The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 5]
Part 5: Developing the Spec Script
Spec scripts, that is. 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 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.
Part 5: Developing the Spec Script
Every screenwriter is different. Some have agents. Some have managers. Some have agents and managers.
Every screenwriter-rep relationship is different, too. Some writers pretty much do their own thing. Some writers work closely with their reps, especially managers. How close? Check out these comments from Chris Fenton, literary manager and producer of H2F Entertainment from an interview I did with him:
We’re blessed with having really talented writers as clients. For the most part, they use us as a sounding board for ideas. We go through them and say, “That one works, that one might not, that one doesn’t seem right for the market right now, what financiers are looking for. That one doesn’t seem very international, but this one seems like you could sell it on a one-sheet, let’s do it.”
From time to time, we find some interesting IP — books, articles, comic books, life stories. We bring those to our writers and see if something excites them. But more often than not, our writers come up with ideas and we help weed through them to focus on the great ones.
When they start writing, a lot of them like us to look at their pages… every 10 pages or every act. Some like to pump out a script and show us the first draft, then we tell them what we like, things we feel need to be altered, whether we think the act structure works, whether the A plots and B plots are all there, whether the story has great low and high points, strong set ups, do we get into the movie quick enough, will execs get engaged or is it drawing out too long… all that kind of stuff.
We like to manage what our writers are writing, but we’re only as good as our writers. We complement their process by helping them craft the best specs possible.
Here is a perspective from Jeremiah Friedman who with his writing partner Nick Palmer sold the spec script “Family Getaway” to Warner Bros., wrote the remake of The Bodyguard, and sold the pitch “Speeding Bullet” to Universal:
Long before you think about selling your spec, you should have a solid idea about what kind of movie you’re writing. You’ll need advice from your reps about which specific buyers might be the best targets for the material since they’ll know what each buyer is looking for in the current market — one studio might have a lot of comedies, but is looking for thrillers for instance or another studio might have a similar project already in development. Your reps should have the inside word on all of that. But before you even sit down to write your script, you should have a strong idea of the story you’re telling and the audience you’re trying to reach. You should know the genre, the size and scope, the strengths and weaknesses of the material. And you should be striving to develop a professional understanding of the marketplace. What types of movies are studios making? What types of movies are other buyers making? What’s the difference between a Warners movie and a Sony movie? Why might your movie be a good fit for Focus?
But as Justin Rhodes (“Second Sun,” “The Breach,” “The Join”) reminds us, screenwriters can and should understand the basics as well:
You’re basically only asking three questions: how easy is it to market, how broad is the appeal, and how much would it cost to make? If the answers are very, very, and a lot, then it’s definitely a studio movie. If the answers are hmmm, I don’t know how it will play in China, and less than fifteen million, then indie financing probably makes more sense (unless it’s a horror movie, which operates in its own space.) Comedy is a genre that can turn this stuff on its head, but again, simplicity of concept and broadness of appeal is probably your answer. Is the concept that people get hungover in Vegas, or that bumbling terrorists have a hard time pulling off their plot? Or, do you have the right attachments to take the project out of indie land.
Bottom line, no script goes out until it’s ready as neither writer nor rep wants to be connected to a sub-par product. That can mean many long months of prep, writing and rewriting.
At some point, your spec is ready. What happens then? Tune in next week where we take an inside look at what can be a simple or quite complex process — bringing a spec script to market.
Let me end with an observation from Chris Fenton:
Original material is the key to success in this town. You have a great script, you control a lot of the levers in the community. So no matter how good or bad the spec market is, writers should always be writing.
“Writers should always be writing.”
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 Business of Screenwriting articles, go here.