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Film Studios' Bidding War Creating $1-Million Scripts

April 19, 1990|MICHAEL CIEPLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With a mixture of horror, elation and awe, Hollywood has watched for the last three days as some of its biggest companies vied for, of all things, a film script.

By several reports, 20th Century Fox began the bidding for 28-year-old writer Shane Black's new screenplay, "The Last Boy Scout," at $850,000 on Monday.

Universal Pictures quickly entered the fray but dropped out at just over $1 million.

Warner Bros. and a partnership between Tri-Star and Carolco Pictures joined the bidding for the script--about a down-on-his-luck private eye who teams up with an ex-football star to solve a murder--but so did the David Geffen Co., an independent producer that distributes through Warner.

By Tuesday night, the price was up to $2 million, a bid posted by Carolco/Tri-Star, but Black said he preferred to make the film with Geffen/Warner, where he had worked before. So Geffen came up a winner at $1.75 million--an apparent record, and nearly double the $1-million-plus prices that have become almost routine in the last several months.

Black, best known as creator of Warner's "Lethal Weapon," declined to discuss the sale, as did his agents, David Greenblatt and Bill Block of InterTalent.

David Geffen, who produced "Beetlejuice," declined to discuss the price. But he said he bid for the script simply because "I can see a movie in it. It's not maybe a movie. It's definitely a movie, and those aren't easy to find."

In any case, the episode marks the latest round in a phenomenal bidding war that is boosting the fortunes of some screenwriters beyond what most dreamed possible when they staged a five-month strike just 19 months ago.

Over the last year, Hollywood companies have fought an escalating battle for "spec scripts"--screenplays written on speculation, often by inexperienced writers, without first having been commissioned by a producer or studio.

The boom has been fed partly by a push to expand movie slates at Fox, Walt Disney Co.'s Hollywood Pictures unit and particularly at Columbia Pictures Entertainment, where Sony Corp.'s new managers have spent heavily on scripts since buying the studio last year.

Executives at several studios claim to detest the bidding wars, which has pushed the price of scripts far beyond the $300,000 benchmark that was common barely a year ago.

"To get $1 million, it used to have to be a damned good script. Now, you practically pay that for the idea alone and wind up with a lot of rewrites. . . . It's completely out of hand," said David Hoberman, head of Disney's Touchstone unit, which has stayed out of the auctions.

"I hate these auctions, I really do," said another executive who was among the bidders for Black's screenplay. Yet the same executive adds: "The market is giving writers some of the due that went to actors a couple of years ago, and to directors last year."

Writers have clearly enjoyed some high points in the past. In 1967, for instance, William Goldman sold his "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" script for $400,000--an amount equal to roughly $1.6 million today, when adjusted for inflation.

Precise figures paid for screenplays aren't publicly available, but many industry executives believe that Black's sale far exceeded previous highs of just over $1 million. The screenplay apparently was especially attractive to studios because it is action-oriented, crafted well enough to attract a big-name director and actors, and commercial enough to promise the beginning of a "franchise"--Hollywood terminology for a chain of money-making sequels.

Ironically, the studios' hunger for spec scripts set in just as the "development" process--the agonizing system by which executives pay writers to create and rewrite scripts based on ideas they have discussed in advance--was becoming much tougher.

In the last decade, the vast bulk of movie scripts were sold under development deals, which guarantee seasoned writers payments that routinely exceed $200,000 for a script but exact a heavy toll in terms of creative freedom.

According to partially complete statistics from the Writers Guild of America West, roughly 83% of all Hollywood movie scripts were sold under development deals last year, down from 91% in 1986.

Even as the percentage of screenplays written in development deals eased downward, studio executives appeared to demand increasing control over the creative process--a crackdown that some writers and agents attribute to the five-month writers strike in 1988, when studio executives had free time to review and tighten their development practices.

"It's much more worked out than it used to be," said Jim Kouf ("Disorganized Crime"), who writes and produces films under contract to Disney. "Now, they want to hear all about the three acts in a screenplay. They want to know exactly what they're buying."

Several observers maintain that a more stringent development process has killed even the "pitch"--an age-old ritual in which writers propose ideas to executives, who may take them or leave them.

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