The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 1]

“What exactly is a spec script? How did they come into being in the first place? What are some of the things that can happen with a spec script? How are managers, agents, producers, talent and buyers involved in the process of acquiring a spec script?”

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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, 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 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. To wit:

What exactly is a spec script? How did they come into being in the first place? What are some of the things that can happen with a spec script? How are managers, agents, producers, talent and buyers involved in the process of acquiring a spec script? What is the state of the current spec script market? What are trends in what studios and production companies are buying in the way of spec scripts? In this special TBOS series, “Everything you wanted to know about specs,” I’m going to do my best to cover these questions and any others you might have.

Caveat: I don’t claim to be anything other than who I am. A screenwriter who broke into the business in 1987 by selling a spec script. I’ve pretty much tracked the spec script market since then, informally at first, but on a systematic basis since the early 90s. That’s why with the support of the Black List and in association with Done Deal Pro, we put together The Definitive Spec Script Sales List, listing every spec script deal I could find and verify from 1991–2018. That said, I’m sure there are things I don’t know, so I hope this is a participatory process and welcome both questions from aspiring writers and insight from established industry insiders.

As long as we’re here, I thought we should start with some historical context, drawing upon a university level course I teach called History of American Screenwriting.

First, a definition of spec script. “Spec” is short for speculative, meaning a writer pens a script without initial compensation with the intent of selling the completed screenplay on the open market. As we shall see in this series, there are all sorts of variations on this theme, but let’s start with this basic take on what a spec script is.

Part 1: The Genesis of the Spec Script [1900–1942]

From the earliest days of nickelodeons and as one-reelers evolved into longer films, the insatiable desire by consumers for new movies put original and adapted stories at a premium. Thus in a sense, the reality of ‘spec scripts’ has been in place since the very beginning of the film industry. Writers from inside or even outside the movie industry would present story ideas, primarily in treatment or synopsis form, with the hope that a production company or studio would buy it.

Thus, the speculative part was there from the beginning. The script part took some time to evolve. With filmmakers churning out movie shorts over the course of a few days, what passed for a ‘script’ in first decade of the 20th century was often nothing more than a shot list folded into the back pocket of a director.

It’s not until the next decade when Thomas Ince created the first extensive studio facility known as Inceville [in Santa Monica] that scripts began to become formalized per Ince’s specifications. Here is an excerpt from a script for the Ince 1916 western Hells Hinges:

SCENE L: Close-Up on the Bar in Western Saloon

A group of Western types of the early period are drinking and talking idly — much good fellowship prevails and every man feels at ease with his neighbor — one of them glances off the picture and the smile fades from his face to be replaced by the strained look of worry — the others notice the change and follow his gaze — their faces reflect his own emotions — be sure to get over a good contrast between the easy good nature that had prevailed and the unnatural, strained silence that follows — as they look, cut.

Even here we can see the rudimentary elements of what we know today as screenplay form.

In the late teens and early 20s, writers churned out thousands of scenarios and photoplays. Interestingly, it’s estimated that women comprised over 50% of the writers working in Hollywood primarily because at the time they were on the whole better educated than men and they could better write stories for the female target audience — melodramas, romance and adventure movies. Indeed female writers like Anita Loos and Frances Marion were under contract to studios for $50,000 or more per year.

But the first official spec script didn’t arrive on the scene until 1933. Screenwriter Preston Sturges first made his way to Hollywood in 1932. After cutting his teeth with a writing stint at Universal, the following year Sturges wrote an original screenplay on his own dime called “The Power and the Glory.” Sturges’ son Sandy reports this fact on a website he manages about his father noting: “Sells original screenplay, The Power and the Glory, to Fox.” Per Wikipedia:

He [Sturges] also sold his original screenplay for The Power and the Glory (1933) to Fox, where it was filmed as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy. The film told the story of a self-involved financier via a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, and was an acknowledged source of inspiration for the screenwriters of Citizen Kane. Fox producer Jesse Lasky paid Sturges $17,500 plus a percentage of the profits, a then-unprecedented deal for a screenwriter, which instantly elevated Sturges’ reputation in Hollywood — although the lucrative deal irritated as many as it impressed. Sturges later recalled, “The film made a lot of enemies. Writers at that time worked in teams, like piano movers. And my first solo script was considered a distinct menace to the profession.”

And right here we see something associated with spec scripts — at least potentially: A great spec script gives the writer power. Why? Because if one or more buyers wants it, that puts the writer in a position where they can negotiate a deal on their own terms.

Yet it appears virtually every other writer in Hollywood at the time did not follow in Sturges’ footsteps, preferring the security of working within the studio system, deals ranging from weekly and monthly contracts, or if the writer was particularly good, multiyear arrangements.

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Sturges continued to write original screenplays including “The Great McGinty” which in 1939 he sold to Paramount for $1 in order to be able to direct it, his attempt at controlling what happened to his scripts. Sturges went on to write and direct many notable movies based on his original screenplays including Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, and The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek.

It’s not until 1942 that the next notable spec script deal occurred: “Woman of the Year” written by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. From the New York Times:

”Katharine Hepburn was our agent. We had her in mind when we wrote the story. She loved it. She took our names off the script and sold it to M-G-M. We were making $300 a week. The studio would never have paid a lot for a script by us, and she knew that M-G-M would not make the kind of picture she wanted unless they paid an enormous amount of money.”

The script sold for $100,000. One would think that staggering amount of money would have opened the floodgates for spec scripts. However that did not happen until four decades later. Next week we’ll look at how the breakdown of the ‘studio system’ and emergence of screenwriters as independent contractors led to the evolution of the spec script market in the 80s, leading to the pivotal year of 1990.

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.

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