Flipping the Script: How to Navigate the Ups and Downs of the Spec Script Market

It seems that every couple of years, the spec script is declared “dead.” Indeed, in January, Chris Erskine, humor columnist and editor for The Los Angeles Times, wrote a mock obituary for the spec script: “The once-mighty movie ‘spec’ script, long a source of some of Hollywood’s most beloved films, was pronounced dead after a lengthy illness.”

But have reports of the spec script’s death been greatly exaggerated?

“Spec scripts continue to sell,” says screenwriter Debbie Moon (creator and writer of the British fantasy series Wolfblood), who argues that the business of producers buying writers’ unsolicited screenplays has always been cyclical. “The market isn’t as buoyant as it once was, but inevitably, the pendulum will swing back the other way.”

Screenwriter Nick Yarborough, whose spec script A Letter From Rosemary Kennedy gained traction on the Black List website, explains that the proof of the spec script’s ever-pounding pulse is on the marquee at your local multiplex: “It certainly seems premature to describe the spec script market as dead—especially considering that Warner Bros. just last month purchased the spec Harry’s All Night Hamburgers, and that the Oscar-nominated films The Post and I,Tonya started out as specs, as did Netflix’s highest-viewed original film to date, Bright,” he says. (Max Landis’ script reportedly sold for $3 million; it was optioned by Anonymous Content before being optioned again by Mandalay Pictures.)

Understand How the Market Has Restructured

Ken Miyamoto, screenwriter, former Sony Pictures story analyst, and prolific blogger for ScreenCraft, points to statistics published on Scott Myers’ “Go Into the Story” blog to illustrate the spec market’s ebbs and flows. The spec script sales market peaked in 1995 with 173 spec script deals. The numbers have fluctuated since then, dipping as low as 55 in 2010 and 2015 and as high as 110 in 2011. In 2017, there were 62 spec script deals, down from 2016’s 75 deals. “That’s a far cry from the spec market being dead,” Miyamoto told MovieMaker.

A quick perusal through the script tracking website Tracking Board will provide numerous other recent examples of specs that found buyers. Still, there’s no denying that the spec script heyday of the early-mid ’90s—when bidding wars over spec scripts reached seven-figure heights—are long a thing of the past.

“We are in a down cycle. Whereas from 2011-2013, there were over 100 spec script deals per year, the last four years has seen the average dip to 63. But history has shown the spec market to be a cyclical one,” says Scott Myers, a screenwriter (K-9, Alaska, Trojan War), assistant professor at the DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts, and host of the popular screenwriting blog “Go Into The Story.” “My guess is the numbers will go up, although this year is off to a slow start, so a rise in deals may not happen any time soon,” says Myers.

Certainly, the way Hollywood does business has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. With the consolidation of studios and an increased focus on movie franchises and established intellectual property (IP), it’s increasingly difficult to sell original ideas. On top of that, producers have so many more places to turn for fresh ideas—blogs, podcasts, YouTube, and social media—none of which existed back in 1990 when Joe Eszterhas sold his Basic Instinct script for $3 million.

Joe Eszterhas in 1997: By that year, he was selling spec scripts for up to $4M a piece. Image courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures / Photofest

“The major studios have gone all in on pre-branded content such as Disney with Pixar, Marvel, and the Star Wars universe. Whereas in the past, they have been major players in the spec market, the studios have been less so the last few years which has contributed to a decline in overall spec deals,” says Myers.

Though prices for spec scripts will likely never soar to Eszterhas heights again, the business hasn’t withered entirely.

“The spec script market is obviously not at all the kind of cash cow seen in the ’90s—with the flashy Shane Black specs and weekly six-figure bidding wars,” says Yarborough. “Yes, that side of it has definitely collapsed, and the larger film industry itself has undergone similarly massive overhauls in every area of which this is a consequence. But I would emphasize that although that market has restructured into a different form, that is not the same as being dead.”

With more outlets looking for content than ever before, some could argue that writers are more essential than ever. 

Studios are no longer shelling out big bucks for high-concept scripts. But production companies still need material, and there are more outlets creating original content than ever before.

“It’s true that the spec feature market has contracted,” says Stephanie Palmer, former MGM Film executive and founder of website Good In A Room. “But it’s also true that the overall market for storytelling continues to see massive growth in TV and in the SVOD market. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and other companies are spending significant amounts of money on original content and I expect that long-term trend to continue.”

There are also more companies such as InkTip, ScreenCraft, Script Pipeline, and The Black List, among others, which provide platforms for writers’ work to be discovered, not to mention competitions like the prestigious Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting and the Austin Film Festival Screenplay and Teleplay Competition.

“While it’s never been more competitive, I actually think access for getting material read is considerably better than in the past,” says Myers, who points out that hundreds of people have gotten representation for their scripts on The Black List.

Original Content Overcomes Shrinking Sales Odds

Jerrol LeBaron, CEO of InkTip, is bullish on the future of the spec market, in part because there are so many places for writers to be discovered. Per LeBaron, an average of 28-30 films go into production a year from scripts and writers found on InkTip alone, not including the scripts that earn a writer representation or other work. He points out that while studios aren’t optioning specs the way they used to, indie producers continue to search for specs.

“That there’s a constant need for fresh voices,” LeBaron says, “means that there will always be a market for spec scripts. I can’t say whether it’s more or less likely they’ll win the lottery. All I can say is that you have to buy a ticket to play the lottery, and you have to write a solid spec to get optioned.”

Screenwriter Melissa London Hilfers agrees that “there will always be a market for something truly special.” London Hilfers sold the spec script Undone to Black Bear and Parkes/MacDonald in 2015 and last year, Amazon Studios won a bidding war, paying mid six-figures for her second screenplay Unfit.

Max Landis’ Bright became a $90M production, making it Netflix’s most expensive film to date. Image courtesy of Netflix

By their very nature, spec scripts tend to be more personal projects for writers than screenplays for hire, and it’s that idiosyncratic, passionate vision that draws interest. “It’s the story you had to tell, rather than the one you were hired to write,” says screenwriter Clay McLeod Chapman, who co-wrote the Rainn Wilson-starring The Boy, among other films.

Miyamato’s concrete advice for writers looking to make a splash with a spec script? Produce something truly original. “Don’t choose projects that are chasing trends,” he says. The key is “to be ahead of the game by giving the industry something they didn’t know they wanted or needed. Write something crazy and original. Sure, embed it in a genre that sells—horror, thriller, contained action, or comedy—but try your best to offer something different.”

Ultimately, all you need is one person to advocate for your work. “Regardless of market conditions, all a talented writer—and an incredible script— needs is a champion for their work, a manager, an agent, a lawyer, or an independent producer,” says Chad Clough, CEO of Pipeline Media Group.

Clough points to Liz Hannah’s spec script The Post as a recent success story. “Though the stars had to align for that one to get made, her story should give some encouragement to aspiring writers. Is it a long shot? Yes. But that won’t stop a motivated writer from finding a way,” Clough says.

After years of toiling away, the 31-year-old Hannah auctioned off The Post to the highest bidder, former Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal. Pascal then nabbed none other than Steven Spielberg to direct, and Meryl Streep and (Spielberg regular) Tom Hanks to star. “Dreams really do come true,” Hannah writes at the top of her Twitter profile.

Though the odds of having Spielberg direct a film based on your spec script aren’t great, it does happen, as Hannah can attest.

“As much as I hate sounding like some Pollyanna about the whole thing, the fatalist approach that ‘It’s all over! The spec is dead!’ doesn’t seem to be the best solution anyway and not an area that any aspiring screenwriter should be focusing their attention,” says Yarborough. “Instead, all an ever-aspiring writer can hope to do is write a spec about which they are genuinely passionate, and demonstrate through craft their belief that this would make for a great movie.”

See Your Spec Script—Sold or Not—As a Calling Card

Yarborough admits that he didn’t have high hopes that his A Letter From Rosemary Kennedy spec would generate lots of producer/actress interest, “but I wrote it,” he says, “because it was meaningful to me and something that I had to write for my own creative satisfaction first and foremost. I very much believe the attitude through which I crafted my script was what got it sold.”

Even if a spec script doesn’t sell, it could help a writer gain representation or other paid writing work. Yes, every writer wants to see their work produced, but more often than not, spec scripts are seen as calling cards.

“Don’t think about it as a spec script marketplace—think of it as a writer marketplace. Rather than chasing the sale, continue to write your stories in your voice, create a library of quality material, build your network of relationships, and look for writing assignments,” says Palmer.

Myers says that spec scripts are still “the most effective way for a writer to display their talent.” Even if a script spec script is an asset to be used as an ongoing writer sample and maybe get produced down the road.”

Screenwriters should continue to look to spec scripts as a way to break into the market. “Write the best movie you can—the movie that is in you and needs to get out—make it as true as possible, and hope it finds a buyer. And once that one is done, immediately start the next one because this is a long game, and the only way to maintain your sanity while trying to sell one script is to be actively working on another,” advises London Hilfers. “Whatever the market is doing, always be working on a spec. It’s the best opportunity for total creative freedom, and we need that.”

McLeod Chapman recommends writing spec scripts not for a specific reward, but to flex your muscles as a writer. “Just the sheer act of writing a script and telling the story you want to tell is a solid and necessary exercise,” he says. “I try to write one—if not two—spec scripts a year just to keep limber. No harm, no foul, if they’re terrible. And who knows? Maybe, one day, someone important will come sniffing around.” MM

Illustrations by Gel Jamlang.

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2018 issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

[i]
[i]