Reader Question: What exactly is a “spec script”?

A question from Daley Productions:

I’m quite new to this and I’m wondering, what exactly is a ‘spec’ script?

“Spec script” is term that gets thrown around a lot, certainly here on GITS, and your question got me to thinking that perhaps there are many folks who don’t quite understand what it means — so thanks for raising the subject, DP. And as long as we’re here, how about a quick history lesson to help put things in perspective?

Technically a spec script is an original or adapted screenplay written by a writer on their own time & dime, in other words a ‘speculative’ effort, hence the term “spec.” For the first seven decades or so of the film industry in the United States, there was no such thing as a spec script, instead the standard practice was for studios to hire writers either on a per project basis or as salaried employees to write whatever assignment the studio gave to them. Per Wikipedia, an exception was the 1942 original screenplay for Woman of the Year (writing credits for Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin) which MGM bought for $100,000.

What is generally thought to be the first spec script sale of the modern era was Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid by William Goldman, which was purchased in 1967 by 20th Century Fox for a reported $400,000.

While there were some sales of original screenplays during the 70s, it was during the 80s that the active and much-publicized spec script market emerged with screenwriters such as Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas selling multiple projects for several millions dollars.

[In 1987, a spec script I co-wrote K-9 sold to Universal Studios for $750,000].

Since that time, the spec script market has ebbed and flowed. Recently it’s been in something of a down cycle. You can go here for my breakdown of the spec script market in 2008 (by my count, there were 88 sales that year). I’ve yet to finish an analysis of 2009, but did post the cumulative list of spec script sales here (there were 67 sales in 2009).

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Why write a spec script? Several reasons:

* You can make a lot of money if you sell a spec script.

* You can break into the business as a screenwriter if you sell a spec script.

* Even if you don’t sell it, a spec script can function as your calling card to agents and managers.

* Even if you don’t sell it, a spec script is a writing sample for producers and studio execs.

* From a purely creative standpoint, unlike assignments or rewrites, a spec script represents your opportunity to tell your story the way you want to tell it.

* If you don’t sell a spec script, it makes an excellent doorstop.

Seriously the only way you can get better as a screenwriter is to write scripts. So every spec script you write, even if they don’t sell, even if they flat-out suck, they are part of the necessary incremental process of you becoming a good writer.

Malcolm Gladwell espouses the 10,000 hour theory:

The search for success has spawned a motivational industry worth millions of pounds and libraries full of self-improvement books.

It is practice, however, that makes perfect, according to the sociologist whose books have become required reading within the Conservative party. The best way to achieve international stardom is to spend 10,000 hours honing your skills, says the new book by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best-selling The Tipping Point.

The greatest athletes, entrepreneurs, musicians and scientists emerge only after spending at least three hours a day for a decade mastering their chosen field.

“What’s really interesting about this 10,000-hour rule is that it applies virtually everywhere,” Gladwell told a conference held by The New Yorker magazine. “You can’t become a chess grand master unless you spend 10,000 hours on practice.

“The tennis prodigy who starts playing at six is playing in Wimbledon at 16 or 17 [like] Boris Becker. The classical musician who starts playing the violin at four is debuting at Carnegie Hall at 15 or so.”

Whether you need to spend 10,000 hours writing or not, the simple fact is you have to write to get better. And unless you get hired to write, what you’re looking at is a spec script.

The odds are enormously long and against any writer hoping to sell a spec script. But every year, dozens of them do.

Besides I prefer to look at the subject of spec scripts in a more macro, even more spiritual way. How can you quantify what you learn about your life, your values, your creativity when you write an original screenplay? How can you put a value on the experience of spending time with those characters — who are in some sense a reflection of you — and hearing what they have to say, seeing what they choose to do?

The fact is you may never sell a spec script and yet you may benefit enormously through the script-writing process. Perhaps you will meet a person or people you never would have who become an integral part of your life-journey. Maybe the research you do into a story excites you so much, you decide to change career paths. Even that simple but profound sensation you get when you type FADE OUT, print out your final draft, feel the warmth of the pages in your hands, and smell the combination of paper, ink, and your dreams — how can you measure that and what that means to you as a human being?

Joseph Campbell said that all stories are in essence one story: The Hero’s Journey. And the theme of that story is this: Follow your bliss.

For men and women who pursue screenwriting, that is their bliss. So while we do well to pay attention to market trends, to generate the best story concepts we can, to learn screenwriting theory, to watch movies and analyze them, to read scripts and break them down, to write pages and rewrite them, all of the things we do on a practical level to craft a great story, we should not forget to bring some measure of a spiritual awareness to our daily engagement with a spec script. It is not only a commodity and an end product, it is also a constituent part of our creative life’s journey.

Wow. I started off with a history lesson re spec scripts, then ended up with a ‘sermon’!

Well, so be it. I trust my gut on these things. Perhaps there’s one GITS reader who really needed to hear this today. Whoever you are, that thing you’re writing… that spec script… as you struggle with it, don’t forget that it’s a blessing as well.

[Originally posted July 15, 2010]

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