James McManus’s ‘Positively Fifth Street’ in early development as limited series

One of the greatest real-life poker books ever written, James McManus’s Positively Fifth Street: Murderers, Cheetahs, and Binion’s World Series of Poker, is in the early stages of development as a limited series with an eye toward being sold to a major broadcast network.

McManus revealed today on social media that his seminal poker book may at last make its way to the small screen, in a limited-series format that’s likely the best fit for the source material. As McManus told Poker.org, the book had been optioned on multiple occasions in the past, including by Oscar winner John Ridley.

Now, with prominent screenwriter and producer Ben Cavell at the helm, Positively Fifth Street likely has its best chance yet as a filmed adaption. Cavell is noted for his work on Justified, Homeland, the 2020 version of The Stand, and SEAL Team. Cavell is also the son of prominent American philosopher Stanley Cavell.

I’m Zooming with showrunner Ben Cavell today, as we figure out the writing team for a limited series of Fifth Street, to be produced by CBS Studios, which did The Stand with Ben and Stephen King. The book never made sense as a two-hour feature, though a few writers tried. https://t.co/PVLX6sr6Zw

— James McManus (@jimbosweetness) January 28, 2022

Writing team still being formed

McManus shared with Poker.org that the deal with Cavell and CBS Studios came together in November. “It’s still in the early stages,” he said, “with Ben to shape the pilot and pitch bible to take to HBO, Netflix, Warner Media, etc. I will be one of the writers and a contributing producer. I’m represented by Ron Bernstein and Sloan Harris of ICM.”

McManus also noted that another of the series’ producers would be John Montgomery, of Superior Donuts and The Crazy Ones fame. The Crazy Ones, a 2013-14 sitcom that aired on CBS, featured Robin Williams as Simon Roberts, a character loosely based on Montgomery’s experiences.

Book’s complexity foiled feature-film attempts

The earlier attempts to film Positively Fifth Street had run aground due to the book’s tangled “braiding,” as McManus described it. The total turned out to be too complex a book to be fully explored within the constraints of a typical feature-length movie, with its length of roughly two hours. “There’s too much material to shoehorn into 120 minutes without creating abscesses — glaring omissions and awkward distortions,” he explained.

Positively Fifth Street encompasses three separate yet intertwined tales within its covers. A good deal of the book is a history of poker and the World Series of Poker, while another element is the tale of the Ted Binion murder trial and the bitter Binion family feud.

The third part of the tale was the unlikely story of McManus’s own success at the 2000 WSOP Main Event. On hand to write a feature for Harper’s Magazine about the WSOP, McManus tried his hand at a $1,000 satellite (using much of his expense money to enter). He won the satellite, claimed his Main Event seat, then used good timing and fortune to run all the way to the Main Event’s final table, where he finished fifth.

Bringing all these elements together into a single film proved to be too daunting a task for even the most skilled screenwriters. Within the limited-series format, however, each of the branching stories can be explored.

As McManus explained, “This fairly new narrative form, the limited series, can expand into a dozen or more hourlong episodes, making it way better suited to the material. It’s the state-of-the-art format for substantial, complex adult stories.” As to when it might air, well, that’s still some time down the road. “I have no idea how long it will take for it to reach TV screens,” McManus said.

Featured image source: Haley Hintze

Author: Paula Dunn