A peek at the peaks, perks of star writers’ rights

NOT SO MANY YEARS AGO, film directors were downright orgasmic if they were paid a million bucks to direct a movie. Now, that’s considered “scale” by many filmmakers.

Lately, the million-dollar summit has been scaled by another unlikely group: screenwriters and novelists. Not only are these ink-stained wretches earning seven-figure packages for their work, but they’re also making the sort of gross deals previously reserved for superstars. Even more unthinkable, they’re gaining a degree of creative control.

The examples are bountiful: William Goldman, who was paid a paltry $ 400,000 for his original “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” will earn well over a million bucks from Universal to adapt John Grisham’s “The Chamber.” The studio laid out $ 3.75 million for the thriller — the most ever paid for an (at the time) unpublished book. Goldman also serves as an occasional “mentor-at-large” for that lively minimajor, Castle Rock, which has been making a lot of news lately.

Then there’s Ted Tally, who’s pulling down another million to adapt “The Juror” for Columbia. And that’s chicken feed compared with the latest coup for that prolific scriptmeister, Joe Eszterhas. Gonzo Joe sold “Foreplay” to Savoy for $ 3.5 million, but, more importantly, the complex deal entitles him to 2.5% of first dollar gross along with a very favorable cut of video income and even a percentage of earnings from music.

WHILE THESE MEGABUCK WRITERS DEALS may seem excessive to some, there’s a logic behind them that’s worth pondering. The reason movie stars make the big bucks, after all, isthat they supposedly “open” a picture. Given the fact that writers like Tom Clancy, John Grisham and Michael Crichton sell as many as 2 million books inhardcover, it can be argued that their names can open a picture as well. Hence a Crichton will pull down $ 3.5 million for the rights to “Disclosure” as well as for his producing services on the film.

Similarly, to companies like Carolco or Cinergi, Eszterhas’ name arguably is a significant help in foreign presales. If a writer can help raise upfront money, that clearly counts for something.

These developments are shaking up the dealmaking machinery around Hollywood. Agents are reevaluating their strategies, fearful of underpricing their projects. Grisham’s representatives, for example, are likely going for gross participation for his book “A Time to Kill,” which has attracted a lot of attention. The agents for the idiosyncratic Pat Conroy, who wrote “Prince of Tides,” are demanding millions for his next novel, “Beach Music,” even tying it into an original script he cranked out six years ago.

The studios find all this rather unnerving. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the Eszterhas deal is going to generate similar demands from star writers,” says the production chief of a major studio. “I don’t want to break the barrier on gross deals — but I know the goddamn barrier has already been broken.”

EVEN BEFORE GONZO JOE’S BREAKTHROUGH, writers’ deals at studios had been escalating rapidly. The top body-and-fender men are making $ 100,000 a week and up to patch up scripts being readied for production. When a star demands a rewrite by a John Patrick Shanley, the pricetag can run to $ 800,000. Jeffrey Boam reportedly was making almost a million bucks a year at Warners for his scripts and rewrites; now he has switched to Paramount, where he has a rich writer-producer deal, and the studio is delighted with his draft of “The Phantom.”

Paramount also has a rich deal with John Bishop, who lent his talents to “Beverly Hills Cop III” and “Drop Zone.” There’s a dark side to this boom, how-ever. “While some writers-du-jour may be scoring spectacular deals, the middle-range writer is having trouble getting work at all,” says one of the town’s top literary agents. “There are guys out there with major credits who are taking substantial pay cuts.”

When a writer hits a hot streak, the big question is, how high should he set his sights? A gross deal a la Eszterhas presents one glossy goal, to be sure. Greater creative control is even more attractive to others. Michael Crichton, for example, agreed to sell “Disclosure” with the proviso that he also serve as producer. This gave him a major say in the choice of director and cast.

Now that Barry Levinson has started shooting the film, however, Crichton, ever the realist, is not exactly lingering around the set arguing about setups. Instead he’s doing exactly what a writer should do — he’s in Hawaii hammering away on his next project. Such a writer understands full well that ultimate creative control, now and forever, resides with the bozo who shouts “Action.”

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