Film Studios' Bidding War Creating $1-Million Scripts

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a mixture of horror, elation and awe, Hollywood has watched for the last three days as some of its biggest companies vied for, of all things, a film script.

By several reports, 20th Century Fox began the bidding for 28-year-old writer Shane Black's new screenplay, "The Last Boy Scout," at $850,000 on Monday.

Universal Pictures quickly entered the fray but dropped out at just over $1 million.

Warner Bros. and a partnership between Tri-Star and Carolco Pictures joined the bidding for the script--about a down-on-his-luck private eye who teams up with an ex-football star to solve a murder--but so did the David Geffen Co., an independent producer that distributes through Warner.

By Tuesday night, the price was up to $2 million, a bid posted by Carolco/Tri-Star, but Black said he preferred to make the film with Geffen/Warner, where he had worked before. So Geffen came up a winner at $1.75 million--an apparent record, and nearly double the $1-million-plus prices that have become almost routine in the last several months.

Black, best known as creator of Warner's "Lethal Weapon," declined to discuss the sale, as did his agents, David Greenblatt and Bill Block of InterTalent.

David Geffen, who produced "Beetlejuice," declined to discuss the price. But he said he bid for the script simply because "I can see a movie in it. It's not maybe a movie. It's definitely a movie, and those aren't easy to find."

In any case, the episode marks the latest round in a phenomenal bidding war that is boosting the fortunes of some screenwriters beyond what most dreamed possible when they staged a five-month strike just 19 months ago.

Over the last year, Hollywood companies have fought an escalating battle for "spec scripts"--screenplays written on speculation, often by inexperienced writers, without first having been commissioned by a producer or studio.

The boom has been fed partly by a push to expand movie slates at Fox, Walt Disney Co.'s Hollywood Pictures unit and particularly at Columbia Pictures Entertainment, where Sony Corp.'s new managers have spent heavily on scripts since buying the studio last year.

Executives at several studios claim to detest the bidding wars, which has pushed the price of scripts far beyond the $300,000 benchmark that was common barely a year ago.

"To get $1 million, it used to have to be a damned good script. Now, you practically pay that for the idea alone and wind up with a lot of rewrites. . . . It's completely out of hand," said David Hoberman, head of Disney's Touchstone unit, which has stayed out of the auctions.

"I hate these auctions, I really do," said another executive who was among the bidders for Black's screenplay. Yet the same executive adds: "The market is giving writers some of the due that went to actors a couple of years ago, and to directors last year."

Writers have clearly enjoyed some high points in the past. In 1967, for instance, William Goldman sold his "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" script for $400,000--an amount equal to roughly $1.6 million today, when adjusted for inflation.

Precise figures paid for screenplays aren't publicly available, but many industry executives believe that Black's sale far exceeded previous highs of just over $1 million. The screenplay apparently was especially attractive to studios because it is action-oriented, crafted well enough to attract a big-name director and actors, and commercial enough to promise the beginning of a "franchise"--Hollywood terminology for a chain of money-making sequels.

Ironically, the studios' hunger for spec scripts set in just as the "development" process--the agonizing system by which executives pay writers to create and rewrite scripts based on ideas they have discussed in advance--was becoming much tougher.

In the last decade, the vast bulk of movie scripts were sold under development deals, which guarantee seasoned writers payments that routinely exceed $200,000 for a script but exact a heavy toll in terms of creative freedom.

According to partially complete statistics from the Writers Guild of America West, roughly 83% of all Hollywood movie scripts were sold under development deals last year, down from 91% in 1986.

Even as the percentage of screenplays written in development deals eased downward, studio executives appeared to demand increasing control over the creative process--a crackdown that some writers and agents attribute to the five-month writers strike in 1988, when studio executives had free time to review and tighten their development practices.

"It's much more worked out than it used to be," said Jim Kouf ("Disorganized Crime"), who writes and produces films under contract to Disney. "Now, they want to hear all about the three acts in a screenplay. They want to know exactly what they're buying."

Several observers maintain that a more stringent development process has killed even the "pitch"--an age-old ritual in which writers propose ideas to executives, who may take them or leave them.

"Pitching now seems outdated" for all but a handful of the most prestigious writers, such as Robert Towne ("Tequila Sunrise") or Joe Eszterhas ("Jagged Edge"), said one top writers' agent who declined to be identified. "Studios are self-generating their own projects, and then they 'audition' writers to see who can carry out their ideas."

Chafing under such tight control and lured by growing money in the spec market, some seasoned professional writers say they are increasingly tempted to forgo the security of development deals in favor of the auction circuit.

"I hear the same stories you do, and I say, 'Hey, shouldn't I be writing on spec?' " said Dan Petrie Jr., who is currently under contract to Disney and whose credits include "Beverly Hills Cop."

Other seasoned writers privately complain that some of the biggest spec sales have gone to inexperienced writers who apparently hit the jackpot in the latest boom because they weren't tied to development contracts.

Columbia's new co-chairmen, Jon Peters and Peter Guber, grabbed Hollywood attention with one such deal earlier this year when they agreed to pay a young writer, David Mickey Evans, more than $1 million to write and direct "Radio Flyer," which will be his first big studio film.

Another newcomer, former William Morris agent Rick Jaffa, teamed up with a client, Doug Richardson, to write a World War II action comedy called "Hell Bent . . . And Back"--and promptly garnered a reported $1-million fee from Hollywood Pictures.

"I had the idea years ago, and I felt a time would come for it in the marketplace. I knew in my gut it would sell," said Jaffa, who declined to discuss the terms of his Disney deal.

Still, others familiar with the screenplay say the writers and their William Morris agent were stunned when Disney's Hollywood unit "preempted" the screenplay by putting a $1-million offer on the table within 18 hours of seeing it, on the condition that the script be withheld from bidding by other production companies to which it had been promised.

Despite Disney's frequent criticism of overspending by other companies, the studio's new Hollywood Pictures unit has also paid high prices for completed scripts by recent USC film school graduate Amanda Silver, who is Jaffa's wife, and others in a push to expand production quickly. Hollywood Pictures chief Ricardo Mestres declined to discuss the purchases.

Yet some film executives revel in the hunt-and-kill dynamic of a big auction, even while expressing dismay at rising prices. "I don't know of anything that generates the excitement of the chase after a big script," said John Goldwyn, executive vice president of worldwide production at MGM/UA Communications Co.

Script auctions occur suddenly, with little warning from agents, who try to hide their wares until the last minute--partly because clients may be tempted by low offers if a potentially hot screenplay is leaked to buyers in advance. In recent months, executives say, auctions among as many as six or eight potential buyers have taken shape roughly once every 10 days.

Intrinsic merit may be enough to trigger bids. "It's that elusive hook. Who knows what it is, but you know it when you hear it," said Kouf, who sold "Disorganized Crime" as a spec script.

Yet fancy legwork by agents from InterTalent, Morris, International Creative Management, Triad, Leading Artists and elsewhere appears to account for much of the interest that distinguishes a hot script from the three dozen or more screenplays that are circulated weekly by the leading agencies.

The more aggressive agents usually place their best scripts with a small circuit of preferred studios or heavily bankrolled production companies, such as Carolco or Largo Entertainment, that are judged likely to engage in a bidding war.

(Creative Artists Agency, Hollywood's biggest talent agency, has been less inclined than rivals to fish for such bids on spec scripts, preferring instead to match much of its best material with directors or actors who are also represented by the agency, so that the script can be sold with other talent attached. "Philosophically, (they're) about getting movies made, not just the script sale," said one executive familiar with CAA.)

Agents often try to generate heat around a script by withholding it from the studios and giving it instead to favored producers under contract to the big companies--for instance, Joel Silver ("Lethal Weapon") at Warner Bros., or Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing ("Fatal Attraction") at Paramount.

"It keeps things more personal. That's what studios pay all these producers for--for their relationships," explained Lucas Foster, a development executive who recently left Scott Rudin Productions.

The system allows agents to maintain a certain tension among rival producers on the same lot, all of whom are hungry for the best shot at material that, in most cases, will ultimately be funded from the studio coffers through the producers' contractual arrangements.

Some big purchases, particularly for lesser-known writers, may be triggered by one of several small networks of young development executives who protect each other against the worst sin--simply not knowing about a supposedly hot script--by sharing information and opinions about material despite their competitive positions.

"We reciprocate. . . . Friends take care of each other," said one development executive, who declined to be identified.

Heat, wherever it comes from, can disappear as quickly as it wells up in Hollywood. Some big bids, all based on telephone conversations, simply fail to materialize as second thoughts set in.

In other cases, screenplays that command big fees may be instantly "turned around"--released for possible production by other companies--because of management shifts. Thus, even the material purchased recently at Columbia is under review by new executives who were brought in by Guber and Peters to fill the top film jobs at the Tri-Star and Columbia units.

The real question, said John Watson, who recently co-wrote a Robin Hood story called "Prince of Thieves" with Pen Densham and sold it to Morgan Creek for $1 million, is: "How many of these things we've paid so much money for do we actually make?"

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