The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs

Part 16: Preemptive Purchase.

I’m guessing that perhaps 90% of the people who follow this blog at some point in their lives will write a spec script. And the other 10% are involved in buying and selling them. In light of that fact, last year I interviewed a top manager and some Hollywood screenwriters about the ins and outs of what is involved in bringing a spec script to market. I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to do something with that inside information, so when Vanity Fair recently came out with this article — When the Spec Script was King — a decent piece, but pretty surface level, I figured this is as good a time as any to dig into the subject in a comprehensive fashion.

In Part 1, we looked at the genesis of the spec script in Hollywood from 1900–1942.

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942–1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990–2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinized the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledged the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discussed the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

In Part 14, we drilled down into the strategy of going wide.

In Part 15, we indulged in the ultimate fantasy of a bidding war.

Part 16: Preemptive Purchase

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It’s January, 1987. Through sheer serendipity, the spec script K-9 has wound its way from a low-ball offer from 20th Century Fox, to a threatened lawsuit from Fox, to them relinquishing all rights to the script, to everyone in town reading the script, so that when I drive my 1978 beat-to-shit Ford onto — ironically — the Fox lot on Pico, that tiny part of the universe known as the Hollywood movie community is pretty much abuzz about the 112 page screenplay I co-wrote.

And at noon today, the bidding period is scheduled to commence.

This is heady stuff for a guy who has a lifelong passion for movies, but barely any understanding of how the movie business works. Plus there’s this: I’ve got maybe $500 in my checking account [making a living as a stand-up comic can do that]. So the figures my agents are batting about in terms of potential deals for K-9 — $100K… $150K… maybe even $200K — sound astronomically delicious to my ears.

I am twitching with excitement as I edge into the expansive offices of the project’s producer Larry Gordon, former head of production at Fox [hence the location and opulence of his digs]. But as soon as I enter, I hear this:

“THE FUCK YOU WILL!!!”

It’s Larry. Yelling into his phone. The person on the other end is screaming back. I can tell it’s one of my agents, Marty Bauer. The fact I can hear his voice is noteworthy… seeing as he’s not on speakerphone. Rather the decibels he is creating, which I can hear clear across the conference room, are emerging like a shrieking pterodactyl from that tiny phone speaker.

Back and forth they go, Larry and Marty, dropping F-bombs at each other, Larry red-faced, Marty doubtless as well.

I turn to one of Larry’s people, utterly confounded.

“What’s happening?”

“Larry and Marty are negotiating his producer’s fee. Marty wants 10%. Larry only wants to give up 5.”

At that precise moment amidst F-bombs and other expletives being flung about by these two cinematic warriors, I see my bright shiny future flying out the window before I’ve even had a chance to experience its delights.

I turn to Larry’s guy.

“This is not good, right. I mean could this cause everything to like… go south?”

The guy smiles at me.

“Nah. Don’t worry. Larry and Marty are friends.”

Sure enough, after a few more expletives, the guys settle their deal, and that’s that. All smiles.

Welcome to Hollywood, Mr. Myers.

It’s now 11:50AM. Larry sits at the head of his long conference table. Seated there are his people, one of my agents Peter Benedek, and my writing partner and me. Larry is fielding calls, his assistant poking her head in the door every few seconds.

“Sherry Lansing on line 2.”

That would be Paramount’s president of production.

“Dawn Steel on 1.”

That would be Columbia Pictures.

TriStar… DEG… Eddy Murphy’s people…

Larry rolls calls, each one about 30 seconds, quick inquiries about the script.

“Lansing says she doesn’t want to get into a bidding war. She’ll call back.”

Assistant enters.

“Sherry Lansing on line 3.”

Larry winks. Picks up the phone.

And the clock keeps ticking toward noon…

Suddenly the door bursts open. It’s Dan Halsted, the junior agent at Bauer-Benedek who signed us after reading our script.

“Universal made an offer.”

Beat.

“All in, seven-hundred-fifty thousand dollars.”

A long silence as we take turns looking at each other.

Larry says, “Well, boys, like the sound of that?”

I turn toward Peter and Dan. They’re smiling like cats who just caught a pair of birds.

I tilt my head toward my writing partner. He looks like Nosferatu, the blood drained from his face.

$750K can have that effect on a person.

I shrug. He shrugs.

Larry slaps the table and says, “Looks like a deal to me.”

And that, my friends, is what you call a preemptive purchase.

When a studio has a strong interest in a spec script or other type of literary material, and they want to avoid getting into a bidding war where the sale price can get jacked up and up, sometimes they will decide to step up to the plate and make a substantial offer. Their hope is the amount of cash and other benefits will be high enough, the sellers decide to take that deal and forego putting the script on the open market.

There is risk involved in this type of strategy on both sides.

For a buyer, they may in effect be bidding against themselves as they don’t know for sure what sale price might transpire in an auction environment.

For the seller, if they accept the preemptive offer, they may be losing out on the potential for more money in a competitive bidding scenario. On the other hand if they opt to pass and go out wide, there is always a chance the script could end up not finding a buyer.

But when the offer is for three-quarters of a million dollars, that’s pretty much a no-brainer.

We take the preemptive offer.

For 16 weeks, I’ve been taking you through the ins and outs of the world of spec scripts. I have four more posts planned to round out the series.

Week 17: Write what they’re buying.

Week 18: Sell them your dream.

Week 19: The value of a spec script… even if it doesn’t sell.

Week 20: The value of a spec script… if it does sell.

If you have additional questions or areas you want addressed related to spec scripts, please post in comments, and I will be happy to consider adding however many more posts to respond to your inquiries and concerns.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

For more articles in The Business of Screenwriting series, go here.

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