What is a spec script, you might ask? For some it simply means a speculative script, one that hasn’t been commissioned, but simply written in the hope that it gets sold. Technically that would include 99% of all scripts written. Thousands of scripts are registered with the WGA each year. If you include the scripts that are registered with other bodies and those not registered at all, that adds up to a mighty big number.
The business has fine tuned this definition to include scripts that are presented to buyers in a saleable form. This means a script that an agent can confidently send out to studio execs with a reasonable chance of being sold. If you’re a professional writer, you need to “talk the talk” and “write the write”. The current state of the market will give you some startling statistics. Of the approximately 110 scripts that went out wide (circulated to the key studio execs), only 7 were sold in September, 2009. Fortunately spec sales figures are rising. Are these similar odds to winning the lottery? No. If you know the game, you increase your chances of winning.
The key genres that studio execs tend to look for are action, horror, thriller, romantic comedies and broad comedies. They have inbuilt audiences and therefore guaranteed profits, or so the theory goes. Occasionally studios might purchase a drama that has star power attached to it, but generally they tend to be a harder sell and more difficult to market to audiences. Then there’s high concept, which is all of the above, but can me summarized in a single sentence. A common example is ‘Liar Liar’ with Jim Carey. Given that some theorists claim there are only 64 dramatic situations, you will undoubtedly recycle story ideas. However, you must add your own voice and put your trademark spin on them. When studio execs want something “different” or “original” they really mean “familiar”. Think of it as accessorizing your wardrobe rather than replacing it.
Depending on who you speak to, between 85 to 98% of scripts sold in the studio system are based on underlying works. This means a novel, a short story, a newspaper article, letters (Bright Star), novel, an existing movie (prequel, sequel, remake), franchises, companies (Banks, Facebook), comic books (Disney acquired Marvel comics), video games (Tombraider), toys (Transformers; stay tuned for Barbie The Movie), rock stars, famous people (Angelina Jolie recently attached to a film about Gucci), existing pre existing products (Battleship, Chanel The Movie?) The list goes on. Why? Because humans group information by building relationships and expectations with pre existing properties. It’s much easier than presenting new concepts to audiences. This is called brand building, but beyond the scope of this blog. If a comic book sells well, there is prevailing wisdom that the movie will do well, since it has an inbuilt audience. Since studios are number crunchers and must report to parent companies such NBC-Universal reporting to General Electric, we writers must understand why spec scripts have such a difficult time being sold.
So do we stop writing them? Don’t you dare. Spec scripts can be used as powerful marketing tools, because they indicate your writing style and ability. These are what will most likely land you a writing assignment. Not withstanding, the delight in writing a script anyway. The ultimate in self pleasure.
Go forth and write!