The Spec Script Market after Sundance 2011

Around 50 films were sold at Sundance 2011 at relatively healthy prices. The Weinstein Company splurged with marriage drama ‘The Details” for $7 million and “Idiot Brother” for just under $7 million. Lionsgate snapped up “Silent House” for $3 million. “Like Crazy” was snapped up by Paramount for $4 million with a healthy $10 million P&A budget.

There weren’t any standout films or major bidding wars, with distributors hedging their spends across a range of commercially-leaning independent films. The economic recovery appears to have taken root. Most people would rather forget Sundance 2009, but significant film sales were closed during Sundance 2010.

Here is an overview of the state of the spec script market over the last few years as collated by Jason Scoggins of itsonthegrid. Since the devastating writers strike of 2007, the state of the spec script market has been ravaged by the world economy. Hopefully the vigorous sales activity at Sundance 2011 will spur the spec script market this year, particularly for original material.

itsonthegrid collects its data from a variety of sources since there isn’t a centralized reporting agency in the US. A finite amount of agents and managers represent around 15% of selling activity as reported in the trades. A smaller number (around 10%) are reported through anecdotal reports from development executives and the remainder through tracking boards, direct studio reporting and other miscellaneous sources.

The overall impression of 2010 spec script market shows that studios still impacted by recession. Bar an uncharacteristic spike in buying activity from September to December in 2010, buying activity hasn’t gained momentum in 2011. Warner Bros, led the pack with 7 scripts, while Sony exhausted their 2010 budget in 2009, purchasing 5 scripts in 2009 and 1 in 2010, through discretionary funding. Fox bought 3 scripts in 2009 and 2 2010. Universal nabbed 6 scripts during 2009 2 in 2010.

62 scripts in total sold in 2010, down from the 73 sold during 2009. Purchase prices are generally dropping and bidding wars are the exception rather than the rule.

Comedy, action and thriller are still the most popular selling genres. Of all the action adventure scripts hitting the market, 31% sold in 2010. These figures were lower for thriller and comedy scripts, 20% and 10% respectively. It is difficult to determine why only 10% of all comedy scripts taken to market sold. Is it because comedies fared relatively poorly at the box office last year, studio executives weren’t interested in purchasing comedy scripts, or that the ones available weren’t of a sufficiently high caliber?

Relativity Media became a fully fledged studio during 201o after purchasing Overture Films to distribute its films. Relativity graduated from financier to developer and producer, purchasing 6 scripts during 2010. It’s Relativity’s intention to distribute 30 films a year through production, co-production and acquisition. This is more vibrant activity than Graham King’s newly formed Film District Studio which plans to distribute 4 to 8 films per year.

As expected, the studios bought the majority of scripts in 2009 and 2010. The majority of the non-studio buyers bought scripts in 2009, but not in 2010. Companies such as Endgame, Mandate, Gold Circle and Spitfire have development budgets (something the studios are lacking), but need studio partners to distribute their films. They produce or co-producer their films with studios and other financiers.

The relationship between box office and spec script activity still remains tenuous. During 2010, 20% (30 of 150) of the top films released were dramas, whereas only 7 drama spec scripts sold, 11% of the total. Horror scripts sold poorly. It is unlikely that they were all bad, but rather a function of the major horror producers not actively purchasing horror scripts.

The major selling activity was achieved by the four top agencies. During 2009, WME, CAA, UTA and ICM, accounted for 72% of all spec sales 2009. This figure dropped to around 50% in 2010.

Time will tell how the script market will unfold during 2011. Overall, it appears that smaller films now have  chance to flourish, while the studio reboot juggernaut may have abated for now.

Hopefully it will be a sunnier year for writers, both seasoned and fresh.


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