By Rob Ryder
Page 3 columnist
They call the William Morris Agency the black hole. Once you sign on as a client, you get your 15 minutes of attention, maybe score a deal or two, then no one ever hears from you again. I was there years ago when I first got to Hollywood.One day I'm in New York swinging a baseball at Swan in "The Warriors," the next I'm in Beverly Hills sitting across from my new agent -- a wonderful, matronly Brit named Judy Scott-Fox (RIP). Judy would send me off to meetings like a mother hen -- "We don't want to be late now, do we?" I'd written a spec comedy script about a small town next to a nuclear waste dump. Like everyone else, I was outraged by the nuclear power industry. Forget the danger, it's the hard costs that'll kill us. Our children's children will still be paying to decommission these Bechtel, fat-cat abominations. But like Judy said, "We shouldn't be too preachy now, should we?" She found a terrific Englishman, John Irvin, to direct, and she optioned the script to a small production firm called MMA. My first deal. Of course, it turned to s--- in about six months. MMA was owned by an older husband-wife team who'd made their bread in the schmatta business and had a son who wanted to direct. As the old man told me, "My son is either a genius or the biggest a------ on the planet." They'd hired a guy named Steven Bach to run the company. Bach had just been fired from United Artists, which he'd virtually bankrupted by greenlighting "Heaven's Gate," then refusing to pull the plug when the director, Michael Cimino, went off the deep end. Bach hired a development guy whose name escapes me, but like many a lower-level executive, he must've spent hours each night scrubbing off the footprints. We were in a meeting addressing my script's "second act problems," which is kinda like four guys wandering around in a swamp at night with a box of damp matches. "Dude, Where's My Screenplay?" Bach was pontificating about narrative confluence or something. John Irvin, the director, sat there thinking "Oh God, here we go again." I was wondering if it was always gonna be like this. (It was.) And this poor sap of a development executive was desperately looking for a chance to break in with an idea, thereby, justifying his miserable existence. He finally got the chance and spat out a quick three sentences. Total silence. Bach turned to him and said, "That is the stupidest idea I ever heard." I felt bad for the guy. Look, I played for a coach who once likened our best player to a dog turd he saw on the sidewalk that morning, so this stuff wasn't new to me. But still, it makes you wince. Anyway, the option expired. I sold the thing once again and at least made a bunch of money, but like most scripts, it never got made. The Writer's Guild of America registered over 50,000 new scripts last year. This is what a Hollywood screenwriter is up against. You've gotta have several balls in the air, irons in the fire, pigs in the blanket. It's March 2004, and I need a deal. There's a Samuel Jackson hoops movie called "Coach Carter" shooting in L.A. right now. Word's out that they're dissatisfied with the basketball scenes, but I'm reluctant to make the call. These guys are pros, they'll get it fixed. At this point, it would be a step sideways for me. I need a director for my college hoops movie, "94 Feet." There's Rick Famuyiwa, who directed "The Wood," and "Brown Sugar." Famuyiwa's a baller himself. I met him when a Pepperdine assistant coach, Wyking Jones, brought him down to Pauley Pavilion when we were running full court 4-on-4 trial games. So I put a call into Wyking. It just so happens that his boss at Pepperdine is former NBA player and coach Paul Westphal. And Westphal was just quoted in the L.A. Times for telling David Stern to change the NBA game to 4-on-4. It's a great concept, way ahead of the curve, and I've invested a lot of time and effort into launching a four-man summer pro league. But that's gotta stay on the back burner for a while. I asked Wyking to let Famuyiwa know I'm interested in discussing "94 Feet" with him. Packaging rule No. 1 -- avoid agents and managers whenever possible. There's another potential director, Paul Johansson, who I met playing at the Hollywood Y. Johansson played on the Canadian national team, and he could flat out play. Not quite NBA caliber, but a delight to run with. Johansson has gotten gobs of acting work, particularly in TV. And he just directed Gena Rowlands in "The Incredible Mrs. Ritchie." His old phone number's defunct so I track down his manager through the Screen Actor's Guild. Johansson's in North Carolina acting in "One Tree Hill" for the WB. The manager, Gordon Gilbertson, likes the concept, and thinks Paul would be perfect to direct it. We riff on who's gonna win the NCAAs this year. He asks me to email him the script. I hang up and do so thinking that he's never gonna read this. In Hollywood, nobody reads. To his credit, Gilbertson emails me back: "On second thought just hold off for now! It's pilot season --- so I'm crazy. It will be impossible to download at this time. Thanks GG." What has this world come to when a writer is appreciative when someone actually admits he won't read something? I call my book agent, Matthew Guma, in New York. He's with Arthur Pine Associates. I figure the associates must be running the show since Arthur Pine is dead. They say he was a great guy and a great old-school agent. Guma, my new-school agent, is a wild one. He's a former North Carolina Tar Heel and a maniac for college hoops. He's convinced he can get me an advance on a book I'm writing so that's good. He's also just been to a Knicks game with LeBron's agent, Aaron Goodwin. Things are coming full circle, since I've spoken with Aaron's twin, Eric, about LeBron being in "94 Feet." What else? I head into a Lifetime channel meeting with a writing buddy, J.B. White. We've come up with a cool series concept, "Holly & Vine." Squeaky clean actress teams up with hip-hop P.I. to solve cases in Hollywood's underbelly. We've got a showrunner/producer/director attached (all through the William Morris Agency, which means sometimes they package, they really do package!). We pitch the show to a couple of African-American women who run the series division, and they seem receptive. We'll see. It's too cool an idea not to get made. This is what it's like when you freelance, when you're not on the company teat. It's cold out here. But it's dynamic. I'm just tired of making decisions like: Do I get that crown replaced or have the dog's lump biopsied? Ever have this conversation with your significant other, while driving your sick cat to the vet? "Listen, if it's over 250 dollars, it's sayonara Sox." Another meeting: There's a college football novel floating around out there. It's suddenly got some heat, and I've got a crack at the adaptation. I'd love to write a football movie. You know why? Because I'm tired of listening to basketball players saying how tough they are. Basketball players have no idea. None. You think Shaq would make an awesome lineman? Put Warren Sapp across from him for a set of downs, and let's renew the conversation. Football players, hockey players, boxers. These guys are tough. I learned the hard way. On a Robin Williams football movie called "The Best of Times." Ron Shelton wrote it, but an uptight Brit named Roger Spottiswoode directed it, and it didn't turn out the way it might have. Anyway, Ron knew I was struggling financially so he got me on as a football player. They also hired some NFL guys, including Herman Edwards, who now coaches the Jets. There was a linebacker from the Chicago Bears (I forget his name), and this guy was the most violent man I'd ever met. I went to lift weights with him at a local gym, and he scared the crap out of everybody. He didn't lift weights, he attacked them. He started by benching 440 and screaming the whole time. I'd never seen anything like it. He cleared the weight room out in six reps. So we shot the big football game over several nights out at Moorpark College in the middle of February. It was freezing. And it was supposed to rain at halftime so they had these big fire hoses out there, and they'd spray us between takes. The field turned to brown soup. We were soaking wet, shivering, lathered in mud, and it was truly miserable. Needless to say, the NFL guys all disappeared after the first night, with the exception of Herman Edwards who knows what it means to honor a commitment. So they brought in these gnarly former junior college guys who just couldn't let the dream die. I had one across from me on the line (I played a tight end, at 6-foot-5 and all of 215) and this guy was a mean S.O.B. He immediately started tearing me up. A forearm shiv up under my face mask. A bell ringer to the helmet. A head butt to my gut. He knew all the tricks. He'd never been on a movie before, and he'd keep whaling away after they yelled "Cut!" -- which can get really annoying. Plus, he had no idea that we were usually so far off-camera that we could've been making like Tiny Tim vs. Pee Wee Herman and no one would've known. I was in for a long six nights. After a particularly gruesome down, I went back to the huddle whimpering, "This guy's f---in' killin' me." The guy playing tackle alongside me was a real deal player -- just a couple years out of UCLA. A strong quiet type. "Yeah, I noticed. Lemme talk to him." The Assitant Director called the roll, Kurt Russell yelled "On three. Break!" and we trotted back to the line of scrimmage where my UCLA buddy said to my nemesis across from us "Hey, pal, take it easy. It's only a movie." "F--- you," the guy answered. Wrong answer. The ball was snapped, I braced myself for another onslaught when there was a blur of a chop block flying in front of me, and I suddenly heard this weird crackling snap and this piercing, strangled scream. It took a good 20 minutes for them to load the guy onto a gurney and slog him off the field. "Thanks," I said to the former Bruin. "Don't mention it," he answered. NEXT: WHO THE HELL KNOWS? IT'S HOLLYWOOD. Rob Ryder played basketball at Princeton and is a screenwriter and sports advisor in Hollywood. He can be reached at email@example.com.