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CITY BEAT

CITY BEAT

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FOOL'S GOLD? Got a red-hot idea to cash in on the 25th anniversary of Elvis' death?

Get in line. And don't quit your day job.

James Megar, a 1971 Rhodes graduate, and Jim Henderson are friends in Florence, Alabama. They wrote a script for a movie called The King's Ransom about a plot to kidnap Elvis' body and ransom it to his fans.

They followed that dream from a hunting lodge in Waterloo, Alabama, to Memphis to Los Angeles to Vancouver and back.

They got all shook up when a couple of big-shot producers and screenwriters and actor Dan Aykroyd showed interest in their screenplay and treated them nice.

And that's when their heartache began.

For all the documentaries, books, and articles about Elvis since his death, you can count the movies on one hand. One that many people remember, Honeymoon in Vegas, isn't really an Elvis movie at all but has a scene with sky-diving Elvis impersonators. Made-for-TV movies about Elvis include the 1979 release Elvis, starring Kurt Russell; Elvis and Me, based on Priscilla Presley's book; and Elvis and the Beauty Queen, about girlfriend Linda Thompson. The 25th anniversary seemed to Megar and Henderson like the perfect time for a sweet, Elvis-friendly movie with touches of Home Alone, Raising Arizona, and It's a Wonderful Life.

Several years ago, they started kicking around ideas for a story about likable kidnappers who need money but are afraid to hurt anyone. One August during Elvis week, Henderson suggested making the kidnappee Elvis and calling the story The King's Ransom.

Neither Henderson nor Megar had ever written anything much longer than a letter. Megar is a family psychologist, former fireman, and jazz and blues buff. Henderson owned an auto-parts company that he sold for several million dollars, some of which he used to build a hunting lodge in the remote northwest Alabama town of Waterloo. Another friend in Florence, Steve Vial, had some professional acting experience, Hollywood contacts, and ambitions of starting a film industry in Alabama. The three became partners in the project.

"I told James we could go to the lodge and do it on weekends plus a day off now and then," says Henderson. "In four weeks, we had the basic idea. I called some friends of mine at Books-A-Million, and they said I needed to copyright the title and register it. Everybody liked the title."

He contacted copyright attorneys in St. Louis who told him he needed a premise. A what? Henderson asked. A paragraph or two about the story, they explained. He got the title registered for $150.

With a $90 software program called Script Thing, they set up shop as amateur screenwriters, developing the story about a down-on-his-luck college teacher, a fireman, and a die-hard female Elvis fan who steal the body from Graceland and hide it in The Pyramid. Elvis fans learn about it, and via the Internet, they send millions of $1 contributions to ransom the King. The overwhelming response blows the plot out of the water, and a mystery man has to help make things right. It won't be giving away anything, considering the commercial possibilities today, to reveal that Elvis himself shows up at the end, shunning fame and fortune as a guitar-strumming truck driver.

A couple of producers from California who were in Memphis to see Graceland took a look at it.

"They liked it, but they said the characters were too old," says Megar.

Another friend led them to Tom Davis of the Saturday Night Live comedy-writing team Franken and Davis. He liked it, doctored the script a little bit, and wanted to pursue it as a slapstick comedy. Megar, whose inspirations were serious books like Greil Marcus' Mystery Train and Albert Goldman's biography of Elvis, wanted a tragicomic story in which the mythic figure of Elvis as well as the other characters would be redeemed from the bonds of money and materialism by the purity of his early music.

They kept shopping it. Aykroyd, who they hoped would play the starring role of the college teacher, seemed enthusiastic but was noncommittal. Linn Sitler of the Memphis Film and Tape Commission took a look. So did a couple of script readers for FedEx founder Fred Smith's movie company Alcon.

"We got a lot of interest in the idea, but people didn't like the script and we didn't know why and didn't know what to do to fix it," says Megar.

Their biggest break came when a Hollywood pro, Allan Taylor, gave up a chance to work on Pearl Harbor to move to Alabama and take on the script as a project. He spent six months on it, and when he couldn't make a sale, their hopes began to fade but not die out completely.

"Allan said Forrest Gump sat on the shelf for seven years," says Megar.

But he also learned that there are 40,000 scripts registered every year. Getting one made into a movie is as difficult as writing a hit song -- as much a matter of luck, timing, and patronage as talent.

They've had some feelers about selling the script but aren't interested. Their idea from the start was to get involved in the making of the movie, which would be their entry to the biz. Now, Henderson plans to turn the script into a book and publish it himself this year or next year.

"I'll be glad to download it off the memory," he says. "The end. They ride off into the sunset. What a crazy damn story."

Were they really oh-so close to having an Elvis hit? Megar is philosophical.

"You're not close," he says, "until you see it on the screen."

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