Shane Black and the 90s Spec Script Gold Rush

A rush for original scripts led to Shane Black being among the highest-paid screenwriters in Hollywood. Ryan takes a look back...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Shane Black, 28 years old, poses for a photograph outside his Los Angeles bungalow. It’s 1990, and Black’s name has appeared all over the Hollywood trade press thanks to his latest script sale – or, more specifically, how much Warner Bros had spent on purchasing it. The script was for The Last Boy Scout, an action thriller that would eventually appear in cinemas in 1991 starring Bruce Willis. Black sold it for $1.75m – said to be the highest price ever paid for a screenplay at that time.

So here’s Shane Black, standing barefoot on the concrete paving slabs outside his house, which he and his roommates had dubbed the Pad O’Guys. Black’s wearing ripped jeans and a threadbare-looking lumberjack shirt; to his right stand four cars parked up untidily on the lawn. To his left, a trio of metal garbage cans, their lids strangely missing.

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The photo of Black was displayed full-page as the opening splash in a New York Magazine feature about young Hollywood screenwriters selling scripts and becoming millionaires almost overnight. Whether Black knew it at the time or not, the photo’s composition was no accident: it epitomizes a certain breed of arrogant young writer – brash, confident, a self-promoter, and rich from selling pulpy high-concept ideas rather than literary high art. Black had unwittingly become the poster boy for a generation of screenwriters who’d grown wealthy thanks to a burgeoning market for spec scripts; Black’s peers also included Brian Helgeland, Rick Jaffa, and Joe Eszterhas, all of whom had sold or would sell scripts for upwards of $1 million in the 1990s. And where there’s money, journalists usually find a story. 

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Black’s style of writing certainly had a youthful, sensationalist swagger about it. The script that really got him noticed was Lethal Weapon, a buddy-cop thriller which sold for $250,000 and emerged as a $120 million worldwide hit in 1987. With its pithy dialogue, intense jabs of action and amusing asides, Black’s script wasn’t just a dry blueprint for a movie, but a piece of writing with a clear and distinct voice. One oft-quoted line in the script reads:

EXT. POSH BEVERLY HILLS HOME – TWILIGHTThe kind of house that I’ll buy if this movie is a huge hit.

Lethal Weapon was a huge hit, alright, and launched an entire wave of thrillers with odd-couple pairings, guns and one-liners. Black, on the other hand, had a difficult relationship with the franchise he’d unwittingly created. When Warner Bros. demanded a sequel, Black duly wrote a script which was deemed too dark and violent for comfort – it even ended with crazed hero Martin Riggs dying in the line of duty. After six months of writing, Black quit, and Lethal Weapon 2 was rewritten by Jeffrey Boam (author Warren Murphy, Black’s friend, also received a ‘story by’ credit).

Seemingly burned by the experience, Black spent two years actively avoiding the screenwriting business; “I was really starting to fritz around the edges, he told New York Magazine, “and got really neurotic.”

When Black finally went back to his typewriter in 1989, it was to work up an idea he’d had in his head for about two years: a detective yarn inspired by his love of hard-boiled fiction. Originally called Die Hard (a title producer Joel Silver would borrow for an action-thriller project he had going on in the late ’80s), the script emerged as The Last Boy Scout – the story of a dishevelled private investigator and a former football star dragged into a case involving sports corruption and psychotic hitmen. 

When Black’s agents began hawking The Last Boy Scout around Hollywood, it resulted in a feeding frenzy. Fox took a look at it and offered $850,000 on the spot. But then other studios began offering bids of their own: David Geffen placed $1.25 million, thinking that would see off the competition, but hadn’t reckoned on Tri-Star and Carolco offering of $1.6 million. Then Warner entered the fray and offered $1.75 million; Tri-Star and Carolco countered with something like $2.5 million. Black eventually chose Warner’s lower offer because of his prior work with Joel Silver (“He gets my ideas,” Black said at the time).

Unusually high though Black’s paycheck for The Last Boy Scout was, the bidding war surrounding his script was by no means a one-off. A number of screenwriters had made headlines through the mid-to-late ’80s with their high-selling scripts, including David Chappe, whose thriller Gale Force was purchased by Carolco in 1989 for $500,000 in 1989. Not long before Black sold The Last Boy Scout in 1990, screenwriters Brian Helgeland and Manny Coto sold a sci-fi thriller called The Ticking Man for $1.2 million. Long before the ’80s, screenwriters had made managed to broker deals that would make most hacks choke with envy; William Goldman’s script for Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid sold for the unprecedented sum of $400,000 in 1967.

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Two things caused the script market to heat up in the early ’90s: one was the increasing competition among studios for high-concept film ideas following a damaging writers’ strike in 1988. The other force came from the talent agencies who marketed those scripts; a 2013 Vanity Fair article puts the surge in prices down to the ingenuity of one Alan Gasmer. Gasmer was an agent at William Morris, one of the most prestigious talent agencies in Hollywood. Rather than simply place a new script on the market and wait to see the offers roll in, Gasmer cleverly set a time limit: he’d put a screenplay up for sale on a Monday and close the bidding on a Friday, causing a sense of urgency and a flurry of bids as couriers delivered scripts to studios and producers raced to call in with their offers. In a good week, the “buzz” surrounding a script would become self-perpetuating: in 1990 alone, 14 scripts were sold for $1 million or more. 

Interest in the Hollywood clamor for spec scripts regularly broke headlines as the prices climbed ever higher. Just when the industry had digested the $1.75 million Black received for The Last Boy Scout, Joe Eszterhas nearly doubled that figure with his erotic thriller screenplay Basic Instinct, which he sold to Carolco for $3 million. Hollywood was hungry for anything with a simple concept and plenty of action; scripts that were finished and, maybe with a polish here and there, could go into production without years of expensive development and rewrites.

“I could never get a star of Bruce’s magnitude to commit to a book, a treatment or a work in progress,” producer Larry Gordon told The New York Times in 1990, summing up the period’s appetite for spec scripts. “But with a finished screenplay, a movie star has nowhere to go except ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Buying The Ticking Man took me to a place where I could get a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ instead of a ‘maybe.’ ”

Even when industry outlets like Variety predicted the end of the script sale bonanza in the early ’90s, the huge numbers kept coming. Joe Eszterhas sold his treatment for the erotic thriller Jade for $2.5 million in 1992. Then Shane Black returned with his latest thriller, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and stunned just about everybody when he sold it to New Line for $4.5 million in 1994. Once again, Black’s name was associated with a small club of obscenely well-paid, usually white male screenwriters. But this time, at least one member of the Hollywood press responded not with stunned fascination, but with outright disgust.

“I’ve got to hand it to you, Shane, you know how to beat the system,” Peter Bart wrote in a ranting piece for Variety entitled, ‘Script fee vomits upward for mayhem meister’. “Not just beat it, nuke it. Other writers may thrash around in development hell, but along you come with your mayhem machine – that’s probably what you call your computer – and, pow, a $4 million spec script emerges before you can blink an eye.” 

Bart’s scathing open letter seemed to express something hinted at in that 1990 image of Black, standing barefoot next to his open trash cans: that the scripts sold in the era’s bidding gold rush were violent, low-brow fodder dashed off in a few hours and flogged for a fortune.

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The Long Kiss Goodnight didn’t mark the end of the script gold rush, but it did mark a major turning point. If Bart and other commentators patrolling Hollywood wanted the movie to fail, they eventually got their wish, of a fashion – directed by Renny Harlin and released in 1996, The Long Kiss Goodnight made a so-so $89 million from a $65 million investment.

Two films written by white-hot erotic thriller doyen Joe Eszterhas also stumbled: Showgirls was a critically-derided failure in 1994, while Jade, directed by William Friedkin, saw similarly slim returns on its $50 million budget the following year.

Aside from those high-profile failures, there were all the million-dollar-plus scripts that never even made it to the screen. Brian Helgeland and Manny Coto’s The Ticking Man, about a sentient, humanoid nuclear bomb marching towards Moscow, had Bruce Willis attached to it for years but never made much progress beyond its initial burst of publicity (Helgeland and Coto promoted the script by sending alarm clocks to producers all over town). Likewise Joe Eszterhas’s Sacred Cows and Male Pattern Baldness, which sold for $2 million a piece and, at the time of writing, are still unproduced. They’re but a handful of the millions of dollars’ worth of screenplays purchased and left to gather dust on shelves somewhere. 

Scripts continued to sell for eye-watering amounts well into the 2000s, with M. Night Shyamalan making headlines with his sky-high deals for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs. The sci-fi action thriller Deja Vu, which sold for $3 million in 2005, harked back to the kinds of high-concept stories that studios tripped over themselves to aquire 15 years earlier.

Nevertheless, the market changed as 21st century dawned, with the number of spec sales falling and studios relying increasingly on existing properties like Marvel and DC Comics rather than high concepts to sell movies. Vanity Fair also suggests that the internet, and the ability to email scripts and track their popularity online, effectively ended the panicked phone calls and ferocious bidding wars of the ’90s, when scripts were either shuttled around by couriers or, at the height of the screenwriter’s power, read by appointment at an agent’s office.

“It’s very rare to see a spec sale for high six figures – to the point where if it does happen people are really talking about it,” a producer told the magazine in 2013. “Even $100,000, people talk about it.”

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Then again, there’s also a mythical quality to the spec script boom of the ’90s. Even at its peak, the number of screenwriters who became millionaires from their craft was absolutely tiny – one 2007 report estimated that of the 8,000 or so Writer’s Guild of America union members, only half of them received an income from their work at all. The media’s interest in Hollywood’s clamour for spec scripts taps into a dream shared by struggling writers everywhere: to sell a piece of work for so much money that financial worries are banished forever. And where there are dreams, there’s also a simmering cauldron of resentment waiting to be poured over the handful of writers who’ve turned those dreams into a reality. 

Even the image of the cocksure, arrogant young writer knocking out action scripts and making millions was essentially a mirage. Shane Black may have looked like a rough and ready chancer as he posed by his garbage in 1990, but the persona bandied about by the media – and maybe perpetuated by Black himself at one point – didn’t match the writer who, in private, often spent months working on his screenplays and, to this day, holds a clear affection for detective fiction and the craft of writing. Back in 1990, Black said he once planned to pursue a career in acting but largely abandoned it (small roles in films such as Predator aside) because he felt he was too insecure. We can only imagine how badly Peter Bart’s suggestion that Black could dash off a script with barely a thought must have stung.

This, perhaps, is the other story lying behind all those nine-figure script sales: the tendency for money to cloud the creative waters. Black may have earned well over $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight, but the indirect result was that he didn’t have another script produced for nearly a decade; his retreat didn’t end until he returned with his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in 2005, a movie that he’d offered to studios all over Hollywood and found himself rejected at every turn. It took his old producer-partner Joel Silver to step in and help bring Kiss Kiss Bang Bang to the screen, reigniting both Black’s career and that of the film’s star, Robert Downey Jr. The pair reunited again for Iron Man 3 in 2012, once again propelling Black into the Hollywood big leagues (at the time of writing, the Iron Man sequel is the 10th highest grossing film in the world).

Yet even after all that, Black had to work hard to finally get his latest film, The Nice Guys, into production; once again, producer Joel Silver took the project under his wing after a decade of development. It’s a sign, perhaps, of how much Hollywood has changed over the past 25 years or so: buddy thrillers are no longer guaranteed box office dynamite. Scripts seldom change hands for millions of dollars. But while the spec script gold rush is over, there is a positive outcome: where The Long Kiss Goodnight was dismissed by one critic as “vomit,” The Nice Guys has earned widespread adulation. No longer obscured by the headline-grabbing nine-figure paychecks, the real value of Black’s screenwriting can finally speak for itself.