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 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 / Boom / Bust cycle of the spec script market.
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.
In Part 16, we got a first-hand account of a preemptive purchase.
Part 17: Write what they're buying or…
For the three weeks, we have taken a comprehensive look at the spec script market. Okay. Now what do you do with that information and insight?
Let's consider this a response to a reader question because I get this type of inquiry pretty regularly from aspiring screenwriters. It takes different forms:
What type of stories should I focus on writing for my spec script?
I have a lot of story ideas: How do I know which one to write as a spec?
What's the best approach to take to maximize my chance of selling a spec script to Hollywood?
There is no one right answer. Even if there was and I gave it to you, you can be certain you would open the trades tomorrow to read a story about some writer who came along and did precisely the opposite, and just sold a spec for six figures.
That said broadly speaking, there are two basic paths an aspiring screenwriter can take when writing a spec script.
The most obvious approach is this: Write what they're buying.
It's the first rule of sales: Qualify your customer. If Hollywood is your 'customer,' then you find out what they are buying. That can mean right now, that can mean established patterns in terms of genres and movie story types over a decade or more, that can mean reading the tea leaves for what you think may be the next big thing. You do due diligence in terms of gathering information about the Hollywood acquisition market so when you assess your story concepts, your own interests, and your potential as a writer to develop your voice, you can make an intelligent choice in what you pursue.
I know there is a pretty persistent piece of advice given by established writers that goes something like this: "Don't pay attention to the market. Things change. What you write today won't reflect what they're buying tomorrow. Besides it's important to be authentic. The old adage is true: Write what you know."
The problem with this take is while it may be sound advice for some types of writers, it can be absolutely the wrong tack for others. For example, if your passion is action, those are the movies you watch, those are the scripts you've analyzed, that's the type of story that oozes from your creative soul, then you'd probably be dumb not to track that part of the acquisition market.
First off, what if there is a script that sells or a project in development that is the precise concept you were planning on writing? What a waste of time that would be to write a script that has zero chance of selling.
Second, determining what's going on in development and production may provide you with just the spark for a variation on a preexisting idea to use for a new spec.
Third, you can be damn sure professional screenwriters track what sells to know what's going on. Shouldn't you?
In the case of this type of writer, why would they consciously not pay attention to the acquisition marketplace when in fact there are multiple good reasons to do precisely that?
So if you read an article like this one in the Hollywood Reporter — "Revenge of the Over-40 Actress" — which notes that with a plethora of great, well-known actresses over the age of 40 in combination with studios beginning to make more movies targeting the 40+ and Baby Boomer demos, maybe you start thinking about that when assessing your next spec story concept.
Or when 15 of the 49 spec script sales this year have been some variation within the thriller genre, that could influence your choice to write a thriller.
Or maybe not. Maybe the buyers are reaching a saturation point on the genre. And that's the thing. You may research market trends until your skull has devolved into a cavity filled with mashed yeast, and your success, while influenced by information you learn, will still come down to talent, voice, and instinct.
Besides some writers simply cannot function by tracking movie trends or even trying to write what they think the buyers will buy. For that type of writer, there is another path to pursue in the spec script market.
That's the subject of tomorrow's post.