Sale of Eszterhas Script Scores a Screenwriters' Breakthrough

TIMES MOVIE EDITOR

Joe Eszterhas, already the highest-paid screenwriter in movie history since the record $3-million sale of "Basic Instinct" in 1990, made another precedent-setting deal Wednesday that further underscores the rising power of top screenwriters in Hollywood.

The 49-year-old Eszterhas, in a breakthrough for what has been the least powerful talent in the film industry, becomes the first screenwriter in line to earn "first-dollar gross," or a percentage of all revenue collected from a movie by its distributor.

Historically, only top-drawer directors such as Steven Spielberg and Sydney Pollack and stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Costner have received first-dollar grosses from their movies.

Eszterhas won the deal from independent Savoy Pictures, the 2-year-old producer and distributor that outbid Columbia Pictures and Morgan Creek Productions for the writer's latest script, "Foreplay," a rock 'n' roll mystery about serial killings set in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Sources familiar with the deal say the groundbreaking arrangement guarantees the writer $1 million up front and another $3 million to $4 million (depending on budget size) as of the day principal photography begins, and 2.5% of every dollar Savoy takes in from all domestic revenue sources, from box office to video store.

U.S. distributors such as Savoy typically split a film's box office gross with theater owners. Eszterhas could also make money from foreign distribution of the film, but he won't get a share of the gross.

A source indicated that only a "small portion" of the purchase price of the script will be applied against the potential gross earnings. And, in another apparent first, Eszterhas will also participate financially in soundtrack sales from his movie. He will collect a minimum of 1% on each unit sold.

None of the negotiating parties--including Eszterhas; his agent at ICM, Guy McElwaine; his attorney, Sam Fischer, or Savoy--would discuss financial aspects of the deal.

Writers' agents affirmed Wednesday that it is unheard of for a screenwriter to get a share of "first-dollar" gross in Hollywood. "It shows how the power of the screenwriter has really increased," said Jeremy Zimmer, an agent at United Talent Agency.

The deal is not without risk to Eszterhas, however. Instead of his usual enormous flat fee up front, he agreed to accept just $1 million in exchange for the chance to earn much more if the movie is a smash hit.

But Frank Price, the former Columbia Pictures chief who will share producer credit with Eszterhas, and Savoy officials insisted that the script is on the fast track for production as soon as a director and cast are ready to go.

"If they don't make the movie, the script rights revert back to me after 30 months," said Eszterhas, whose earlier successes include "Jagged Edge" and "Flashdance."

New York-based Savoy was founded in 1992 by veteran movie executives Victor A. Kaufman and Lewis J. Korman, who serve as chairman and president, respectively. Among the company's releases are "Shadowlands," "A Bronx Tale" and the recent "Serial Mom" and "No Escape."

While Eszterhas will receive less advance money for "Foreplay" than he did for "Basic Instinct" and some of his previous scripts, McElwaine estimates that his client could earn as much as $10 million if the movie is a hit on the order of "Basic Instinct." That film, starring Sharon Stone and Michael Douglas, grossed $350 million worldwide at the box office.

"The reason for gambling the up-front money is to get the back-end money, because we know they are going to make it," McElwaine said, adding, "Many aspects of this deal are unprecedented in modern motion picture history."

McElwaine said he recalls some time ago that Neil Simon received first-dollar gross on the underlying sale of one of his plays when he adapted it to the screen, but "my understanding is that was part of the purchase price of the play" and thus differs from the "Foreplay" deal.

"I've always felt the writer of a piece deserves to be compensated as well as directors and actors," Eszterhas said. "In the case of an original screenplay, it is the writer's vision up on the screen. This deal says to me, it's possible that if screenwriters stick to their work and their guns, they'll be compensated that way."

Eszterhas' screenwriting credits also include "Music Box," "Flashdance" and, most recently, "Sliver" (a flop domestically). In the age of the computer, he writes exclusively on an Olivetti manual typewriter, but he is hardly risking impoverishment in taking a flyer on "Foreplay."

In the last two years, he has made a $3.4-million deal with producer Jon Peters and Columbia to adapt a book about Mafia kingpin John Gotti. That script is not yet written. Last year, he sold an idea for a rock musical, called "Showgirls," to producer Charles Evans for more than $1.5 million, then later auctioned the script to Carolco Pictures for $2.2 million. The picture was never made because director Paul Verhoeven chose to do "Crusade," with Arnold Schwarzenegger, for Carolco. (Verhoeven may be back as the director of "Showgirls," because the movie company is having budget problems with "Crusade.")

Eszterhas also sold a four-page outline of a courtroom thriller, "Jade," to Paramount for $2.5 million. William Friedkin is expected to direct that picture this fall.

Eszterhas says "Foreplay" is not a "straight-ahead thriller" like "Jagged Edge" or "Basic Instinct," but more of a "mystery that's spooky--not quite a comedy, but very funny."

The story centers on the relationship between Trish, a 20-year-old rock singer, and Vince, a burned-out, thirtysomething bass player-turned-cop who, along with his 60-year-old partner, Carl, investigates several murders involving young men and women.

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