The dog days of summer were fast approaching.
Most of the season's big movies, including "True Lies" and "Forrest Gump," were already out of the box. Within the next few weeks, the Hollywood exodus would begin. All the players would be high-tailing it to the Hamptons, the south of France or their hideaways in the Malibu Colony.
But there was still a major piece of business yet to be done before the summer slowdown.
Shane Black, one of the town's hottest young screenwriters and creator of the highly profitable "Lethal Weapon" series, had just completed his latest "spec script"--a screenplay that's auctioned on the open market and sold to the highest bidder.
Black's agent, David Greenblatt at ICM, was fairly confident his client's latest work, "The Long Kiss Goodnight," about a housewife who emerges from amnesia to discover she was once an assassin hired by the U.S. government, would bring top dollar. The writer's previous script, "The Last Boy Scout," sold for $1.75 million and his latest was in the same action genre. Black also wrote the first draft of "Lethal Weapon 2" and last year's much less successful "Last Action Hero."
What neither Greenblatt nor Black could anticipate, however, was just how much money "Long Kiss" would sell for--and to whom.
Outbidding Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros., New Line Cinema--which before its recent purchase by media mogul Ted Turner built its name on such low-budget independent movies as "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "Nightmare on Elm Street"--agreed to pay a record $4 million for the script. That fee, of which the writer receives $3.5 million immediately and a $500,000 producer's fee when the movie rolls, surpasses the $3-million upfront money ICM client Joe Eszterhas received in 1990 for his spec "Basic Instinct."
While Greenblatt and his ICM colleagues, including Tom Strickler who helped negotiate the deal, refused to be interviewed, New Line executives and others close to the auction helped reconstruct the details of a singular but classic Hollywood high-stakes bidding war driven not only by the movie material itself but by egos, competitiveness and ultimately, the biggest weapon of all--money. The time: About 5 p.m. Monday, July 18. The place: ICM's starkly stylish Wilshire Boulevard offices in Beverly Hills.
Black's agents send his script out to potential buyers. The writer had given ICM a wish list of producers with whom he most wanted to work: James L. Brooks, James Cameron, Joel Silver, Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and the husband-wife team of Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. By Monday evening, calls begin coming in from interested parties.
Silver, who has a deal at Warner Bros., and executives at Columbia, where Brooks is based, call Tuesday morning; others on Black's wish list pass. Later that day, Black is sent by his agents to take "creative meetings" with Brooks and Silver at their respective offices.
Meanwhile, New Line President Michael De Luca and executive Vice President Richard Saperstein, who had slipped the script to director Renny Harlin ("Cliffhanger") and his actress-wife Geena Davis on Monday night, call ICM late Tuesday afternoon and make the first offer: $1.75 million, including a guaranteed $250,000 producer's fee. To underscore the seriousness of their interest, New Line executives promise that "Last Kiss" would be an automatic "go" movie with Harlin directing and Davis starring. Steve Tisch, who has a deal at New Line, is also on board as one of the producers.
Greenblatt and Strickler respond coolly to the bid, telling them that they are entertaining other offers. ICM figures it at least has Silver, to whom Black feels deep loyalty, in the wings.
New Line executives are nervous when they learn that Black really clicked with Brooks, whom he thought could mentor him on the script. "Jim Brooks is my favorite filmmaker.... and he is great with character development," Black told The Times last week after the sale.
"By the end of Tuesday we heard the Jim Brooks situation was percolating at Columbia," De Luca said. "So our next step was to put Renny and Geena together with Shane. Richard (Saperstein) and I met with Black at 2 p.m. (Tuesday) and that night we put them all together."
De Luca says Black came away from that meeting feeling that "Renny and Geena were the right creative combination" for him. "Then it became a matter of who was going to secure the script for them." New Line had made a recent overall deal with the pair but since they were not exclusive to the company, all other parties would be free to bid on their behalf.
By this time, New Line ups its offer to $2.5 million.
On Wednesday, Warners and Columbia match it. But just before ICM calls it a night around 8, New Line increases its offer to $2.7 million to make sure it has the edge going into Thursday.
Black's agents tell him Thursday it is time to enter formal negotiations to secure a deal by day's end. The writer is also advised to decide whom he feels most comfortable with creatively.
At this point, said Saperstein, "We were told (by ICM) it was leaning toward Columbia because Shane wanted to work with Jim Brooks. So, we just kept Renny talking to Shane. We knew our advantage was we already had a director and star."
About 2:30 Thursday, Black, who left ICM around noon "because I didn't want to hang around the deal anymore," tells his agents to begin negotiating with New Line. His attorney, Alan Hergott, is called and a meeting is set at ICM for 4 p.m.
What ensues is a 4 1/2-hour marathon negotiating session. From home, Black calls every 20 or 30 minutes for an update. "Then I'd go eat or read detective novels--that's what I do when deals are being done."
Sitting in the conference room are Hergott, Greenblatt and Strickler and New Line's De Luca, Saperstein and senior vice president of business affairs Margaret Blatner. Michael Lynne, president of New Line's parent company, is conferenced in by phone from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. He is on his way to Russia to attend a Turner board meeting with New Line founder and chairman Robert (Bob) Shaye.
Negotiations begin in earnest when Black's agents say their client will sell his script to them for a guaranteed $3.5 million. New Line mulls over the proposal and agrees to the money, but there is a big problem. Harlin and Davis cannot commit to "Kiss" as their next film because they are already obligated to make the pirate movie "Cutthroat Island" for Carolco Pictures. Harlin has been under the gun to replace Michael Douglas, who bowed out of the project two weeks ago, with an actor of equal marquee value here and overseas, so that production can begin in the fall. Black's agents tell New Line their client has a problem with his movie following "Cutthroat," so they are dubious a deal can be made.
About 6 p.m., Greenblatt and Strickler go into the office of ICM chairman Jeff Berg, who immediately places a call to Mark Canton, chairman of Columbia/TriStar Motion Picture Companies. Meanwhile, De Luca and Saperstein are working it hard from the conference room, keeping Harlin on the phone with Black. "ICM started to get pressure from the other buyers to make a decision and all indications were that Columbia was going to step up (to match New Line's $3.5-million bid) and the rumor was that they agreed to do the movie with Renny and Geena," said De Luca.
Columbia supposedly never went that high. "It was more than $3 million but less than $3.5 million," said a Columbia source.
Silver keeps calling to check in from Chicago, where he's shooting "Richie Rich," but Warners never raises its bid.
So Black has to decide whether it is worth taking $500,000 less up front from Columbia because he wants to work with Brooks, or whether he should go with New Line, which is offering a go movie and a higher percentage of box-office profits. Columbia says its offer is firm.
About 7:45, ICM tells New Line executives it has a very handsome offer from Columbia that Black is inclined to take unless they can reassure its client's concerns about the "Cutthroat" glitch. Greenblatt writes the number 4 on a piece of paper, circles it, slides it across the table and says that's what it would take to make the deal work. He walks out of the room. "We thought the deal was going to go away, so we called Bob Shaye in Sweden," said De Luca. "We knew we had to extend our offer to get Shane over the downside."
There was no phone in the chateau where Shaye was staying. And it was 4 a.m. in Sweden.
"Someone had to drive to Bob and wake him up and bring him to a building to talk on the phone," said De Luca. Saperstein explains the situation to his boss. De Luca said, "Bob's bottom-line decision was based on looking at this like he was acquiring a movie, not a script."
At 8:15, everybody files into the office of ICM President Jim Wiatt for a change of scenery.
New Line agrees to the $4 million. Greenblatt ducks into the hallway and calls Black, who instantly accepts the deal.
"We came to terms that it would be Renny and Geena's next movie after 'Cutthroat,' " said a much-relieved De Luca. In fact, Harlin told the Hollywood Reporter earlier this week that he plans to begin pre-production on "Kiss," by May, 1995, while still in post-production on "Cutthroat."
It is 8:30 p.m. when Greenblatt and Strickler look at each other and wonder aloud how they could ever hope to top the deal they had just made.
But then, that's the stuff sequels are made of.
Free-lance writer Judy Brennan contributed to this article.