Screenwriters, don’t listen to what the Los Angeles Times is trying to tell you — spec scripts are not dead.
The Los Angeles Times recently published a story entitled “R.I.P. for the spec script…,” a somewhat tongue-in-cheek obituary for screenplays that are written by screenwriters under speculation that they will sell.
“The once-mighty movie ‘spec’ script, long a source of some of Hollywood’s most-beloved films, was pronounced dead after a lengthy illness. As befits many screen legends, the spec script died alone and in search of validation from a fickle, what-have-you-done-lately kind of town,” the article stated in its opening paragraph.
That’s a bold statement, whether it is tongue-in-cheek or not. So in response to that article, I’ll start by quoting Jules from Pulp Fiction —“Well allow me to retort.”
The spec script isn’t dead. It never has been. And it never will be. The article seems to be missing the point of the spec script — as well as the dynamics of the spec market. You just have to understand how the spec script works within the film and television industry to truly be able to grasp why screenwriters are writing them every day — and why Hollywood is reading them every day as well.
The Spec Script Numbers
Before we explain the spec market and how the spec script works in Hollywood, let’s demystify what that article claimed.
According to the Spec Script Deals: Mid-2017 Report — written by Scott Myers through his Go Into The Story blog — which covered the months of January through June of 2017, there were 34 spec scripts that sold. The report states, “In 2016, there were 36 spec script deals at the year’s midpoint, so the numbers are just about the same. Total deals last year: 75 which represented a 27% increase over 2015 which featured 55 deals.”
The final tally for 2017 trended down a bit, at 61 deals compared to 2016’s 75. Despite the decline, it’s clear that the spec script is still alive and well.
Myers also shared these numbers in his 2016 report:
These are the tracked number of spec script sales from the screenwriting boom of the 1990s through 2015. Add 75 for the year of 2016 and then 61 from the 2017 numbers. And keep in mind that Myers is meticulous in the tracking of these numbers. He does not make the mistake of padding the numbers by including representation signings, which do not equate to instant options and sales.
Now, admittedly, the script market has drastically changed since the screenwriting boom of the 1990s. At that time, the industry was coming off the 1988 WGA Strike and there was a high demand for content, resulting in a plethora of original screenplays — spec scripts — that were sold for millions.
Alan Gasmer, a William Morris agent during that time, started the trend of putting such scripts on the market for only a limited amount of time with the auction block opening on Monday and closing at the end of that Friday. The result led to a competitive streak among the studios, leading to a ridiculous amount of big sales that we haven’t seen since. In 1990 alone, 14 scripts were sold for $1 million or more.
Spec scripts like Milk Money ($1 million), Radio Flyer ($1.25 million), Medicine Man ($3 million), Basic Instinct ($3 million), The Long Kiss Goodnight ($4 million), and many others were purchased and eventually produced — to varying degrees of success.
The article is correct in pointing out that the contemporary market is obsessed with projects that involve intellectual property. Hollywood is more risk-averse than it ever has been. But that doesn’t mean the spec script is dead.
The numbers say otherwise. Look no further than The Tracking Board for proof that refutes the Los Angeles Times article as well. The site tracks spec script prospects and outright options and acquisitions.
While we aren’t seeing sales numbers like those found in the 1990s, that shouldn’t be a call to action to write an obituary for something that isn’t even close to being dead.
The Truth About Spec Scripts
What the article doesn’t seem to understand is the fact that spec scripts drive the industry — perhaps more than ever.
It’s not always about seven-figure deals. Even in the 1990s, despite what the article attempts to state, not all of those sales were lottery-winning amounts. Money aside, the spec script is more than just the chase for big money and major studio production — it’s about discovering new and original talent.
Cynics will be quick to dismiss such a notion that Hollywood — purveyor of sequels, remakes, reboots, relaunches, and franchises — is trying to discover new and original talent, but it’s true. And the spec script is the key way to do that.
Agents, managers, producers, and development executives are actively seeking new spec scripts each and every waking moment of their professional lives. Sure, the studio-mandated assignments and tentpole projects pay the bills and keep the money flowing — but it’s the search for the next big thing that keeps each and every one of them relevant. And without spec scripts and those that write them, there’s never anything new and exciting.
Hollywood gets bored. Trends come and go. Once hot franchises cool down. Spec scripts and the screenwriters that write them push the industry forward into the near future.
Without spec scripts, new writers aren’t discovered. The article offers one misleading “fact” — that Hollywood is making fewer movies than they have in the past. The truth of the matter is that there are more movies being made than there ever has been…just in a different way.
Sure, the major studios are making less overall, but then you have to take into account what HBO, Netflix, and Amazon are doing. Not to mention the dozens upon dozens of major production companies that are producing amazing films outside of the major studio system — most of which often eventually buy them up for the distribution rights.
And because so many more movies are being made, the industry needs more writers to write them. Spec scripts that are discovered through the creative marketing of unknown screenwriters through queries, networking, contests, and fellowships introduce the powers that be to new talent. If the spec scripts aren’t bought and produced (most are not), the screenwriters that wrote them are being assigned to write projects already in open development.
So it doesn’t take a big spec script sale to make that screenwriter’s career. Those scripts work as keys that open doors into the film and television industry.
So no, spec scripts are not dead. Far from it.
And if the purpose of the article was just to explore the idea that the days of big spec script sales leading to popular movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma & Louise, and Good Will Hunting (all spec scripts that the article touts) are over and done with, that doesn’t add up either.
Even back in the 1990s, most of the spec scripts that were purchased for sometimes ridiculous amounts of money were never even produced.
Read ScreenCraft’s Spec Scripts That Sold for Millions, but Were Never Made!
The spec market is like a groundhog on Groundhog’s Day. Every year it’s brought out and displayed for all to see. And it then forecasts a possible future. Only in this case, instead of less or more days of winter, we’re shown the amounts of deals that are going to be made. Sometimes it’s less, sometimes it’s more.
Look at those above spec script sales numbers for proof on that front where we see that some years showcase more sales and others show less. But again, what isn’t displayed is what the untrained (or uninformed) eye can’t see — that the spec script isn’t just about seven-figure deals and produced end product. It’s also about discovering new and original stories and the talent that writes them.
Spec scripts are all around us, all over the world, and they, along with the writers that write them, are here to stay — no matter what any cynic, pundit, or article says.
It’s not easy to sell one. It’s not easy to get discovered as a result of one. It’s not easy to see one ever get made. It never has been.
But that doesn’t mean the spec script is dead.
So to all of you screenwriters out there — don’t fret. Keep writing. Keep the dream alive.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies