Eszterhas nails ‘Male’


NEW YORK — Just when it seemed that the script market was as thin as the tresses of a Hair Club client, Paramount has acquired screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ new script, “Male Pattern Baldness,” for $2 million against $4.5 million, sources said. Betty Thomas is in final talks to direct after she completes Fox’s “Dr. Dolittle” with Eddie Murphy. Ben Myron will produce with Jeno Topping.

With several projects already at Paramount, Eszterhas gave a first look at the script to Par chairman Sherry Lansing. With Thomas already on board, Lansing made a preemptive deal with Eszterhas’ International Creative Management agents Jeff Berg and Jim Wiatt and attorney Sam Fischer.

Closely guarded secret

The contents of the script have been a closely guarded secret. In fact, Eszterhas wouldn’t let it be xeroxed, after learning that his satirical mockumentary “An Alan Smithee Film” was being hawked for $30 a copy on Hollywood Boulevard days after he turned in the script. Myron brought the original right from Eszterhas’ manual typewriter to Thomas and then to Lansing. (When Eszterhas’ William Morris agent Arnold Rifkin couldn’t find time to read the script right before the holidays, Eszterhas exited the agency and signed with ICM’s Berg and Wiatt.)

Reached yesterday, Eszterhas confirmed the Par deal was close. Asked the contents of the script, he said: “It’s about a guy trying to make sense of his relationships in the ’90s. It’s funny and painful. I would call it a tense comedy.”

Before a group of follically challenged leading men begin lining up, Eszterhas cautioned that the title “is more metaphorical than literal. It stands more for emotional qualities than it does for physical ones. It doesn’t mean the protagonist is going bald.”

“When I finished it, my first thought was Betty Thomas,” he said. “I love her work — it’s very funny and very hu-man. I called and asked her to read the script. I was thrilled with her response. Two hours after she read it, she committed to do it immediately after ‘Dr. Dolittle.’ ”

‘Hilarious and heartbreaking’

Once Thomas’ deal is done, it will mark the former “Hill Street Blues” star’s third directorial effort at Para-mount. Thomas followed “The Brady Bunch” with the Howard Stern starrer “Private Parts,” which opens in March. Of “Baldness,” Thomas said: “It’s hilarious and heartbreaking — a ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ for the ’90s.” Paramount is already laying the groundwork for Thomas to be in pre-production by October. She’s repped by ICM’s Richard Feldman.

Since box office misfires “Showgirls” and “Jade” prompted Eszterhas to veer from steamy whodunits, he has set up numerous scripts on a gamut of different subjects. Cinergi and director Arthur Hiller wrap production today on “Smithee,” with a cast that includes Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg and Jackie Chan. “Telling Lies in America” is wrapped, directed by Guy Ferland and starring Kevin Bacon and Brad Renfro. Universal is in talks with Iain Softly (“Backbeat”) to direct the Otis Redding biopic “Blaze of Glory” for producers Myron and Jon Avnet. Morgan Creek is in talks with Ferland to direct the Eszterhas script “Original Sin” with Gina Gershon and Jon Bon Jovi.

Aside from the new purchase, Paramount has two other Eszterhas-scripted projects: the right-wing cult drama “Land of the Free” with producer Alan Ladd Jr. and the Russian mafia drama “Evil Empire” for producer Mario Kassar.

Three break-even gross points

Though it never got to a full spec auction, sources said “Male Pattern Baldness” will rank in as Eszterhas’ strongest script deal once filming begins. The $4.5 million purchase price is the most he’s gotten from a studio. Though Cinergi bought his script “Trapped” with a possible purchase price of $5 million, that figure is contingent on cast and director. Eszterhas also got three break-even gross points for “Baldness,” believed to be the first such payout for a screenwriter from a major studio.

As to how this might help pick up the sagging script market, Eszterhas said: “Rumors of the death of the spec script have been exaggerated. It remains the best way for a writer to see his own vision up on screen.”

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