First Draft: Spec Scripts That Sold for Millions, But Were Never Made

In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.


The script market has drastically changed since the screenwriting boom of the 1990s. At that time, the industry was coming off of the 1988 WGA Strike and there was a high demand for content, resulting in a plethora of original screenplays—spec scripts—that were sold for millions.

Alan Gasmer, a William Morris agent during that time, started the trend of putting such scripts on the market for only a limited amount of time, with the auction block opening on Monday and closing at the end of that Friday. The result led to a competitive streak among the studios, leading to a ridiculous amount of big sales that we haven’t seen since. In 1990 alone, 14 scripts were sold for $1 million or more.

Spec scripts like Milk Money ($1 million), Radio Flyer ($1.25 million), Medicine Man ($3 million), Basic Instinct ($3 million), The Long Kiss Goodnight ($4 million), and many others were purchased and eventually produced—to varying degrees of success.

But what about the dozens upon dozens of others that sold for millions but were never produced? Here we look back to some of those big sales that led to nowhere and learn a little bit more about them.

The Ticking Man

A bomb expert must prevent the human nuclear bomb he created from getting into and destroying Moscow.

This spec script is remembered as one of the pinnacle spec sales from that time period. It was sold for $1 million and written by a much younger Brian Helgeland (L.A. ConfidentialMystic River) and Manny Coto (Dexter24). Bruce Willis was close to starring but chose to make The Last Boy Scout instead—a script that Shane Black sold for $1.75 million. The marketing of this script was famous because agents literally sent out ticking clocks to executives before the script went out wide.

After being sold it got caught in development hell after Willis left. There were rewrites for different stars, then the stars wouldn’t commit. Eventually, the script’s momentum faded into oblivion and was never produced.

Read Scriptshadow’s review of the spec HERE.

Hell Bent… and Back

World War II GI soldiers attack a Nazi train thought to be holding treasures stolen from Italy, only for them to find Jewish children on their way to a concentration camp.

Another $1 million sale, picked up by Disney. The script was written by Rick Jaffa (Rise of the Planet of the ApesJurassic World) and Doug Richardson (Die Hard 2Bad Boys).

Then-Disney studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn’t a fan of the script, despite the head of Disney’s Hollywood Pictures loving it. It was later mired in studio notes, which shifted the focus of the story. Disney still owns it.

CLICK HERE to read Doug Richardson’s own post about the experience of getting the million-dollar call.

The Cheese Stands Alone

A loveless man who believes he’s dying meets a woman who turns his life upside-down.

In 1990, this romantic comedy was the first script written by a woman to sell for $1 million. It was Kathy McWorter’s first sale. Earlier that year, she had reached the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship quarterfinals with a different screenplay.

The script led to a huge bidding war with Paramount nabbing it for producer Scott Rudin. One industry insider stated: “It sold for $1 million because [Paramount in 1990] wanted to make a statement to the town: ‘We’re buying scripts. And we’ll go toe to toe with any other studio.’”

McWorter’s only writing credit is for the Kevin Costner and Elijah Wood film The War.

Read Scriptshadow’s review of the spec HERE.

Sea Wolf 

A reworking of Jack London’s classic The Sea-Wolf.

Another $1 million spec script. It was thought that Tom Hanks would star. He was either never fully attached or eventually left. Columbia Pictures, now owned by Sony, still has it.

Mango

A cop is allergic to animals, including his orangutan partner.

New Line purchased this script in the mid-nineties for a rumored million. It was written by Miles Millar, a Cambridge graduate who had moved to Los Angeles, written the script and then sold it for $1 million. Warren Zide, who would later become a prominent producer of the American Pie and Final Destination franchises, was the manager that took it out.

Once purchased, the film was put on the back burner because Fox was developing what would become Dunston Checks In.

Miles Millar would go on to write such films as Shanghai NoonSpider-Man 2, and Lethal Weapon 4, among many others. He would also become the co-creator of Smallville.

CLICK HERE to read all about Millar’s inspiring story of how this strange concept—and his first script—sold for $1 million.

Pincushion

A female courier in a plague-ridden future has to take a cure across state lines.

The spec script was said to be a female-centric version of The Road Warrior. It has been reported that the script sold from $500,000 to $1 million, shortly after the 1988 strike. Columbia purchased it, hoping to sign Cher, but nothing ever came of it. Sharon Stone was also attached at one time. Written by John Raffo, Carlos Carlei and Peter Rader. John Raffo was later credited with writing Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and The Relic. Carlei went on to write some smaller films, including a 2013 update of Romeo and Juliet. Rader eventually wrote Waterworld.

Read Scriptshadow’s review of the spec HERE.

Nuclear Family

A comedy about a family that inadvertently camps out in a nuclear waste site.

Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment put up a reported $1 million for the spec. The comedy was written by Blake Snyder and James Haggin. Snyder was famous for his many unproduced spec sales, as well as the produced Blank Check and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot. He was then somewhat immortalized by his screenwriting book Save The Cat.

Married in the Morning

The story of an ambitious small-town newscaster who dreams of being the next Katie Couric. She gets a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when she’s picked to host a morning-show segment about a young couple on their way to the altar, but things get complicated when she falls for the groom.

Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont sold the romantic comedy pitch Married in the Morning to Columbia Pictures and Neal Moritz’s Original Films for $1 million against $3 million if the film were to ever be made. That’s right. It was sold on pitch for them to also direct. And sadly, the film was never made.

The writing and directing partners were behind Can’t Hardly Wait and Josie and the Pussycats. They also wrote Surviving Christmas and 1996’s A Very Brady Sequel.

Bad Dog

A werewolf-comic-horror-thriller.

The horror-comedy was written on spec by Dale Launer and sold to DreamWorks for a whopping $3 million in 1997.

DreamWorks then-co-heads Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg handled the negotiations because production lead Walter Parkes was in a screening and their new president of production Robert Cooper was out of town. So, responding to a time-sensitive offer from CAA, Spielberg and Katzenberg jumped into the fray with Launer and CAA.

According to Launer himself, speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, “It got caught in a downward spiraling vortex of constantly changing development execs who were confused by Mr. Spielberg’s notes and couldn’t admit to him, me or themselves that they had no clue as to what he wanted.”

Launer is known for Dirty Rotten ScoundrelsRuthless People, and My Cousin Vinny.

Superconducting Supercollider of Sparkle Creek, Wisconsin

A secret supercollider underneath Sparkle Creek, Wisconsin starts wreaking havoc on the town.

This spec, written by David Koepp (Jurassic ParkMission ImpossibleSpider-ManPanic Room) and John Kamps (ZathuraGhost TownPremium Rush) was written and sold back in 2001. Koepp alone made $2.5 million dollars off the deal that also included future script commitments and a possible directing gig. The deal came less than a year after Koepp’s thriller spec Panic Room sold during a major bidding war to Columbia Pictures for $2 million plus another $1 million in producing fees and $1 million deferred. Barry Sonnenfeld and Gavin Polone were attached to produce but the film was never made.

Read Scriptshadow’s review of the spec HERE.

Stalker: A Love Story

A man realizes too late that he let the perfect woman get away. He then tries to win her back in all the wrong ways.

Paramount purchased this spec for $1.75 million and at one time had Owen Wilson lined up to star. Written by Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert (Mr. WoodcockFurry Vengeance), a writing duo that in 2005 were named part of Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch.

Read Scriptshadow’s review of the spec HERE.

The Worst Man 

A prospective groom is forced to select a best man among his three best friends.

From the Stalker: A Love Story scripting team (see above) of Michael Carnes and Josh Gilber, Paramount bought the project on pitch for $1 million against $2 million in 2005. The script hasn’t seen the light of day.

The Cross (also known as River Road)

In an undisclosed future, one man will try anything to “cross” a border that cannot be crossed.

New Line made a deal worth nearly $3 million for the writing and directing services of Andrew Niccol (GattacaThe Truman Show) for his spec script in 1999.

This is one of those unproduced million-dollar-plus specs that perhaps came the closest to actually getting made. It has lingered in development hell for years, but has had some major attachments. Variety reported in 2009 that Orlando Bloom was set to star. But alas, the film has not been made.

Read Scriptshadow’s review of the spec HERE.

The Mark 

An ancient talisman falls into the hands of an ordinary guy, who now suddenly holds the world’s balance of good and evil.

Written by Rob Liefeld (Deadpool), the script was purchased for a reported $2 million in 1996 and once had Tom Cruise attached with the now defunct Cruise/Wagner Productions. Will Smith was then attached as well for a number of years at Universal. Glen Morgan and James Wong were hired to rewrite it at one time.

Alpha 

A Navy SEAL must work with military canines to rescue their captured handler.

Paramount Pictures purchased the spec from David Benioff (Game of Thrones) for a reported $2 million. The script is well known but has been in development for years and hasn’t managed to get the green light. Back in 2013, Martin Campbell (The Mask of ZorroGoldenEyeCasino Royale) was in talks to helm the project.

It has been rewritten by the likes of Scott Frank (Minority Report), Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye) and Graham Roland (Fringe), among others.

Reliable Sources

A 22-year-old reporter’s actions covering a story lead to someone losing their life.

Paramount bought the project for $2 million in the ’90s from THE Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) with an additional $2 million should the film make it to production. It didn’t.

Eszterhas is known as the man who made a reported $26 million from his screenplay sales, most of which were never produced.

Male Pattern Baldness

A Midwestern guy finds himself in a battle with all the precepts of political correctness and goes on a killing spree. 

Another Eszterhas one that sold to Paramount for $2 million against $2 million if it were to get made.

Foreplay

While investigating a recent murder spree, a cop gets lured into the unique lifestyle of his main suspect, an ex-rocker turned club owner. 

Another Joe Eszterhas spec deal. This spec sold back in 1994 to Savoy Pictures for $1 million up front with another $4 million production bonus, plus 2.5% of the box office and video gross. The deal even had him netting 1% of the soundtrack sales.

Joe would have to settle for his $1 million as the film was never made.

Read Scriptshadow’s review of the spec HERE.


These are just a handful of the deals that were made back in those days—most of which, like the above, were never produced. When the WGA went on strike in 2007/2008, there were hopeful whispers that perhaps the industry would react as they had after the 1988 strike.

Unfortunately, times had changed since the 1990s. All of the major studios were now owned by major corporations and had been for quite a while. This transition happened in the 1990s, but the corporations hadn’t fully embraced the notion of franchises. These days, it’s all about less risk and sucking every penny out of any and all Intellectual Property (IP). After the latest strike, another severe blow destroyed hopes of another screenwriting boom—the 2008 economy collapse. The strike and the economy was a one-two punch to not only the film and television industry, but also to screenwriters hoping to see their specs sell for big money like back in the day.

Seven figure deals are hard to come by these days. Every now and then you’ll read about one in the trades. Most of the time they come from well established screenwriters and producers. But every now and then come a few new names, new faces, and new, original stories that entice Hollywood to pay up, and pay up well. It may not happen as much as it used to, but it still happens.

So keep writing and dreaming. And if you do happen to win that lottery someday, let’s hope yours actually gets made too. MM

This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraftScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on TwitterFacebook, and YouTube.

1 Comment

  1. Tommy G Warren / Spiderwood

    August 5, 2017 at 6:31 am

    Scripts are sold for millions of course and for various reasons, but the “Storyworld of Creative imagination” has to to have substance for filmmaking, with good actors, directors, and producers, etc. (above the line) as well as below the line, to have production value that will work in the market place, therefore creating good box-office and TV distribution!

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