Mr. Hollywood Florida

Steven Seagal's voice was blooming in Craig Marquardo's ear like an exotic flower, and the voice was saying yes.

Yes, Seagal liked the script. No, he wouldn't mind acting the lead role, and yes, he would agree to do it with a "verbal handshake." A bankable action-film star whose movies could make money not only in U.S. theaters but in Europe or from the video market was just the ticket for the young producer.

"A verbal handshake? What's that?" asks Marquardo testily, recounting his telephone conversation with the actor just two days earlier. "He wanted me to fly to L.A. and sit in his living room and discuss the deal with him and his people, but I wouldn't. I won't. I hate L.A., I go there as little as possible. That's why I live here. Besides, we need something in writing."

Now Seagal's signed letter of intent lies on the desk of Marquardo, president of Fathom Motion Pictures in Hollywood. That's Hollywood, Florida. The letter, addressed to Marquardo, has freshly arrived in a Federal Express envelope that originated in Seagal's Los Angeles home the day before. The letter says Seagal is interested in starring in a film to be called Wild Game. But only if Marquardo meets several conditions. The conditions are marked by asterisks. Seagal's loopy, fluid signature appears at the bottom.

For Marquardo, who calls himself "an executive producer, a packaging agent, the guy who puts the money and the talent together, the ultimate middleman," the deal could mean good money. Just as important to him, a clinched deal would amount to Fathom's champagne voyage in the movie industry, the first of a number of feature projects now in various stages of negotiation.

Marquardo's plan is to set Wild Game in Africa but to film much of it in South Florida, reserving a few special scenes for shooting in Kenya. In the story a good guy named Max (that would be the Seagal role) runs across some very bad bad guys who poach exotic animals, sell them illegally to collectors and zoos, and do nasty things to people who try to stop them. The Max character sounds like stereotypical Seagal, judging by the muscled-down dialogue pulled randomly from the script lying atop Marquardo's desk.

MAX: I'm going to ask you one last time, who are you working for? (He sticks the barrel in Barbosa's mouth, and cocks the weapon).

(Barbosa says nothing.)

MAX: I'd say you're about to become fucking extinct.

But Seagal won't get the chance to make Barbosa come clean on a movie screen unless Marquardo can make the deal happen in real life first. The business of negotiation is the business of control, of one-upmanship, and Marquardo doesn't have it -- yet. He frowns, his young lip curling slightly upward -- he is 27 years old, a man who insists that "older is not better; neither is famous."

Marquardo wants the deal set on his own terms. He glances at the big board on his office wall, a sort of game board of feature-length films not yet born, all of them relying on deals, all written in grease pencil. He studies the board in silence. Wild Game heads the list of 20 projects, under the heading "Film." Next to "Film" appear other headings that sum up the status of each project. For Wild Game, Marquardo can see genre (action), budget ($24 million), producer (Greg Alosio), director (Eric Schwab), cast (Seagal), and distributors, both domestic and foreign. Disney is listed as the foreign distributor; no name appears yet under domestic. Finally the heading "Date" and under it "September."

That starting date remains some distance from reality on this busy afternoon, set to a backdrop score of ringing telephones. While Marquardo contemplates the letter and his next move, his four-person staff slides around him, working in a suite of several rooms noteworthy for their lack of glamour: The desks and chairs are functional rather than grand, the walls contain a few framed movie posters celebrating films he says he helped finance before he founded Fathom. Using connecting offices down the hall is his financing partner Eric Baquero, owner of Parasol Films, a business devoted to raising money for Fathom.

Marquardo appears delighted by each company's motto: "Ours is, "We don't make films, we make films happen,'" he says. "Theirs is, "The deal is the orgasm, the movie is the cigarette.'"

Next to a stack of movie scripts on Marquardo's desk -- one for each project in the works -- are neat piles of letters exchanged in negotiations that may or may not prove the mottoes true. Marquardo's distinct letterhead reads, "Fathom Motion Pictures in association with Parasol Films." He says he wants to see those eight words appear on the silver screen for the first time by next year.

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Roger Williams