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The Death of the Spec Script: What Are the Ten Highest Screenplay Sales Ever?

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 12, 2013 at 2:17PM

Back in the heyday of the speculative script market, the fantasy was to write a fabulously commercial original script and auction it in a bidding war for a fortune. Millionaires were made overnight. Go Into the Story, the official blog of the Blacklist, ran "Iron Man 3" writer-director Shane Black's claim that he was the highest paid screenwriter ever. He was paid a massive $4 million for his 1996 spec script "The Long Kiss Goodnight."
10
"Talladega Nights"
"Talladega Nights"

The beleaguered Hollywood screenwriter has rarely reached the upper pay echelons achieved by other studio talent categories.

The best-paid ranks of legendary A-list screenwriters William Goldman ("Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"), Robert Towne ("Chinatown'), Steve Zaillian ("Schindler's List") and Aaron Sorkin ("A Social Network") still never commanded the exorbitant fees that actors and directors do. The paydays of the likes of "Pirates" scribes Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio or "X-Men" writer Simon Kinberg are also not public knowledge; studios pay many top rewriters and polishers huge weekly rates. Writer Buck Henry bought a house on his weekly salary (rumored to add up to about $3 million) for his open-ended stay through producer-star Warren Beatty's runaway "Town and Country" production.

Back in the heyday of the speculative script market, the fantasy was to write a fabulously commercial original script and auction it in a bidding war for a fortune. Millionaires were made overnight. Go Into the Story, the official blog of the Blacklist, ran "Iron Man 3" writer-director Shane Black's claim that he was the highest paid screenwriter ever. He was paid a massive $4 million for his 1996 spec script "The Long Kiss Goodnight."

But that was when there was a demand for original screenplays. Nowadays, only the animation and comedy genres traffic in the realm of the original. That's one reason why Pixar boasts such a stellar track record--when they're not doing sequels. (Count me among the folks disappointed by formulaic prequel "Monsters University," which appeals more young and male than any Pixar movie to date, even "Cars 2," which also played for older males.)

Post-2008 recession and homevideo declines, as studios start to cut back their development teams, script auctions are rare. Somehow email has killed the romance of the hand delivered weekend read. And writers now are paid less than ever. The bank accounts of show creators like Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") and the power of the showrunner on a series like "Game of Thrones" are yet another force driving writers away from Hollywood and toward television.

In the March 2013 issue, Vanity Fair recounts a history of the spec script era and asks if they could ever rise again:

"In 1995, 173 specs were sold. In 2010 the number was 55, roughly where it had stood for at least half a decade. What killed the spec market? To a great extent the same force that has upended so much of the industry: technology."

Go Into the Story follows up with Celebrity Net Worth's top ten list of the most expensive screenplays of all time. (The list only includes nine titles, because one of the projects -- 2006's "The Pink Panther" -- was in fact a deal made with Steve Martin to re-write the project, as opposed to a spec.) Have they left anything out?

9. A Knight’s Tale – $2.5M (made in 2001, written by Brian Helgeland)

 

8. Mozart and the Whale – $2.75M (made in 2005, written by Ronald Bass)

 

7. Medicine Man – $3M (made in 1992, written by Tom Schulman and Sally Robinson)

 

6. Basic Instinct – $3M (made in 1992, written by Joe Eszterhas)

 

5. EuroTrip – $4M (made in 2004, written by Alec Berg, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer)

 

4. Talladega Nights – $4M (made in 2006, written by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay)

 

3. Panic Room – $4M (made in 2002, written by David Koepp)

 

2. The Long Kiss Goodnight – $4M (made in 1996, written by Shane Black)

 

1. Deja Vu – $5M (made in 2006, written by Bill Marsilii and "Pirates" scribe Terry Rossio)



This article is related to: News, News, The Blacklist


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.