsibility regarding the team and its legacy. I was convinced that for the Maroons to get their championship back, all we needed to do was get the story out to a big enough audience and, if the world made any sense at all, public sentiment would take care of the rest.
EVEN AFTER FOUR YEARS, I STILL HAVE NO IDEA WHAT "ATTACHED" MEANS.
Alas, this was before I knew how the movie biz worked. This was before my movie agent went radio silent for two weeks during the tense, final stretch of contract negotiations because he'd been leaving messages with the wrong Dave Fleming, a talent manager who works with Borat. This was before I realized the producers I had teamed up with hadn't actually, you know, produced a movie yet. This was before they showed up 20 minutes late to our first meeting, stranding me in the stifling heat on a corner of Sunset Boulevard like a runaway from Pennsylvania.
Later, trying to lighten my mood and alleviate my heatstroke, one of the producers pointed to the Hollywood sign and giggled: "I wonder how many people have killed themselves by jumping off?" What they lacked in motivational skills, though, the producers more than made up for with creativity, an underdog work ethic and classic Hollywood cunning condescension. This mixture helped them land a screenwriter, steeped in the thriller-film genre, to quickly crank out a script on spec. They also lured in "Miracle" director Gavin O'Connor, who then became "attached" to the project. Even after four years of adventures in movieland I still have no idea what "attached" means. At one point or another Kevin Costner, the NFL, Channing Tatum, Danny DeVito, ICM CEO Jeff Berg and, I think, James Cameron, were all "attached" to our film. My understanding of
attached is that someone is superinterested, at least until something better comes along.
Something better always comes along. For the time being, though, with the book, a script and an A-list director, we locked in more than a dozen meetings with major studios.
Now, I could try to act nonchalant or hold onto my altruistic motivations as I describe these events from four years ago, but the truth is there have been few more spectacular moments in my life than getting called Mr. Fleming and being waved through the iconic iron gates of Paramount Pictures. During the next week I sipped cappuccinos in the all-glass conference room at 20th Century Fox, walked past active soundstages at Universal, chatted with execs inside Columbia's old-Hollywood bungalows. At Warner Bros., I reached up on a shelf and held the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that Kim Basinger won in 1997 for "L.A. Confidential". (I thanked my wife, my kids, the Coreys and Gandhi.) We were meeting with rainmakers and my head was in the clouds.
As I have come to understand it, a successful pitch for a film -- say "The Blind Side" -- typically begins with warm handshakes and laser focus. Then the producer will launch into the idea: It's a best-selling book with a transcendent tale! It's Horatio Alger, only this time the kid is a black, 300-pound offensive lineman adopted by a rich, white family in Memphis.
Then the studio suits might respond thusly: Here's a thought. Sandy Bullock's a close friend. What about her for the pushy housewife lead? It's genius. A football movie that appeals to women. How much you need? Twenty million? Know what? We're gonna give you 30 and our jet to scout locations. I'll messenger you the contracts by the end of business today, right after my tanning. Lunch? Sushi? Hells, yes.
Our meetings went just a wee bit differently. Every so often we met with down-to-earth, passionate and incredibly sharp studio execs, but most of the time the dudes sitting across from us were impossibly young, impeccably coiffed and implausibly clueless yet confident. They also didn't seem to know or care much about, well, movies. I opened the pitches with a short red-faced spiel that attempted to evoke the ethos of the era, the team, the frontier aspect of football and the rugged, proud coal-mining region. My message was simple: This is the football version of "Hoosiers". (At this point you might be wondering why a sportswriter with the flu was leading a pitch for a major studio film? Hell if I know.) The screenwriter, who dressed like Keith Richards after a makeover by the Gap, would take over from there, until, god love him, he inevitably became paralyzed by nerves and struck mute in midsentence. It was like the interrogation scene in "The Matrix" when Neo has his lips fused together by Agent Smith, only way more disturbing.
If we made it past the screenwriter's crippling cottonmouth, we faced serious questions about back-end accounting issues with football movies. Studios hate period pieces because they are a pain to make and costly to stage. This drove the estimated budget to $25 million, but even the major flops earn back the studio's investment through European sales. Our little film didn't come with the same safety net because European moviegoers don't exactly go for American football. This meant that oftentimes before we even sat down, the answer was already "No." Even worse were the spray-tanned execs who let us pour our hearts out for an hour and then, resting their chins thoughtfully on the tips of their fingers, asked us questions like, "Sooooo, does it really have to be football and coal mining?" Or, "Would it work just as well set in the 1970s?" Or, my personal favorite, "Do they really have to be stripped of their championship in the third act -- such a bummer, right?" Then I'd usually spend the rest of the meeting answering questions like: "Should I trade LaDainian for Peyton in my keeper league?"
Hilarious, right? At first. Then, it kept happening. No deal was being reached, and at some point, I was gut-punched by the realization that on projects that require nuance, patience and vision, Hollywood's as shallow, spineless and dumb as people make it out to be. If you don't have any industry juice, it's worse. Much, much worse. And, because I didn't grasp this soon enough, that meant I had essentially sold my soul -- Pottsville's soul -- for the grand total of $17,500. Bullied by the NFL for eight decades, Pottsville was now getting screwed all over again in Hollywood, and I brokered the deal. This quaint Pennsylvania hamlet that I had grown to love had entrusted me with the hopes and dreams of three generations, and I had flown off to California hopped up on ego, Red Bull and Pepto and traded it away for a sack of worthless magic beans. Lord, help me.
After the book came out in 2007, the producers continued to work the town hard, hitting every studio, every TV network and every film-financing company. They were all the "perfect match" with "huge" people who were "totally stoked" about the Maroons' story. Luckily, I fell for this line of bull only 25 more times before wising up. For a short time "Breaker Boys" was a miniseries directed by Kevin Costner. Then, it was a Showtime original movie. Or, maybe it was HBO. Members of the Rooney family wanted in. Then they didn't. A guy at Fox Searchlight "got it" but moved to a different studio. The NFL even talked about dressing teams in Maroons throwback jerseys on Monday Night Football. In 2009, both AMC and the American Film Company took it for a test-drive.
RICK REILLY WAS SYMPATHETIC: "SORRY FOR CASH-BLOCKING YOU, BUD."
Every time we managed to gain a little momentum -- "Breaker Boys" sold through four printings and President George W. Bush sent me a handwritten letter about how much he enjoyed the book -- someone would inevitably drop the L-word. As in "Leatherheads". As in George Clooney's biggest flop since "Return of the Killer Tomatoes!" in 1988. It didn't matter that our story was closer to the authentic, gritty American underdog spirit of "Seabiscuit". Or, that "Leatherheads" merely used the NFL frontier days as a platform for slapstick comedy. In the minds of most studio execs, if one movie about pro football in 1925 flops, they all will.
Originally co-written by my ESPN colleague Rick Reilly in 1991, "Leatherheads" had been mired in development hell until it was rescued by Clooney. It can't be easy to invest 17 years in something only to watch it tank. Heck, I barely made it for four. But at least Reilly got to throw passes to Clooney on the set and experience characters he invented walk up and introduce themselves. So I couldn't resist reminding Rick that the realization of his cinematic dream basically snuffed out mine. Not to worry, I e-mailed him, I'm sure my kids will enjoy online college. When we did catch up by phone Reilly seemed extremely sympathetic, in an I-Got-Mine, Hollywood way. "Sorry for cash-blocking you, bud, but I'm seriously rolling my eyes at your Hollywood struggles," Reilly said. "Do you know how many times I had my heart broken by this project in 17 years? Seventeen years! How many times I heard, 'Oh, Mel Gibson loves this' or 'Michael Keaton says this is the best script he's ever seen,' when it was actually propping open a door at Universal? Trust me, every third word you hear in Hollywood is a lie."
Desperately trying to distinguish our movie from the one that broke Reilly's heart, we continued to twist "Breaker Boys" in so many different directions and reimaginings that it eventually lost its form and spark and began to wilt. By spring 2010 it had been months since anyone in Hollywood expressed serious interest in my book. So when the option came up for renewal, everyone let it quietly expire.
Then, just after Halloween, one of the producers caught wind of a rumor that, based on the success of "The Blind Side", a studio was looking for sports movies. It was huge! It was perfect! It was major! Everyone was superstoked. Did I want to get the band back together and take one more shot at this thing?
I don't know if I was bitter, burned out or afraid, but without hesitation I employed the one skill I had picked up from the movie industry.
And for the first time in my long, twisted Hollywood misadventure, I felt like I had made a smart decision.