Just nine months ago, some Hollywood insiders were predicting the career demise of rogue screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. But for a few brief hours last Friday, Eszterhas emerged as the hottest personality in town.
After an intense bidding war among at least 10 major and independent studios, Eszterhas sold his latest screenplay, "Basic Instinct," to Carolco Pictures for $3 million--setting a record for so-called "spec" movie scripts.
Carolco plans to immediately start producing the steamy thriller about the relationship between a policeman and a female writer-psychologist. While Carolco is not discussing details about the movie, the list of stars Carolco may seek out include Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner and Richard Gere for the lead, and Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts and Melanie Griffith as the co-star. No director has been set.
Eszterhas stirred up a storm in Hollywood last fall when he attacked Creative Artists Agency President Michael Ovitz in a letter that later found its way into the press. In that letter, Eszterhas accused Ovitz of issuing threats after the writer said he was leaving CAA to rejoin his former agent Guy McElwaine at International Creative Management. Ovitz vigorously denied Eszterhas' charges.
While many in Hollywood sided with Eszterhas when the letter became public, others called him suicidal for directly challenging Ovitz, considered to be one of the most powerful figures in the business.
Reached at his home in Marin County Monday, Eszterhas declined comment on the fallout from that incident. But it's clear from the bidding for "Basic Instinct"--engineered by McElwaine and ICM President Jeff Berg--that the writer can still command top fees.
The bidding also suggests that prices for spec scripts--screenplays that are completed and put out for bid rather than written under contract--will continue to climb.
In April, the Geffen Co. stunned its competitors by paying $1.75 million for a screenplay by "Lethal Weapon" writer Shane Black. Other $1 million-plus sales of screenplays are taking place with increasing regularity.
The $3 million for "Basic Instinct" is also a new high for Eszterhas, who generally can command more than $1 million for a screenplay. In the past, Eszterhas has written hits such as "Jagged Edge," but his most recent films--"Betrayed" and "Music Box"--did not fare well at the box office.
Eszterhas defended the inflation of prices for scripts. "I've always felt that the script was at the heart of the movie," he said. "If you're going to pay actors and directors (high salaries), there's nothing wrong with paying the writer, too."
The writer added that he prefers to write on spec, rather than under a studio contract. "I think you have more controls, and I loathe pitching (ideas to studios)," he said. "If you really believe strongly in a story, sometimes you have to write it yourself."
Carolco, which also agreed to pay $1 million to Irwin Winkler to produce "Basic Instinct," is no stranger to high-priced movie-making. The company is often viewed as one of the companies that helped bid up the price of actors. In 1987, Carolco agreed to pay Sylvester Stallone $16 million to star in "Rambo: First Blood Part 3," a fee that Stallone later gave up in favor of a percentage of the film's profits.
More recently, Carolco paid Arnold Schwarzennegger an estimated $8 million to star in "Total Recall."
Carolco officials declined comment on the bidding war for the Eszterhas script. But Thomas Levine, the company's vice president for corporate development, said, "We bought a great project."