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Megabucks Turn to Megabusts

<i> Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer</i>

It was a wild time to be a literary agent.

--Agent Justen Dardis

*

The year was 1990, and throughout Hollywood a spectacle was unfolding that even to this day is the stuff of movie industry lore.

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Film scripts were selling for astronomical sums, snapped up in bidding wars by major studios and independent production companies. The sale of “spec” scripts--screenplays written on speculation, often by unknown writers, without having been commissioned by a producer or studio--grabbed headlines.

Joe Eszterhas’ “Basic Instinct” sold for $3 million. Shane Black’s “The Last Boy Scout” went for $1.75 million. And a relatively unknown writer named David Mickey Evans hit the jackpot with “Radio Flyer,” which sold for $1.25 million. All three scripts eventually became movies.

But along the way, a funny thing happened. A number of spec scripts that sold for $1 million or more during this era of frenzied deal-making never made it to the big screen. The scripts included “The Ticking Man,” “Hell Bent . . . and Back,” “The Cheese Stands Alone” and even a reworking of Jack London’s classic “The Sea Wolf.”

The reasons are varied and reveal much about how Hollywood really works: how even good scripts can go wanting for lack of a big-name actor or director, become ensnared in the Byzantine world of studio politics or become consigned to endless rewrites--what the town calls “development hell.”

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To this day, screenwriter Brian Helgeland isn’t really sure why “The Ticking Man” was never made. Helgeland and co-writer Manny Coto were so confident about their material that they even made a documentary film about how they wrote a $1-million screenplay.

The script was sold to Largo Entertainment amid speculation that Bruce Willis was interested in starring, but Willis chose “The Last Boy Scout” instead.

Today, Helgeland says that whenever he runs into producer Larry Gordon, who retained the script after leaving Largo, he asks him about “Ticking Man.”

“I sit up behind him at Kings games, and whenever he sees me approaching, he says, ‘I’m going to make it! I’m going to make it!’ ” Helgeland said. A spokesman for Gordon said the script is still “in development.”

What made the sale of “The Ticking Man” so memorable was that a week before the script was ready to circulate, agents sent messengers around town handing out ticking clocks to executives.

When asked why the film has never been made, agent Bruce Kaufman replied: “It got caught in development hell. Bruce Willis was in; Bruce Willis was out. They want to rewrite it for another star; they can’t get another star.”

Another big spec script that never got made was “Hell Bent . . . and Back,” which was boughtby Disney’s Hollywood Pictures unit.

Rick Jaffa said he is still stopped on the street and asked, “Whatever happened to that script you wrote for $1 million?” They even quote dialogue from the screenplay, which he wrote with Doug Richardson.

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The story centers on a squad of World War II GIs who hijack a Berlin-bound Nazi train containing loot taken from Mussolini’s Italy--only to discover two boxcars filled with Jewish children on their way to a concentration camp.

Studio sources say that Ricardo Mestres, who then headed Hollywood Pictures, loved the screenplay but that it never receivedthe support of then-studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. At the same time, one source recalled,the project became mired in notes the studio sent the writers that “sent them in the wrong direction.”

Today, “Hell Bent” is still at Disney. Will it ever get made? Perhaps, but Jaffa said no one person is to blame if it doesn’t. Mestres is now a producer on the lot, and, sources say, he has expressed renewed interest in the project.

The sale of the romantic comedy “The Cheese Stands Alone” garnered attention in 1990 for screenwriter Kathy McWorter, then a 23-year-old graduate of Cal State Northridge. After an intense bidding session, Paramount Pictures won the rights for producer Scott Rudin.

Now “The Cheese Stands Alone” is probably headed for the New York stage, not movie theaters, largely because after it was bought by Paramount, the studio changed chiefs--twice.

As one industry insider put it: “It sold for $1 million because [Paramount in 1990] wanted to make a statement to the town: ‘We’re buying scripts. And we’ll go toe to toe with any other studio.’ ”

Meanwhile, prospects for “Sea Wolf” are equally dim.

“It sits on a shelf at Columbia,” lamented agent Justen Dardis of the Agency for the Performing Arts. Dardis, considered one of the top spec script agents in town, said Columbia had wanted “Sea Wolf” because it believed Tom Hanks wanted to make the movie.

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T he 1990 spec script boom hap pened, industry observers say, because the Writers Guild strike of 1988 had given screenwriters time to work on spec scripts and because Columbia and TriStar, newly purchased by Sony in 1989, went on a script-buying binge. At the same time, smaller companies such as Carolco, Morgan Creek and Largo were trying to flex their muscles.

Today, the spec market is as active as ever, but the fever has come down. Agents caution writers not to set their goal only on hitting it big with spec scripts. The odds, they say, are too much against them.

Rob Carlson of the William Morris Agency said a spec script should be viewed as a way to introduce a writer to the town.

“Selling a script for $1 million is a great thing,” he said, “but in terms of a career, it’s not that important.”

Today, Hollywood still spends millions on spec scripts that don’t get produced, at least not right away. Examples abound.

New Line Cinema acquired “Mango,” a comedy about a cop who’s allergic to animals, including his orangutan partner. But now the studio has opted to put it on the back burner because 20th Century Fox is making an orangutan movie called “Dunston Checks In.”

Columbia has a script called “Pincushion,” a female “Road Warrior” story said to be in active development. “At the time,” said one production source, "[Columbia] sort of sat on it waiting for Cher to become available to do it. They should have made it quickly.”

In 1992, Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment spent $750,000 on a spec script called “Nuclear Family,” a comedy about a family that inadvertently camps out in a nuclear waste site. Amblin now says the script is not in active development, and another source said it might be sold to Fox TV.

But writers like Helgeland say they love spec writing because it gives them the freedom to write whatever they want and gamble that it pays off big.

“It’s like going to Las Vegas,” he said. “It’s a chance for a writer to be No. 1 for a day.”


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