With screenwriters the new stars of Hollywood and the price of original film scripts soaring, New York playwrights might expect to rack up commensurate profits when studios acquire their works.
They might, but they’d be disappointed.
While Hollywood continues to scour both Broadway and Off Broadway for product and talent, the pay for acquiring film rights to legit material rarely approaches what insiders say is the $1.1 million dished out by 20th Century Fox for “Prelude To A Kiss.”
Among this season’s new productions, expectations are highest for Neil Simon’s “Lost In Yonkers,” a show that scored mostly good reviews during its pre-Broadway run in Washington, D.C. Although the rights to “Yonkers” have not been sold, Simon’s Hollywood record bodes well. “Brighton Beach Memoirs” went for a reported $1.25 million eight years ago.
Today, few shows will approach that level. Prices for film rights have risen in recent years, but most acquisitions still fall into the $500,000 or less category.
“The only thing going up is the price of screenplays,” says veteran film producer David Brown, who exec-produced the film version of “Driving Miss Daisy” with producers Richard and Lili Fini Zanuck.
Brown, whose pre-1970 tenure at 20th Century Fox included the development of such legit-to-film hits as “The Sound Of Music,” “Hello, Dolly!” “The King And I,” “Bus Stop” and “The Great White Hope,” says screen readiness is a key in studio willingness to pay newsmaking prices. Plays have to be adapted, but original scripts can be studio-nurtured from inception.
And much, it seems, can be lost in the adaptation process. Even a Broadway or Off Broadway hit can lose critical and audience support in the transition to celluloid. For every successful “Driving Miss Daisy” there’s a lackluster “Steel Magnolias.”
If the predicted buying frenzy that accompanied the back-to-back releases of “Daisy” and “Magnolias” hasn’t materialized, New York theater remains fecund territory for film studios. Recent weeks have seen major studios acquire the film rights to such legit fare as “Shadowlands” (Columbia Pictures) and “Six Degrees Of Separation” (MGM-Pathe), while “Other People’s Money” is being helmed by Norman Jewison for Warner Bros. Garry Marshall is filming “Frankie And Johnny In The Clair De Lune” for Paramount with Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino.
And that’s only a partial list. Kevin Dowling, co-producer of David Stevens’ Off Broadway hit “The Sum Of Us,” concedes that film right acquisition hasn’t kept pace with original script development. But he says studio interest, particularly with regard to Off Broadway, has grown, even if spending hasn’t.
“There has been some escalation [in acquisition fees],” Dowling says, “and studios certainly have more outposts in New York than even five years ago. We’ve had representatives from every major studio come here without any prompting from us.”
Dowling, along with partner Corky Kessler, a Chicago attorney and theater producer, acquired the screen rights to “Sum” for $150,000 as part of the deal to take the then-Los Angeles workshop production to the Off Broadway Cherry Lane Theater. Dowling says the most likely scenario for film development involves a co-production deal with an established film producer.
While selling film rights prior to legit production is not uncommon, it can have drawbacks. Playwright Jerry Sterner sold the movie rights to his 1988 “Other People’s Money” to the financially struggling Kings Road studio for what sources say was $175,000. Kings Road later sold the rights to Warner Bros. That the project has scored early interest is due not only to Jewison’s involvement, but to stars Danny De Vito and Gregory Peck.
While Sterner and his Off Broadway producers will benefit from Warners’ purchase – including profit participation – the film rights sale may, in hindsight, have been premature. By the time Sterner had secured high-powered representation by the William Morris Agency, the movie rights were history.
“We brought Norman Jewison into it,” says Sterner’s agent Esther Sherman, and his involvement made the project “much more viable,” she says. “If I had had a free hand, we could have had a large-scale auction” for the film rights.
Unlike Sterner, whose only play prior to “Money” opened and closed in one night, more established playwrights can use their names as bargaining chips in the sale of film rights. August Wilson’s demands for director approval in his sale of “The Piano Lesson” are a “critical issue” in negotiations with an undisclosed studio, says Wilson’s attorney John Breglio. Wilson, Breglio says, feels “that a black director is most appropriate in interpreting his work.”
Freshman playwright Aaron Sorkin turned screen interest in his “A Few Good Men” manuscript into a stint on Broadway. Film producer Brown agreed to venture into legit production in order to secure a film deal on behalf of Tri-Star Pictures.
“Aaron Sorkin wouldn’t sell the rights unless we offered to do ‘A Few Good Men’ as a play, and not just a movie,” the producer says. Brown, who had never produced a Broadway play, agreed, bringing longtime legit producer Lewis Allen, among others, on board.
Hollywood interest in “Prelude” seems to have been directed as much at star power as anything else. Studio competition apparently pushed the price of “Prelude To A Kiss” to the lofty $1 million range. Industry speculation puts the “Six Degrees” figure at half that of “Prelude,” despite the stronger pull “Degrees” has at the legit boxoffice.
” ‘Six Degrees’ has no star attached to it,” says one source, who asked not to be identified. “Prelude,” on the other hand, has been tied to film star Alec Baldwin since the actor created the lead role Off Broadway. The film will star Baldwin, Alec Guinness and Meg Ryan.
The producers of “Prelude To A Kiss” declined comment on the deal.