Still No Sunshine in The Spec Script Market

If you’re expecting good news, look away now… What’s the deal with this protracted bi-polar recovery, anyway? And why are the studios exercising risk management to such an illogical degree? Get over it, already. We promise not to trade any more sub-prime screenplays… for the time being.

So why is the spec script market still comatose? It has been in an iron lung for the past year, occasionally drifting out of consciousness and being declared clinically dead, before rising from the ashes and limping a few feet.

Studios are scared stiff. They’re sitting on mountains of fresh capital inflows yet terrified to make any substantial spending decisions. Chickens! Cluck, cluck. Columbia and Paramount bought one script each last month. Come on guys. I’ve seen snails move faster; squashed ones at that.

So far this year, thriller seems to be the “it thing”, representing just under half of studio script sales. Comedies accounted for one third of sales and action/ adventures one fifth. These include sci-fi scripts (thank you Avatar) and horror (more Paranormal Activity than Nightmare on Elm Street). Dramas still lag, representing seven percent of studio script sales. Two studios have also been very naughty by not yet purchasing new scripts this year. Far be it for me to name and shame, but their names begin with “F” and “W”.

It’s unclear whether Greek-themed movies can continue to fuel the global box office. If Sam Worthington (son of Zeus) can continue to headline $300 plus grossing films, maybe they can. Maybe the Greeks should produce Clash 2 to clear their debts?

The state of play is still grim, but cannot remain that way indefinitely. Studios are feeling a bit shy, that’s all. They are still clutching at projects with underlying literary works and built in audience base, but that strategy has a limited lifespan. If you don’t have the rights to underlying works, then strategically write something original in a style that can be transposed to a franchise, sequel, adaptation or remake.

They’ve nearly exhausted remaking sixties television shows, with varying degrees of success. The eighties are the new sixties. Apparently, there are around thirty such remake projects currently circulating the studios. Long live big bad hair and leopard print. So many memories…

For the aspiring writer, my advice over the past few months remains unchanged. Get your scripts in the best possible shape and get them read. When the studios bounce back into action, you want to be on their writers’ radar. Of course romcom, bromance and sismance comedies will be ubiquitous staples for a long time to come.

Writers’ rooms with countless film ideas being hatched are becoming a thing of the past. Even in television, the number of writers storylining is diminishing. In film, development executives are much more specific about what they want, so you are more likely to be hired on assignment than having your script purchased outright.

One of the byproducts of their previous financial profligacy is that studios are no longer purchasing green scripts to support budding writers. They want polished, mature product. The range of script types and diversity has also been severely restricted.

I’ve also been asked whether it’s worth aspiring writers trying to sell their pitches. The short answer is no, even in the halcyon script hungry frenzy of last century. Unless of course, you’re called “Steve Carell”, “Bob Kosberg” or “Seth Rogen”. If you want to establish a writing identity for yourself, you ultimately need to write polished scripts and get them in the hands (or email inboxes) of the right people.

Studios are increasingly looking for movie packages rather than a script. Even though studios are still more likely to respond to a concept, they still require a screenplay to circulate to talent. Consequently, the screenwriter’s job has become increasingly sophisticated as attachments, expressions of interest and talent are now almost a requirement than a bonus.

Time will tell whether 3D is a fast fading sugar bomb or a saviour of the film industry. The movie watching experience has experienced a fundamental change. It used to be about sharing a communal storytelling experience. Now that Samsung has recently launched 3D TV, complete with safety warnings, it’s moving towards a grab your helmet and armour and dodge the bullets.

But like all recessions, the deeper the fall, the bigger the bounceback. So hang in there compadres. The sunshine is coming… I just don’t know when.


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