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Jim and Ryan’s excellent adventure

Special to The Times

In the world of genies, it’s not often that you get a fourth wish. But Jim Herzfeld and Ryan Rowe have just been granted one that they hadn’t even asked for: Their long-dormant comedy screenplay, “Genie Bob,” which had been active and then silenced three times at three studios over the last 20 years, has miraculously curled back up out of the lamp at Fox to the tune of $1.6 million.

Open sesame, indeed.

“I was pleased but surprised,” Rowe says. “Not because I didn’t think the idea was great and funny, it’s just rare that something comes alive after having been dead almost to the point of being embalmed.”

“Genie Bob” is a high-concept laugher about a suburban high school kid who stumbles across a lamp-jacking supernatural rascal masquerading as a genie. The mischievous spirit executes the kid’s three fairly predictable -- remember, he’s a teenager -- wishes, with unexpected results.

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Herzfeld (“Meet the Parents”) and Rowe (“Charlie’s Angels”) were high school buddies in the ‘80s who ended up in UCLA’s film school together and wrote the film “Tapeheads” together. One morning their friend Ed Solomon (“Men in Black”) woke up with the germ of an idea -- “a comedy about a genie who’s a [jerk]” -- and handed it to them because he didn’t know what to do with it. They worked up an idea, and with Solomon attached as a producer, they sold the pitch to MGM/United Artists in 1987 for just above scale, a mere $44,000 that they split.

But after the writers filed a draft and a set of revisions, the studio’s production head was let go amid UA ownership turmoil, and then the Writers Guild went on strike. Their genie project took the great ink nap.

So Rowe and Herzfeld dived separately into studio assignments until the early ‘90s, when Herzfeld acquired a deal with Fox TV. Fox executive Elizabeth Gabler, who had been a VP of production at UA when Rowe and Herzfeld first sold “Genie Bob,” acquired the script, and the writers were suddenly hired back on (at a substantial raise, now $125,000 for the two of them) to rewrite and update it for a Bill Murray or a Dana Carvey.

They had done a few drafts and attached a director when in November 1992 Disney released the $217-million-grossing “Aladdin.” Which, I believe, is Arabic for: “Your project is dead yet again.”

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Three years later, New Line acquired the rights, re-hired the writers (at another slight bump in pay), then dropped the project.

OK, enough. It was a fun idea. Time to move on.

Herzfeld headed back to TV and co-wrote ‘Meet the Parents” and its sequel; Rowe worked on “Charlie’s Angels” and developed feature adaptations of the “Encyclopedia Brown” children’s book series and the early ‘80s TV show, “The Great American Hero.”

“Genie Bob” hibernated for 12 more years.

Then Gabler, now president of Fox 2000, was walking across the studio lot with a former Fox executive named Riley Ellis, who happened to have been the rare female member of the famous ‘80s “frat house for film geeks,” the Pad O’ Guys, of which Herzfeld, Rowe, and Shane Black (Solomon’s roommate for a while) were members. Gabler and Ellis started reminiscing about the long-absent “Genie Bob,” and before long Fox executive Rodney Ferrell had acquired the rights and called Herzfeld and Rowe to ask: “You guys want to come back on?”

So the pair will re-team to update the script yet again. And they got another raise: just short of a million with a production bonus that would take it to $1.6 million total.

Leaving aside the trunk of treasure, have the two writers gleaned any wisdom from the experience?

“Sure -- it makes me think that all my old projects should be revived,” deadpans Rowe.

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“Hopefully, it’ll give a glimmer of hope to some of us who have scripts we’ve always been told are really great and have been on the shelf forever and haven’t necessarily met their death,” Herzfeld says. “That these things can potentially live on and get made.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves ...

First Pitch meeting for USC students

It’s the hoary screenwriting dream: You saunter into the dining room of your favorite restaurant, and there, sitting alone and approachable at a nearby table, is the head of the William Morris Agency’s TV division. Fortunately, you have your three-minute pitch nailed down tighter than a coffin lid, so you charmingly massage it in between her bites of osso buco and walk away with an agent.

To borrow from Thom Yorke: Nice dream.

And yet, last Monday night, 57 students from the USC School of Cinematic Arts filed into a ballroom at the Four Seasons Hotel to find dozens of industry players -- agents, managers, producers, studio executives -- all poised and eager to hear their low-budget/high-concept/animated/musical/dramedy film and TV pitches.

An annual event organized by students and alumni, First Pitch is a writers’ showcase designed to help students about to graduate from the undergraduate BFA program or graduate MFA program to better navigate the transition from school to the hard realities of the industry.

First Pitch is set up like speed dating, as the students rotate rapidly through 10 to 20 five-minute meetings with reps from creatively simpatico agencies, management firms and production companies. Often these brief tete-a-tetes lead to representation or at least a lasting contact, and former attendees have gone on to write on “Lost,” “Smallville,” “The OC” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”

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Dressed mostly casually -- including one nervous-looking guy in black except for a Chicago Cubs tie -- students floated in and out in waves from the small pasta bar to the ornate gold ballroom, all clutching their manila folders, notebooks and binders.

They determinedly roamed the aisles -- five rows of nine tables each -- and scanned each tabletop’s tented white placard to locate his or her next appointment with Shady Acres, MTV Films, 3 Arts, Focus, WMA (film or TV), UTA, Village Roadshow, Paradigm and CAA, among many others.

Each session unfolded with more gesticulating than a room full of orchestra conductors, the ballroom quickly filling with the cocktail-chatter rumble of students pitching their scripts, their pilots, themselves, their talents, their goals, their comedy troupe, their unique voices.

Snippets of enthusiastic monologues crisscrossed in the charged air:

” ... not so much the family you’re born into, but the family you make for yourself ... “

” ... this guy is so outlandish ... “

” ... that’s the hook ...”

” ... it has elements of espionage ... “

” ... keep trying to feed them taquitos!”

The reps sometimes leaned in, engaged and curious, or uninterested, folded their arms or took sips of water from the brushed silver pitchers on each table (and, of course, checked BlackBerries during every transition.)

Instead of a goody bag, all the participating reps walk out with a glossy catalog called the “Script List 2007,” a handy compendium that lists each attending student’s best feature and TV scripts (including the students’ thesis screenplays), plus short synopses and any noteworthy scholarships or awards.

Oh, and contact information.

Destroyed by the powerful ‘CAAA’

Two weeks ago a viral video called “The Wrath of CAAA” turned up that does a funny, if fairly obvious, riff on CAA’s perceived monolithic control over the talent in Hollywood (perhaps the Borg is a better “Trek” reference).

David Bitterman’s 3 1/2 -minute short follows the tragic trajectory of a struggling screenwriter whose in-the-room triumph of nailing a pitch for a studio assignment spirals into a nightmare within the hour as a sinister, omnipresent agency named CAAA poaches his project, his fiancee, his apartment, his mother, his dog, and, most poignantly, his dreams.

(You can give it a viewing at www.ifilm.com/video/2848272.)

What’s great about Bitterman’s mini-opus is that it equally lampoons the writer, a scooter-riding naif named Ted whose breathlessly delivered winning pitch to two executives ends with: “He holsters his Glock. He picks up the duck. He kisses the girl. And he gets the [bleep] out of Dodge! The End.”

But this exchange, after Ted discovers that his mom has taken on a new CAAA-supplied son, had me cracking up the most:

“Who the hell is that?” Ted asks about the stranger.

“They can guarantee us grandchildren, Ted,” Mom says bitterly. “There, I said it.”

“Wait,” Ted spinelessly backpedals. “So I have a brother. That’s great news, Mom. That’s dynamite -- “

“It’s a package deal, Ted.”

Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to fernandez_jay@hotmail .com.


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