OFF-CENTERPIECE : MOVIES : The Bigger the Bucks, the Longer They Need to Age

Remember those monster bidding wars over spec scripts a couple of years ago? When the studios temporarily lost their bearing and began drooling over screenplays instead of package deals? When screenwriters and their agents were pocketing six-figure sums at the drop of a hat?

Those days are long gone. Some of these hugely expensive properties--"The Last Boy Scout," "Radio Flyer"--survived the transition into celluloid. Others, so far, haven't. Some are collecting dust; some have recently had their dust wiped off. All, for the moment, are taking up shelf space. A brief review:

*

"The Ultimatum" By Lawrence Dworet and Robert Pool

More than $1 million paid by Disney/Touchstone Pictures, March 1990

In a nutshell: rewrites, indecision, frustration. Touchstone Pictures president, David Hoberman "doesn't feel comfortable with the melodramatic subject matter," says one inside source. "Touchstone tends to favor 'safe' middle-brow material with a lot of humor--exactly what this isn't."

In fact, it was the expected success of a similar story, "The Hunt for Red October," that prompted the Touchstone purchase. The plot is about a group of terrorists who hide a nuclear bomb somewhere in the U.S. and threaten to detonate it unless they receive a huge ransom and several terrorist brethren are freed from jail. The hero is fairly close to the CIA operative played by Alec Baldwin in "Red October." Touchstone wanted, but never got, Harrison Ford, Michael Douglas and Richard Gere.

Why, then, given their discomfort with the material, did Disney bid so heavily on "The Ultimatum"? "They don't know who they are yet," says our source. "They're still figuring it out. Or at least, they still were when they bought the script."

Dworet and Pool did one rewrite for Touchstone but left the project after concluding that the studio was looking to dilute the melodrama. Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne delivered a rewrite in January 1991 that, says one source, "read like a 'Saturday Night Live' skit." Producer-writer Jim Kouf ("Stakeout") came on board in April '91, producing two drafts that restored the dramatic tone. Director Roger Spottiswode arrived late last summer and attempted a paste-up draft. Writer-director Ron Shelton ("White Men Can't Jump") completed a draft early last August that "everyone agreed was very good," says an observer. "The irony was, Touchstone put it into turnaround right after the Shelton draft was turned in."

All together, Touchstone's investment in buying and revising "The Ultimatum": about $3 million.

*

"Hell Bent . . . and Back" By Rick Jaffa and Doug Richardson

$1 million paid by Disney/Hollywood Pictures in September, 1990

Basically kaput. The principals involved are so chagrined about its failure to go before the cameras that they refuse to discuss it at any length. One especially pained Disney executive says "the script had more problems than we realized at first" and that "everyone finally just lost interest."

Jaffa and Richardson did five revisions of their script, trying each time to accommodate the disparate views held by studio executives. "There was insufficient guidance," says a source. "Every executive had a slightly different point of view, and each deferred to the person above them." Jim Kouf, obviously one of Disney's favorite rewriters, was brought in to attempt a draft. But, says the source, "he made it too serious. It was supposed to be heroic and kind of funny."

The setting of "Hell Bent" is World War II. A tough sergeant is ordered to take a squad of commandos and destroy a German rail line. The squad decides on its own to loot a German train carrying gold bullion, but the men change their plans when they come upon a trainload of orphaned children on their way to a concentration camp. They forget the loot and save the kids.

No one disagrees that the estimated budget for "Hell Bent," which would probably have totaled at least in the $25 million to $30 million range probably helped to dampen enthusiasm at Disney.

*

"The Cheese Stands Alone" By Kathy McWorter

$1 million paid by Paramount for Scott Rudin Prods. in October 1990

"The Cheese" has gone stale. Director Phil Kaufman ("Henry and June") was originally hired to steer things along. But he quickly discovered some fundamental disagreements with McWorter, whom everyone agreed had to stay with the project due to the unique tone of the script. Kaufman quit the project after one week. Then director James Lapine ("Impromptu") was hired and stayed with the project for six to eight months. Its status became shaky after Paramount executive David Kirpatrick, one of the script's biggest supporters, left after the arrival of Brandon Tartikoff, who promptly put "Cheese" into turnaround.

The comedy is about a 35-year-old Hungarian Gypsy virgin. Set in present-day Chicago, the young man delights every girl he meets, although he's never bedded any of them. The story turns on the arrival of a strong young woman who claims to be his destiny and proceeds to turn the Gypsy's life upside down.

*

"Texas Lead and Gold" By Michael Beckner and Jim Gorman

$1 million paid by Largo Entertainment in May 1990

Largo wasn't bidding against anyone, so they apparently agreed to the $1 million purchase price out of pure ardor. It didn't last long. With Gorman assuming the producer reins, Beckner wrote the first of two revisions (per contractual obligation) but was never asked to write the second. The project sat for two years, an apparent victim of the long-held industry maxim that Westerns aren't commercial. Then, with the success of "Unforgiven," the climate changed. Screenwriter Randall Wallace was hired to do a polish in August, and the project is seemingly closer to being a "go."

Set in the 1880s, the plot follows a Texas Ranger teamed with a black attorney-turned-thief on the trail of a criminal, who in turn is searching for a lost cache of gold. In typical Hollywood-ese, "Texas" is described as a mix of "The Treasure of Sierra Madre," "McKenna's Gold" and "48 Hours."

*

"Cutthroat Island" By Michael Beckner

$2 million (including the producer services of Jim Gorman) paid by Carolco in April 1991

Beckner's agents at the time--Jeremy Zimmer and David Kantor of United Talent Agency--were planning a blanket mailing of the script, but allowed Carolco production vice president Kathy Rabin a peak. Carolco topper Mario Kassar, eager to buy, agreed to the $2 million fee, again, without competitors.

But once the sale was concluded, nothing much happened. Beckner proposed script changes with Carolco staffers throughout the summer of '91, but a consensus was never reached. The emphasis then switched to finding a director who could find the right direction, but no one was ever signed. Early rumbling of Carolco's worsening financial situation curtailed further activity. The script remains, says one source, a favorite of Kassar, who intends to produce it when and if Carolco's finances improve.

"Cutthroat Island" is described as a swashbuckling period epic, set in the 1600s, about a hapless pirate bounty hunter--he can't shoot, fight or swim--on the hunt for buried treasure while allied with the beautiful daughter of a pirate.

*

"Original Sin" By Joe Eszterhas

$1.5 million paid by Cinergi Pictures in April 1991

Yes, it's been sitting around for 18 months, but there is movement afoot. According to ICM's Guy McIlwain, his client Sharon Stone is planing to star, but it "probably won't shoot until the summer of '93." He adds that Stone had a promising meeting last Tuesday with director Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita").

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