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Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Lesson for Tampa: Hollywood a fickle partner

TAMPA — Grayston Lynch’s life seemed destined for film. Universal Studios and big-time Hollywood producer/director Ron Howard agreed.

Lynch was the American CIA operative who led the Bay of Pigs Invasion. In 2000, the Tampa native released a book, “Decision for Disaster: Betrayal at the Bay of Pigs.”

But Lynch passed away in 2008, never seeing his story make the big screen.

“It’s not that Universal or Ron Howard didn’t want to make it,” said Lynch’s widow, Karen. “Sometimes, as we learned, circumstances out of a studio’s control can ruin a film.”

Lynch’s story, say authors and screenwriters with Hollywood experience, should serve as a lesson as Tampa pitches itself as a movie location to boost economic development: Nothing in Hollywood is certain until the red carpet rolls.

If all goes according to plan, the city of Tampa could become a popular backdrop for Hollywood films in the coming years. Three Tampa-centric books recently have been optioned for the big screen.

Only one has announced that the bulk of the production will take place here, but just featuring the city’s name in films made elsewhere can still serve as good advertising for Tampa.

“Live By Night,” based on the best-selling fictional novel about rum-running in Ybor during the 1920s and ‘30s, will be directed by Ben Affleck and, by some accounts, is set to begin production in September. No plans for filming in Tampa, though, have been announced.

Dwayne Johnson has been cast as the lead in the movie “Not Without Hope,” based on the best-selling memoir by Tampa resident Nick Schuyler, lone survivor of a 2009 accident that left three friends dead in the Gulf of Mexico. A production date or location have not yet been announced.

The project closest to production is “The Infiltrator.” Its production company — Good Films — recently announced the movie will begin filming in March with much of it taking place in Tampa.

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The movie is based on the book, “The Infiltrator: My Secret Life Inside the Dirty Banks Behind Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel,” and is the true story of Tampa DEA agent Robert Mazur’s investigation into the Columbian drug kingpin.

With a sexy plot, an announced production date, and Hollywood director Brad Furman of “The Lincoln Lawyer” attached to the film, it might seem Mazur would expect the movie posters to be going up soon.

Instead, he is circumspect.

“So many things can go wrong,” Mazur said. “Brad Furman could suddenly get the greatest deal in the world to do a 10 series movie. We could lose Brad and the production company then changes their thinking.”

Mazur has seen it before.

He was hired as technical advisor on “Killing Pablo,” a movie project based on the book by Mark Bowden of “Black Hawk Down” fame, this one also about the U.S. and Colombian governments’ attempts to arrest Escobar.

“The next thing I knew, everything fell apart and the interest wasn’t there,” Mazur said.

The film was never made.

“Infiltrator,” in fact, was originally optioned by 2929 Entertainment of Dallas, owned by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban. As with Lynch’s experience, screenplay issues held up the project until Mazur’s 18-month option expired.

“These are called turnaround costs,” said veteran screenwriter John McLaughlin, whose credits include “Black Swan,” “Hitchcock” and “Parker.”

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McLaughlin explained that if the first screenwriter does not deliver what the studio wanted, executives have to decide if it is worth the costs of a new screenplay that might also fail.

“They can eventually become backbreaking to a project,” McLaughlin said. “And it’s nothing you have any control over.”

Sometimes, the book never makes it to the screenwriting phase, said Burl Barer, an author and veteran of the entertainment industry.

“The studio loves the idea one day and options it,” Barer said. “And then wakes up in the morning and has fallen out of love with it for no apparent reason.”

Books are usually optioned even before they are released. Mazur said his agent shopped his book to movie studios and publishers at the same time.

A book can be optioned after it has been released, but it takes either blockbuster sales, as with “50 Shades of Grey,” or luck. Mazur’s “Infiltrator,” for example, gained the second option only because a friend of director Furman’s read it on a lark and recommended it.

According to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, more than 2 million books are published a year worldwide. Statistics on how many are optioned are not available.

“There are probably hundreds, thousands, of books that the movie rights are purchased for and of those only a small percentage make it through and actually become a movie,” said Mazur.

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Even when the book does make it onto the big screen, the author can feel cheated. The Hollywood product may bear little resemblance to the author’s story, McLaughlin said.

He explained that producers have been known to tell screenwriters to “change the book as much as they want or even not to read the book at all. “

“They just want the gist of it,” McLaughlin said.

Karen Lynch, the widow of late CIA operative, said her husband realized this truth when his Bay of Pigs was being made into a screenplay.

“He was promised he would be an advisor on the screenplay to make sure it stayed true to fact,” she said. “But he was never asked for any advice. Someone we trusted who was close to the project told us that we were probably lucky it wasn’t made. A lot was changed.”

Lynch’s book chronicles the mission that was doomed to fail once President John F. Kennedy decided against sending air support that had been promised upon the arrival of Lynch’s militia in Cuba via boats. What followed was a days-long jungle manhunt by the Cuban military as Lynch and his men awaited rescue. Many did not survive.

Universal Studios optioned the book. Howard signed on as director. Clint Eastwood was mentioned as the lead portraying Lynch.

Then, Universal’s issues with their screenwriter’s product delayed production. Howard took on other projects. The film dropped off Universal’s production schedule altogether. When the book’s three-year option expired, Universal chose against renewing it.

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One Hollywood story about a script departing from the book concerns “The Saint,” a 1997 movie based on the popular series of books. According to Barer, who wrote “The Saint: A Complete History in Print, Radio, Film and Television of Leslie Charteris’ Robin Hood of Modern Crime, Simon Templar, 1928-1992,” the widow of author Charteris thought the screenplay was so far from her husband’s vision she asked for his name to be removed.

“As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, ‘If you sell your book to Hollywood, go to the California border and throw your manuscript over state line. The studio will then throw a suitcase of money back at you. Put the suitcase in your trunk, drive away and don’t look back,’” Barer said.

“And of course, to stay true to Hollywood, I butchered that quote.”

Screenwriter McLaughlin has seen many authors ignore that advice. He said a common option contract is $5,000 a year. The real money, he explained, comes when the film is made. If authors are too greedy during negotiations, they lose out on the big time money.

“Some writers will be blinded by dollar signs,” he said. “I’ve seen a few producers lose interest and walk away from books because of writers who are sure they’ve written the next ‘Harry Potter’ and want a deal to reflect that.”

“Take the money and run, very fast and very far,” quipped author Barer.

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That is Tampa author Scott Deitche’s creed. His book “Cigar City Mafia” was optioned as a television series that was never produced. He cashed the check and once again owns the rights to the book. If an offer was made, he could option it again.

“I have no complaints financially,” he said. “I’m far from a veteran of TV and film, but from what I’ve seen you write the book because you have a message or story to tell. You then sell the rights to make a profit.”

That is Karen Lynch’s attitude. She continues to hope that her late-husband’s Bay of Pigs book will one day get optioned again.

The book chronicles the mission that was doomed to fail once President John F. Kennedy decided against sending promised air support for Grayston Lynch’s militia after they sneaked into Cuba on boats.

What followed was a days-long jungle manhunt as Lynch and his men hid from the Cuban military and waited to be rescued. Many did not survive.

Universal Studios optioned the book. Ron Howard signed on as director. Clint Eastwood was mentioned as the lead portraying Lynch.

Then, Universal’s issues with their screenwriter’s product delayed production. Howard took on other projects. The film dropped off Universal’s production schedule altogether. When the three-year option expired, Universal didn’t renew.

“Gray was a great American who gave so much of himself to this country,” she said. “I think everyone should know his story.”

She also has an agent actively shopping books she has written.

“If any get optioned, great,” she said. “But I won’t let myself get too excited until I get a ticket to the premiere.”

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