You’re in the lobby restaurant of a boutique hotel on the West Side that you hadn’t heard of until now, scanning the breakfast menu and readying yourself to talk business with your agent and this Hollywood producer. If you can even call this business. The conversation flows easily, a $21 Belgian waffle (with artisanal maple syrup and warm berries, farm-to-table) before you. He’s the nicest guy in the world, the producer, isn’t he? He might have been nominated for an Oscar—and for best picture—he might have had a legendary father, but you feel as if you’ve known him your whole life. He saw you on "The Today Show" talking about your book (How did you get on "The Today Show"?), your 3:22 minutes of fame, you and Matt Lauer, and he read it immediately. He loved it, he says, and, as opposed to some people, he appears to mean it. He’s quoting lines from the book. This one appears to be his favorite: “Tomorrow the money came.”
He gets it: the setting, the Bronx in the 1970s and ’80s; the sports gambling; the father, the gentleman bookie; scenes from a marriage; he loves the music, the funk and R&B, and the early hip-hop you grew up on, what a soundtrack this is going to make. He’s talking option, he’s talking directors, “talent,” “a package,” a star, maybe Paul Giamatti—hell, he knows Paul Giamatti—he’s talking screenwriting credit for you, production credit, cameo.
You’re on the edge of your seat—the Belgian waffle, the warmed farm-to-table berries, beside the point now—and, yeah, you’re leaning in. Can this be happening to you? After all the toil in publishing, the hard psychological labor, and low dough, being ignored, some bad luck, the hand-to-mouth freelance life, it’s all going to be worth it. You’re going to have a real pay day, bulk up your retirement savings maybe, or finally move out of your studio apartment. That’s the first thing he said to you in the hotel lobby, “We’re gonna get you out of that studio apartment.” (How did he even know that? The book ends in 1995.) Your mother said, “Don’t write that book, don’t expose yourself,” but you can’t let your mother from Bushwick be your editor, can you? In fact, you’re thinking that you’ll buy her a house, or at least a down payment, the one she never had. This feels real, something good is going to come of this. Finally!
Nothing became official, as in no money changed hands, but the producer stayed in touch. And besides, these people aren’t so up-front about money, or anything. They talk in codes, the dialect of private enterprise that can’t be learned from a book—dialects aren’t written—but passed down by ear, within a clan, from father to son, mother to daughter, a dialect you can’t speak. He had you meet with two leading screenwriters. One is about your age from, you’re told, a well-to-do American family. He tells you and your agent that he’s routinely approached by women in L.A. born as recent as 1985, and you wouldn’t believe what these girls were up for, what they’ll do. You’re from the Bronx, the kids back home—from the middle-middle class, the lower-middle class, the working class, and the underclass—spoke about women with more respect than this asshole. (And where, you wonder, are those Bronx kids now? Funny how they’re not on LinkedIn, with 500+ connections.) He’s shoveling dim sum in his face like he’s never seen food before. He’s got no manners, you think; your boys, the ones you wrote about, they were princes, and what did they go and do? Went to a local college, the ROTC, or straight to the Marines. But this one here, he has what you don’t: money, which gives him power, maneuverability, connections, the ability to take risk (and to fail, or produce mediocrity again and again). He says he’ll read your book on the way back to L.A. You never hear from him again.
The other screenwriter is a gentleman (at least some still exist). He’s a former magazine writer, and a fine one, for maybe the greatest magazine of all, with real substance, who has read your book, seems to believe it’s real quality, gets the nuance, and wants to write the screenplay. You’re at his apartment in Midtown—he’s got a grand piano in his living room—and being that he knows it’s your birthday, his girlfriend makes cupcakes for you, and with candles. That went well, you thought, maybe something will come of this, after all.
You don’t hear from him, either, but since you liked him, you call him months later and ask what happened. He says, yes, he did love your book, but the producer didn’t want to pay him, and frankly, he didn’t go from magazines to screenwriting to work for free. He apologizes. No need, you tell him; he’s the only one who’s been honest.
You’re walking the streets of Manhattan late on a weekday afternoon, not knowing where your next paycheck will come from. Your phone rings; it’s a 310 call. The producer is the only person you know in L.A. Maybe this is good news—God, could you use it. You hear the voice of his fabulous assistant, announcing that he has the producer on the line for you. There’s urgency in his voice this time. He pauses, ready to give you news: He’s going to direct, it will be his long-awaited debut. He describes the first scene. Wow, you say, that’s great. You’d love to see this; it can really be a terrific film. Giamatti will play the Dad, your Dad, the bookmaker. Great you say, Paul’s father is mentioned affectionately in the book, remember. And then, you say, like this, trying to be assertive: But like, hey, um, can we make this official, you know with a real option—real money, in other words. Yeah, Mike, he says—he likes calling you that, like your boys from back in the day, Yo, what up Mike?—we’ll do that. I’ll be in touch.
You see the producer again at, of all places, the Apollo Theater on 125th Street for a movie premiere he invites you to, a movie he’s produced. There’s an after-party at the hip-hop museum inside Magic Johnson Theater across the street. Your man Earvin isn’t there, but a lot of famous faces are—Dikembe Mutumbo is towering next to you. And who does the producer do a B-line for? You. And after he makes the point, in the loudest of voices, how we all had to get Obama elected, so all the black people could hear him, he says, “We’re gonna make your book into a movie. I can’t wait, it’s gonna happen.” You say, hey this is your night, congrats on another production credit, but yeah, you can’t wait, either. He tells you just to be patient, just a little more. In fact, he’s found a young, ambitious screenwriter who’s going to write it on spec, and although he’s not ready to direct after all, he has a new director in mind—one who really knows the city. He’ll be in touch.
You’ll see him once more the following year, in New York at the same hotel, for breakfast again, the Belgian waffle (the warm, local berries), but without any agents this time. Just the two of you, like old friends. And besides, your agency has now hooked up with him as a co-producer, which maybe is a good sign? Yes, right? He says you’ve got to come uptown with him, to Smoke, for Hammond organ night. Name the day, you say. (He never does.)
This goes on for three-and-a-half years. You’re told, “Oh, this happens to everyone who deals with Hollywood.” Right. Except it doesn’t. In the time all this went down, a similar book as yours, not as good (sorry), not half as good, not only gets an option, but gets produced (a mid six-figure check for the author, likely), and brought to Sundance. It flops at the box office, but what does the writer care.
Finding new representation, since your agent isn’t your agent any more, is an ordeal. Lawyers charge by the hour, gazillions, or some want a one-time fee that you’re not even sure the option would cover. You cold-call an ex-colleague, who’s had magazine articles turned into movies. He can’t help you with finding an agent, so he claims, but warns you: They push people around; you need someone to stand up for you. He once wrote about a famous drug kingpin, and when the two of them made the rounds in Hollywood to discuss an adaptation, the drug lord said that the lowlifes he dealt with years before had more ethics. Thanks, you say.
Your father dies, by coincidence on the same day as the producer’s father had 14 years before. Two weeks later, the producer makes an offer to option your book. It’s so low it’s insulting, there’s no other word for it. You call the gentleman screenwriter on his cell, for advice. (By another odd coincidence, he collaborated on a screenplay with the asshole screenwriter for a big Hollywood feature everyone’s heard of. The Asshole then bought a New York City apartment featured in the movie for $1.2 million.) The gentleman screenwriter is in Rome, he says, with his girlfriend on a project. (You say, “Hey, tell her I said hi, I remember those nice cupcakes she made for me.” Different girlfriend, he says. Man, you think, life is sweet in Rome.) He confirms that the amount is low, ridiculously low, for anything in fact, and that he’d never agree to it. So you don’t. Your new representative, and it took forever to find someone, asks for more. (Wouldn’t Sheryl Sandberg?) The producer’s lawyer responds, via e-mail, to all of your requests with NO, in all caps (seriously). You keep that e-mail, you keep all of the e-mails. You go back again, and ask for just a little bit more, and what does the producer do? Before you can say, “No, you most certainly cannot have the rights to my book you entitled, disingenuous fuck,” he withdraws the offer. In other words, how dare you—you!!!—from your station, ask for more? You were supposed to be flattered by his flattery.
So nothing. No Paul Giamatti, no sound track, no production credit or writing credit, no cameo, no big check, no small check, not a dime. Tomorrow the money never did come. Played like that Hammond organ. And you really liked him. You believed him. Instead, you got two Belgian waffles (with the warm berries, farm-to-table).