Mailed print subscribers get one graphic.JOHN HORN , Associated Press
Oct. 14, 1990 2:18 PM ET
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Actor Michael Douglas wants $10 million a picture. Tom Cruise commands just a little less. Arnold Schwarzenegger collects as much as $12 million per film. Joe Eszterhas recently got $3 million.
A handful of working movie writers - whose median annual pay floats around $39,000 - are starting to draw spectacular salaries, with several scripts selling for $1 million and more.
''It's wonderful to have Paul Newman in a movie, but if he doesn't have great words, he can't improvise them,'' says Ray Gideon, who wrote 1984's ''Starman'' with partner Bruce Evans for the then-unheard-of sum of $300,000.
The movie studios still fawn more lavishly over actors, and even director Renny Harlin (''Die Hard 2'') gets $3 million a picture.
Although screenwriters are perhaps the most important ingredient in a film's recipe, their compensation continues to be far from commensurate.
The Writers Guild of America says salaries across the board are growing. All the same, many can't make a living at the craft. Half of the WGA's 7,500 members have no writing income at all some years.
''Writers are really starting to catch up, but they still are a long way behind,'' says a leading Hollywood deal maker.
That's the case even though star power doesn't necessarily guarantee packed houses, as this past summer proved.
The season's biggest hit didn't have million-dollar names such as Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. The runaway smash was anchored by a strong script, and for that reason long lines materialized for writer Bruce Joel Rubin's ''Ghost.''
''In the end, story is what people want,'' Rubin says.
Most of the precious screenplay sales these days are for so-called ''spec'' scripts, written on speculation of sale, not on an assignment from a producer or studio.
In frantic bidding wars, these scripts - and sometimes book manuscripts, when no screenplay is yet penned - are auctioned off to the studios and major independent producers.
Even the Walt Disney Co., the stingiest studio, paid out $1 million in a deal for ''The Ultimatum'' and one other script from its writers, and $1 million for ''Hell Bent...And Back'' by Doug Richardson and Rick Jaffa.
Selling spec scripts isn't a new way of doing business. Preston Sturges sold 1933's ''The Power and the Glory'' on spec and William Goldman wrote 1969's ''Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid'' with no guarantee of income. The new twist is the price.
Veteran writers with strong track records on assignment earn around $200,000, with another $200,000 or so paid if the movie is made. For the spec gamble, the stakes grow logarithmically.
This April, Shane Black sold his script for the action movie ''The Last Boy Scout'' to music mogul David Geffen for $1.75 million. Black had a better offer ($2.25 million from Carolco Pictures) but chose Geffen because he preferred Geffen's producer, Joel Silver.
Previously, Black earned $250,000 for writing ''Lethal Weapon.''
A fascinating account of instant Hollywood riches comes from Brian Helgeland and Manny Coto. Talking on the telephone not long ago, the two jokingly decided not to hang up until they concocted a $1 million script idea.
With their script completed, the agent for Coto and Helgeland mailed on a Thursday ticking clocks to 20 industry executives with the warning, ''The Ticking Man is coming.'' The script for the pair's ''The Ticking Man,'' a story of a nuke-toting android, was sent out the next Tuesday morning. It sold that night, for $1 million.
In these bidding wars, some scripts age like vintage wines. Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool wrote a script for ''The Ultimatum'' in 1980, but couldn't sell it for a decade. Their patience had a good price - the $1 million Disney deal.
So warm is the script fever that some screenwriters without recent hits - or even any real credits - are selling spec scripts for astounding sums. Joe Eszterhas, a former journalist, sold ''Basic Instinct'' for $3 million, even though his latest movies, ''Betrayed'' and ''Music Box,'' generated only moderate box-office business.
''It was ready to go into principal photography, more or less,'' Thomas Levine, a spokesman for Carolco, said in explaining the extraordinary ''Basic Instinct'' purchase price. (The total cost for the film will be staggering. Star Michael Douglas will be paid more than $10 million and director Paul Verhoeven will earn as much as Eszterhas.)
Peter Filardi sold the script for the medical school drama ''Flatliners'' for $400,000. His resume before the sale included one episode of ''MacGyver'' and a few commercials for a security shutter product.
A few writers are as interested in a good home for their projects as in a good price.
Michael Crichton's ''Jurassic Park,'' a novel about the re-emergence of dinosaurs, not only brought its author $2 million but also a choice of movie studios and directors. He could have gone with Warner Bros. and Joe Dante (''Gremlins''). But then there was Donner (''Superman'') and Columbia. Or Tim Burton (''Batman'') at 20th Century Fox. Ultimately, Crichton chose Steven Spielberg at Universal.
The script sales are only the latest step in the dollar-driven dance of the film business. Just last year, Columbia Pictures bought from Warner Bros. producers Jon Peters and Peter Guber for $500 million on the belief the team could start cranking out hits.
The rush for spec scripts is motivated by the same thinking. Smaller companies and studios under new management (such as Columbia) often don't have robust script development divisions, but want to release films in a hurry.
At most major studios, as many as a hundred scripts in varying stages of readiness can be in active development, either being retouched or rebuilt from Page 1.
At shops such as Carolco, the David Geffen Co., Cinergi and Columbia, where the script cupboard is more bare, ready-to-make screenplays have special appeal.
Furthermore, some script purchasers are motivated more by fear than a genuine interest in the story: This script may not be a real hit, they might say, but at least the other guy won't have it.
Sometimes, in fact, the desire to make a screenplay deal exceeds common sense. Gay Talese's ''Thy Neighbor's Wife'' earned more than $2 million for screenplay rights, but the movie was never made.
For ''Radio Flyer,'' an account of two young brothers in a fantasy world, David Mickey Evans was paid $600,000 for the script and $500,000 to direct his story. After just a few days behind the camera, Columbia fired the 27-year-old novice from the film and replaced him with veteran Richard Donner.
Carolco's ''Basic Instinct'' didn't turn out to be entirely ready for the cameras, either. Verhoeven asked for significant rewrites, driving Eszterhas away.
''Some of these scripts aren't very good,'' says Mike Medavoy, the head of Tri-Star Pictures.
The boom in screenplay sales seems certain to attract a few thousand more starry-eyed writers to town. Although these arrivistes might assume a $1 million sale is easy, the truth is grim.
For every script selling for $1 million, there will be 500 for which nobody will pay a nickel.
''Anything that attracts more writers is good, but people just coming for the money will probably fail,'' says Ed Solomon, co-writer of ''Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure'' and the author of the upcoming ''Leaving Normal.''
Solomon and frequent partner Chris Matheson always have written on spec. ''Everyone should write on spec, but for creative, rather than economic, reasons,'' Matheson says.
Rubin, the author of ''Ghost,'' wrote that script through development, not on spec. ''Truly, in the end, every script is developed. Nobody shoots a script as it's written. And the development of a spec script can be as laborious as a script produced in development.''
Independent studios can't compete in the bidding wars and are trying to court screenwriters with other incentives: creative freedom, scheduling flexibility and more professional intimacy.
Some studios, blinded by the escalation in script prices, have turned their eyes back to the ages-old script development model.
Even though some studios such as Warner Bros. end up with only one movie for every 20 scripts developed, it's still a fairly cost-effective means of doing business.
''We don't want to engage in those very active bidding wars,'' says Roger Birnbaum, the president of worldwide production for 20th Century Fox. Fox was involved in the bidding for ''Basic Instinct'' but started to lose interest in the process after the ''Jurassic Park'' deal was closed. ''The money was way too high,'' Birnbaum says.
''It's fun to win a bidding war,'' Birnbaum says, ''but there's also a terrific pleasure in developing a screenplay, picking a cast, selecting a director and creating something you can really feel a part of.''
End Adv Sunday, Oct. 14