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HOLLYWOOD HABITS : Following the Script of a High-Stakes Movie Bidding War : New Line Cinema buys Shane Black's latest screenplay for a record $4 million. Here's how the deal was done.

July 27, 1994|CLAUDIA ELLER | TIMES MOVIE EDITOR

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.

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