Times Staff Writer

The deal

Warner Independent Pictures options Edward Ugel's "Money for Nothing," the true story of a hustler who preys on cash-starved lottery winners. He pockets the balance of their future winnings in return for lump-sum checks -- and then has a crisis of conscience.

The players

Michael De Luca Productions and Maguire Entertainment producing. Peter Steinfeld ("21") to write the screenplay; Ugel is represented by Farley Chase with the Waxman Literary Agency and on film rights by CAA. The book is published by HarperCollins.

The back story

Hollywood producer Alissa Phillips was on vacation at a friend's wedding in the Hamptons, and she had no interest in hearing a pitch from the young guest who had reportedly written a "can't miss" book. But then Ugel delivered a memorably amusing wedding toast and Phillips found herself face to face with him. The next thing she knew, she was pushing hard to get an advance look at his book about the shadowy world of lottery lump-sum payments. She convinced her boss, Michael De Luca, that it was a hot prospect.

They sent the material on to Tobey Maguire, with whom they worked on the upcoming drama "Brothers," and the actor was also impressed by the story of a speculator who teams with a younger boss to fleece lottery winners. Maguire Entertainment came on board because "I'm fascinated with the idea of how the dark side of ambition can not only lead one to compromise their morality but also rationalize their choices," the actor said in an e-mail. As for his role in the film, he added: "I'm excited to be developing this project as a producer, but am open to all possibilities."

Polly Cohen, president of Warner Independent, snapped up the rights because she could see a film blending the rapacious energies of "Glengarry Glen Ross" with the darkly humorous cautionary tones of "The Devil Wears Prada." "These are the best stories, where you see what human nature is really like," Cohen said. "You grab that material because you can't duplicate it." Although Ugel is thrilled that his book has been optioned, he's even happier that he gave such a great wedding toast. "That's really how the whole deal got started," Phillips said with a laugh. "But even after all of this, I still don't want to be pitched at a wedding again."

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