First Draft: What Screenwriters Can Learn from Hollywood’s Dismal Spec Market

In partnership with the blog ScreenCraft, we’re publishing “First Draft,” a series on everything to do with screenwriting, written by the team at ScreenCraft.


Every so often, the screenwriting world is rocked by some dark days. In these contemporary times, we’ve seen the Writers Guild of America strikes (1960, 1988, 2007)—the worst of which was the one-two punch of the 2007-2008 strike followed by the economic crisis of 2008. That dual event sent ripples through not just Hollywood, but the screenwriting world specifically.

Studios were dropping options and development deals left and right, preparing for what was to come. Hollywood significantly changed how up-and-coming screenwriters were welcomed—or in most cases, not welcomed. Gone were most incidences of monetary optioning of spec scripts. Gone were high-six-to-seven-figure spec script acquisitions. These days, we see just a few big spec script sales every now and then.

I can attest to the effect it had on screenwriters in Hollywood as I saw my very own Lionsgate deal—my first screenwriting paycheck—go unrenewed despite major interest months before the strike and eventual economic crisis.

Recently, the screenwriting world felt an aftershock of that dual 2007-2008 event, with the release of the anticipated Scoggins Report, an analysis of the feature film development business based on information assembled from a variety of public and non-public sources.

This report tracks spec sales, pitch sales, and the overall screenplay market on a weekly basis. The numbers in the reports are by no means official statistics; however, they’ve been a standard benchmark for screenwriters and Hollywood as a whole for a number of years.

I’ve avoided the bad news long enough, but before I get into that, know that there are some silver linings. As screenwriters must always face adversity head on, there are many things to learn, which we’ll cover after I rip this band-aid off.

2016’s Spec Market Has Gotten off to a Dismal Start

“Spec scripts” or “spec screenplays,” of course, refer to scripts written under the speculation that they will be sold—which means that the writer hasn’t been hired to write the script. Instead, the writer wrote it on his or her own accord in hopes of taking it onto the Hollywood market.

According to the 2016 January – March report (with spring usually being a buying season for Hollywood), spec script sales are at an eight-year low. Just 11 spec scripts have been purchased so far this year, with an additional one having technically gone out in 2015. The previous low was 18 in 2010’s Q1, followed by 25 in 2009’s.

Perhaps even worse news is that Paramount is the only studio buyer to have purchased a spec so far this year. The report lists Paramount among 16 other companies that they now consider to be studios, so we’re not just talking about the handful of major studios here—Paramount, Disney, Sony, Warner Brothers, Universal and Fox. You can read the further breakdowns of those numbers within the report, but needless to say, they’re disappointing.

What Do Screenwriters Do in the Wake of Such News?

Some will cower and get defensive as they bombard discussion forums and chat rooms about how Hollywood doesn’t want anything original anymore. Others will question whether their time and efforts writing their scripts has been—or will be—worth it.

Yet a small percentage of screenwriters will do the right thing and learn from this current trending news, realize that all may not be as it seems, and adapt. Because in all industries as time goes on, you must adapt or die.

How Has Hollywood Changed?

Since the spec market crashed somewhat in 2008, the film industry has shifted. Sure, major studios are focusing their time, money and efforts on tentpole pictures: blockbusters, franchises, remakes, reboots and major movie star vehicles. However, they are still involved with original concepts and movies.

The development of such films has largely shifted to the few remaining studio specialty company partners, and, even more so, to independent production companies. Major studios often let them do the work until final product is available to consider. That’s when they jump in to distribute such original releases. Hollywood, in that sense, is making more movies than they ever have. Furthermore, Hollywood is making more original movies of great quality than they ever have as well.

Cynics will look back to the days of the 1960s and 1970s and declare that studios took more risks during those decades. While there may be some truth to that, most forget that aside from classics like Rocky, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, and other pinnacle films of those decades, studios were making plenty of horrible movies as well. Trust me, folks, hindsight is 20/20. Hollywood is making better movies, and more of them, than it ever has. It’s 2016. Technology has changed. Corporations own the major studios. Those studios have stockholders to answer to. It’s a different time and movies are developed, produced, and distributed in vastly different ways. Those big movies afford studios the ability to take some calculated risks each fiscal year.

So What Can You Learn from This News and the Scoggins Report?

Information is the key to any success for every screenwriter. You need to be in the know. You need to know who the players are that are actively pursuing, developing, producing and releasing projects.

Perhaps the biggest misconception that screenwriters have about marketing their scripts is that they should take them to the major studios and major well-known producers. There are hundreds of high-powered production companies, producers, and development executives that most screenwriters have never heard of. They produce many of the television series and movies we see in the theater and on streaming every week. Screenwriters just need to pay attention to the opening credits of movies and the production company names and logos to find them.

With the Scoggins Report, screenwriters have the greatest collection of spec market information screenwriters will ever see. It breaks down:

  • Who is buying
  • What genres are being purchased
  • What managers have sold the most specs
  • What agents have sold the most specs
  • What agencies or management companies have sold the most specs
  • What studios and production companies have picked up the most specs

This is information that screenwriters can accompany with IMDBPro to approach the real movers and shakers.

Lastly, some more good news. Because the industry has shifted so much since 2008, there’s a silver lining when it comes to spec scripts. Sure, they’re not selling as much as they did last year—although we hope it will pick up—and sure, they’re not selling as much as they did during the screenwriting boom of the ’90s and into the early 2000s. However, spec scripts still have a purpose.

The Calling Card

Spec scripts work as calling cards for screenwriters. As we mentioned before, more movies are being made than ever. It’s not just about the major studios any longer. Specialty companies and independent production companies and distributors are making many, many films each year—many of them with major talent attached.

They need writers. When screenwriters market their spec scripts to them and showcase some true vision and talent, that’s when spec scripts matter the most these days. The reality is that the stars need to align for any film to get made. It’s hard. It’s even hard for A-list names to get a film packaged, financed and produced by the major studios or anyone else.

This is just the nature of the beast. At least screenwriters can take comfort in knowing that writing spec scripts still matters. Utilize the Scoggins Report. Study it. Make calculated decisions on who you will take your scripts to when they’re ready.

These may be dark days in the realm of spec scripts and the screenwriters that write them. However, those that truly want this dream to come true will find a way to shed the light that is needed to brighten their days. So read the whole report yourself as soon as possible—and take notes.

Spread the word. Spread this post to as many screenwriters as you can through Facebook, Twitter and your personal and professional circles, because in a time of darkness or crisis, we need to unite and figure this out together. MM

This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft 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. Denise Pischinger

    April 26, 2016 at 7:18 am

    I asked this question on another forum after I read the report and still haven’t gotten an answer – so maybe I’m far off the mark. The report showed that the number of “new specs” for the same period last year was triple the amount for the start of this year. The percentage of those specs that sold stayed relatively the same (27-30 percent). So, yes, only 11 sold, but only 40 went out compared to 140 last year. Those numbers are so dramatic that it seems there is something else at play. The market hasn’t changed THAT much in one year. As MM states, the industry shifted years ago after the double whammy.
    To his point, going wide is a thing of the past.
    Either agents and managers are already slipping scripts under the radar to production companies or studios to avoid a fast death on tracking boards or they’re putting even more efforts into meetings for assignment work. It just seems like this trend would be happening before this year. Does the Scoggins Report only gets stats from the boards? Thoughts appreciated!

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