The fate of the $26m scripts Joe Eszterhas sold in the 90s

The 90s saw Joe Eszterhas become the world's most famous screenwriter, selling scripts for up to $4m apiece. But what became of the films?

By the end of the 1990s, the screenwriting career of Joe Eszterhas was in sharp decline. His hyped Hollywood satire, Burn Hollywood Burn: An Alan Smithee Film had come, bombed and swept the Golden Raspberry Awards. Furthermore, projects that were previously live and kicking were being swept under the carpet.

But for a long while, Joe Eszterhas was that rarest of things: a genuine Hollywood writing superstar. And in a movie era where the writer seems to have, for the most part, fallen down the pecking order again, I thought it was worth digging through the many big money scripts that Joe Eszterhas sold in and around the 1990s, to see just what ultimately became of them. Some you’ll have heard of, but I’d wager there are a few you haven’t. Just wait until you get to Sacred Cows.

One note: the source for the many Joe Eszterhas quotes in this piece is his excellent book, Hollywood Animal, which is available in print and on Kindle. Let’s start, then, with the film you already know about…

Basic Instinct

$3m Made: Yes

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If you follow the salary growth of Joe Eszterhas throughout his screenwriting career, then Basic Instinct had been coming. He got $275,000 to pen the original Flashdance. Jagged Edge? He banked $500,000. Basic Instinct, though, blew the ceiling off what writers could legitimately hope for with a spec script.

Originally entitled Love Hurts, it became Basic Instinct on the morning its auction effectively began, as the screenplay was sent to every production outlet in Hollywood. The plan was to try and get them to outbid each other, to drive the price up. The plan worked.

The auction started at 10 one morning. “By noon”, as Eszterhas tells in his book, “we had offers up to $2 million.” The eventual winning bid? Carolco’s. It paid $3m to Eszterhas, and as part of the deal, it paid a further $1m to Irwin Winkler to produce the movie. “A New Era Dawns In Hollywood” read the subsequent Variety headline. And it wasn’t kidding.

What further fuelled the spec script boom of the 1990s was that Basic Instinct became such a gigantic success. Its $400m+ box office gross meant lots and lots of people wanted to give Eszterhas money for his writing. And lots and lots of them did….

Sacred Cows

$500,000 rising to $750,000 Made: No

This one was sold to MGM early in 1990, positioned as a political satire set in the midst of an American presidential campaign. But it surfaced in the early ’90s, and one report at least suggested that it sold for $2m. However, the consensus seems to be the numbers above. That said. in about a sentence’s time, it’ll become clear why it never got made.

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The central narrative was centred around a photograph of the story’s current (fictional!) president of the United States, having sexual relations with, well, a cow. His opponent gets hold of the photo, tries to blackmail the president to quit the race, but then it’s leaked anyway, and then oh lord I don’t want to keep writing this.

The script came to light around the time of reports that Bill Clinton may have been having an extra-marital affair, and it got to the point where Eszterhas had to issue a statement declaring “it has nothing to do with Clinton.” But it was said that the fact that some would see it as satire about Clinton made it too dangerous a film for Hollywood to make. It thus didn’t make it.

For the purposes of legal clarity, Bill Clinton did not have sexual relations with a cow.

Original Sin

$600,000 rising to $1.5m Made: No

Seven months after he wrote Basic Instinct, Eszterhas came up with another erotic thriller, Original Sin, that told the story of lovers who’d met in a previous life. Another feeding frenzy for the rights to it was initially expected.

A front page Variety story championed the upcoming auction for the screenplay, but this had a detrimental effect, deterring those who felt they’d quickly be priced out. There was no frenzied auction this time, and it’d be a little while later before Cinergi bought Original Sin for $600,000 in 1991, rising to $1.5m when the film was made.

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The outline? It was about “a woman who enlists a talk show host to put her on his show to find an ex-lover. The lover in question shows up, and our heroine is soon involved with both him and the talk show host.” Ker-ching, right?

However, the project stalled, and it wasn’t until 1995 that it picked up fresh life. Morgan Creek bought it off Cinergi, and just ahead of the release of Showgirls, was looking to lock down Gina Gershon to star. Then Showgirls happened, and the film quietly disappeared (it’s not related to the 2001 film of the same name).


$1m Made: Yes

Estzerhas moved to similar territory for 1994’s Sliver, a film we looked at in more detail here. Based on Ira Levin’s novel of the same name, he was paid $1m to write this one, which he did as a favour of sorts to producer Robert Evans. Evans, even though his glory days were long behind him, knew that by bringing back together the writer and star of Basic Instinct, he’d have some kind of hit on his hands, and he’d be proven correct there. Whilst a disappointment at the box office, it still made $116m worldwide, and gave all of those who paid to see it a front row seat to William Baldwin’s naked arse.

Evans and Eszterhas didn’t really see eye to eye on the project. According to the writer, Evans declared “this movie is all about pussy.” I’ve watched the film twice, and there’s barely a kitten in it.

Eszterhas’ original words didn’t fully make the final cut. Paramount, against director Phillip Noyce’s wishes, asked for changes, which he reluctantly made. The film ultimately fizzled.

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Reliable Sources

$2m rising to $4m Made: No

Eszterhas’ background, before he got into screenwriting, was as a newspaper reporter. He put some of that knowledge into a movie pitch by the name of Reliable Sources. It centred on a 22-year old reporter whose actions covering a story leads to someone losing their life. It’s based on an experience he had while working for a publication called Plain Dealer, where his idea of bringing a gunman’s mother to him to try and end a stand-off had tragic consequences.

The script attracted the interest of One False Move director Carl Franklin, and whilst the story itself would be fictional, it’d clearly be steeped deeply in Eszterhas’ life.

Paramount bought the pitch for $2m, with a further $2m should the film make it to production. By the sounds of it, though, given the box office failures of the writer’s 1995 projects, it never really got close. Talking of which…


$4m Made: Yes

Sold when Eszterhas-fever was at its peak, Jade would earn its author a cool $4m. What’s more, it was the second time he sold it. Originally, he’d done a deal with the late producer Jerry Weintraub in the 1980s for the story, but when his company went bankrupt, it took some time to get the rights back. But get the rights he did, and Jade was sold to the-then new head of Paramount Pictures, Sherry Lansing. She made it her first big movie announcement, and her husband, William Friedkin, was soon attached to direct.

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But Friedkin’s take on the story turned out to be very different to Eszterhas’, and the original screenplay had long been changed by the time the film was finished. “I stared in disbelief,” Eszterhas wrote when seeing the film for the first time. “I watched entire plot points and scenes and red herrings that weren’t in my script. I heard dialogue that not only wasn’t mine but was terrible to boot”. He described the movie as “awful” and critics would duly agree. Coming weeks after the release of Showgirls, Ezsterhas’ name was attached to two big box office bombs within weeks of each other.


$3.7m Made: Yes

As it turns out, Showgirls is a film that’s finally turned a profit, as we discussed here.

The idea for the movie, which brought Eszterhas back together with Basic Instinct director Paul Verhoeven, came to him after the latter had talked about his love of MGM musicals. Eszterhas would go on to put his idea down on a napkin, and soon secured a $2m up front fee to write the script, against a further $1.7m if the movie was made. Which it was. By this stage, Eszterhas was Hollywood’s highest paid – and highest profile – screenwriter.

You know the story from here. Showgirls was a big, loud, initial box office disaster, and – combined with Jade – was the project that firmly burst the Ezsterhas bubble. Not just that, though, but it meant studios, as they already had started doing, had a reason to pull back on the money they were spending on writers. They did.

One Night Stand

$4m Made: Yes

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Eszterhas sold the screenplay for this one to New Line Cinema for the princely sum of $4m (off the back of a four page treatment outline!), and it hired Mike Figgis to make the final film. Figgis cast Wesley Snipes and Natassja Kinski in the lead roles, and you’ll find Robert Downey Jr and Kyle Maclachlan in the cast too.

One thing you won’t find, though, is Eszterhas’ name anywhere on the credits. “I took my name off when the director… made my script unrecognisable to me. Took my name off after New Line had paid me $4m for the script.”

New Line had certainly changed the project, that its author initially described as 90% dialogue. But Figgis was hot off the back of Leaving Las Vegas, whilst the embers of Showgirls‘ box office failure were still glowing. As such, New Line trusted Figgis with the final screenplay, and the film wouldn’t even cover the cost of the original spec script at the US box office. It brought in just $2.6m.

Male Pattern Baldness

$2m rising to $2m Made: No

Eszterhas secured a further $2m from Paramount Pictures’ coffers – against another $2m if the project made it to production – for Male Pattern Baldness. Described as a “tense comedy” that examined “what is happening to many men in our society today,” Betty Thomas (Private Parts, The Brady Bunch Movie) was hired to direct, although she eventually dropped out.

Happy Texas helmer Mark Illsley was reportedly very keen to make the film, and met with Eszterhas, suggesting some changes that the writer wasn’t keen on. At all.

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He worked with Illsley, and tried to accommodate rewrites, but eventually wrote a letter to then-Paramount boss Sherry Lansing to get out of the project. “It is that explosive male rage which this script taps into. But you can’t tap into something by removing the ‘something'” he wrote. Lansing would take Illsley off the film, but it would be destined to remain unproduced.


$1m for starters Made: No

You might be spotting a thread that runs through Joe Eszterhas’ writing of the 1990s, one that he spends a fair amount of time discussing in his book I mentioned up at the start of this piece. In the case of Foreplay, this was a spec script that he came up with about serial killers. He set it in Florida, and described it as “a spooky, dark comedy.”

A bidding war ensued, and Eszterhas got the kind of deal on this one that writers were never supposed to get. It was, bluntly, a movie star deal. Not only did he get $1m up front, but he was set to trouser another $4m if the film got made. Furthermore, he was entitled to 2.5% of all income from the film itself, including its video release, and a further 1% of soundtrack sales. It was, for good reason, described as a landmark deal for writers, with Savoy Pictures winning the intense scrum for the script. “Historically, only top-drawer directors such as Steven Spielberg and Sydney Pollack and stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kevin Costner have received first-dollar grosses from their movies,” the Los Angeles Times reported in May 1994.

But it was never made. In fact, details of what happened next are scarce, but perhaps the box office disappointments with Eszterhas’ name on began to take their toll. Savoy, knowing it’d need to invest heavily to make the film – and then pass on some of the receipts to its writer – for whatever reasons opted not to press ahead with the project.


$1.3m Made: No

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This one wasn’t a spec script, as Eszterhas was hired by Columbia Pictures to pen a biopic of the gangster boss Jon Gotti. Another rich deal was struck, and reports suggested that the writer would pocket some $3.4m for his troubles. Although it didn’t quite turn out that way.

Eszterhas was said to have turned in his 135 page draft of the film towards the end of 1994, which was based on Howard Blum’s book. And Columbia put together some script notes, and sent them back to the writer. Which he pretty much ignored. He freely admits he’s not a fan of doing rewrites, and Columbia was said to be unhappy with the tokenistic changes that he sent back in return. As he wrote over at Variety back in 1995, “I made a total of $1.3 million on Gangland and gave up the additional $2 million in the deal because I wouldn’t put stupid, inane, benighted, absurd, insulting and moronic ‘suggestions’ into my script. Howard, incidentally, who knows this turf better than any one else, agreed with me that the ‘suggestions’ were stupid, inane, benighted, absurd, insulting and moronic.

The project stalled, and was ultimately never made.

And finally there’s…

A late 80s project from Eszterhas, Beat The Eagle, which was sold before his price went through the roof. It was a story about a bar owner who did battle with the IRS in the States. Sidney Poitier at one stage was mooted to direct. However, the project appeared to eventually peter out.

The Van Damme vehicle Nowhere To Run meanwhile was very loosely based on a Joe Eszterhas screenplay meanwhile, but had been heavily, heavily changed by the time it got to the screen.

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