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The Hack List

March 02, 1997|Mary McNamara

Sharing the ground floor with an American Savings Bank branch at 3rd and Fairfax is a small room the color of an old Band-Aid. It is the registration office for the Writers Guild of America, and it is paranoia ground zero. Here, each and every Monday through Friday, hundreds come seeking sanctuary for their life's riches: That Screenplay, That Sitcom, That Treatment for the next "Gong Show." Thirty-thousand items annually. Stories that someone may pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for. Or simply steal. You can't be too careful in this town. Registering allegedly safeguards against this; if nothing else you will have a bit of paper to wave about when the movie of the week that bears suspicious resemblance to your semiautobiographical tale of lust and betrayal in an insurance agency wins an Emmy.

So here I am, gripping my particular bundle that contains, just for the record, That Sitcom. I had been showing it to anyone I could nail to a chair until a friend of mine drew me aside and told me I should register the damn thing. He told me to pay the $20 fee by check, to create a paper trail and not to talk to anyone about anything while I waited. I thought he was insane. Until I walked in here. Twenty pairs of eyes lock onto me so fast I can see the infrared cross-hairs framing my face, then they move as one to my manila envelope, which grows hot from so many psyches willing themselves telepathic. It is all I can do to keep from blurting the title, the premise and the first six episodes.

At the front of the room, a Jerry Garcia look-alike mutters his name, address and Social Security number, glancing over his hunched shoulders to ensure, presumably, that no one is writing any of this down. "Are you the author of the work?" asks the young man at the computer. "Yes," comes the answer, with the sudden clarity of Molly Bloom.

Otherwise the room is silent save the wet sound of darting eyes and the occasional chuckle as a woman in brown bell-bottoms flips through her apparently hilarious script. A non-paranoid friend begged me not to go to the guild. "It's only for people without agents, essentially hacks," he said before he remembered that I do not have an agent and that there are things he wants from me that he will now not get. I think of him as I glare competitively each time someone crosses the threshold: the guy in the Army surplus jacket with his 500-page script wrapped in a Tower Records bag; young men who certainly were asleep scant minutes before; androgynous types in Buddy Holly frames on their way from half-cafs at the Farmers Market.

The line moves forward. In clarion tones, a woman informs the man behind the counter, a nice man whose name is Luca, that usually her lawyers (a most sibilant plural) handle this but, unfortunately, they are out of town. An older man in a grimy plum silk suit and a rather mobile toupee enters and everyone slides their gazes away, suddenly fascinated by the posters for "Giant" and "The Crucible." This man is slightly recognizable, a comic from just before my time, and the room becomes embarrassed and suddenly unsure, undone by Marley's Ghost. I remember my paranoid friend telling me that the the registration office had been moved here first, while the guild headquarters was still on Beverly Boulevard because, essentially, the hack quotient was too depressing.

Then it's my turn. I give my vitals nice and loud just for the hell of it. Luca disassembles my cover-sheet construction and hands me my binder clips and my perky folder; in the end it's just a pile of papers, signifying nothing. "Good luck," he says, as he has said to each and every person. I think he means it.

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