Monday, February 19, 2018

Are spec scripts dead?

There was a recent article in the LA TIMES proclaiming that spec screenplays are now dead. For quite some time studios would buy these scripts written on speculation for goodly amounts and even ungodly amounts. Some specs were going for over a million dollars.

For the studios, it was a chance to buy a script already written. They knew what they had (or what they had to assign to other writers to rewrite). In the “old” days studios would hire writers to write screenplays. They’d come in and pitch, make a sale, and go to work. And often times the studios were burned with disappointing drafts. A spec eliminated throwing all that good money after bad.

But there was trouble in paradise. Some of these big sale specs bombed at the boxoffice. DVD rentals and sales dried up and there wasn’t as much cash available to spend on specs. The film industry became more global and specs tended to be America-centered. So existing franchises and superheroes took center stage. Small, original, personal specs went out of favor. Anything that doesn’t have twelve explosions, people who can fly, or spaceships is now considered an “art film.” And studios are phasing out “art films.”

Screenwriters used to look down their noses at television. When David and I wanted to move into features in the ‘80s studios wouldn’t consider us until we had a spec screenplay. The fact that we wrote MASH for four years meant nothing. That was “television.” Now screenwriters are fleeing to television.

I wrote a number of spec screenplays and played that game. I was fortunate in that I sold a few. And a few I didn’t sell. I’d work for six months crafting an original screenplay, the agent would send it out over a weekend and on Monday morning either there was an offer or two and celebration or the project was dead. And by dead I meant DEAD. Unless I was willing to shell out the ten million required to make it the script would go in a drawer never to be seen again. At the end of the day, for all my hard work, maybe twenty people actually read it.

That’s one of the reasons I got into playwriting. No, you can’t make nearly the money you can in features. In fact, you generally lose money writing plays. But, if they’re not exorbitant to produce, you can actually stage them and invite audiences and see your work come to life. It’s been my experience that people will go to a theatre, but they won’t sit home and read your failed screenplay. The only problem with playwriting vs. screenwriting is that playwrights starve.

Will spec screenplays come back? I’m sure, to a certain extent, just not nearly as many (and for not nearly as much). Aaron Sorkin can sell a spec. Whoever wins an Oscar has probably a two-year window. And just as people win state lotteries, a teacher in Kalamazoo or bus driver in Walla Walla can still land a million dollar sale. But I wouldn’t quit my day job just yet.

The loss of spec sales is just another indication the movie industry is eroding and will slowly go away. They’re making way fewer movies, these franchise sequels and comic book flicks performed way under expectations last year, and audiences (not just screenwriters) are gravitating to television where the writing is better, there’s more variety, home screens and sound systems are awesome, and strangers don’t talk and text while you’re enjoying a show.

What’s missing is the shared experience in a theatre and the hope that some new thing hitches a ride on the zeitgeist and one of my unsold specs can now get sold. But I’m not quitting my day job either (and I don’t even have one).


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I feel sure that many of us here would be happy to read your failed screenplays.


Tom said...

A possible Friday question: Given the high turnover rates in the ranks of studio executives, what is the downside to re-submitting a script a couple of years later that a previous regime had said no to? A) Who would know? and B) Even if they did know, it's a new set of decision-making eyes, no?

Tim W. said...

Perhaps there’s a correlation to the fact that movies just aren’t as good, anymore. And I don’t mean to sound like the guy saying, “they don’t make movies the way they used to”, but that does seem to be the case. My family and I have a tradition of family movie night every Saturday night, but we haven’t watched a movie together in months because there’s nothing that has been good enough that we wanted to watch. The best stuff is now on TV, which is what we watch now. When I was young I LOVED movies, but now I rarely watch them.

Jeff said...

It would be a great post if you wrote the exciting Monday details of - how you sent the script and who called back and what you were offered and how you played them against each other into bidding more and more.

I love reading such stories of spec sales.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Does this include specs for TV series? Because three years ago, I wrote a spec for a long-running (and still running) animated series (no, not THE SIMPSONS, sorry). The producer/director (and I'm assuming show-runner) would occasionally interact with fans online, and after getting in touch with him, he helped guide me to the right people I needed to submit my spec to (the series is a co-production, so while he's in charge of the animation and such, the writing is done with another company) . . . and he was amazed that I got as far as I did: the production assistant had me sign a release form before I could submit my spec (otherwise, it'd be consider unsolicited, which they would reject), and informed me that it would be submitted to their head writer at their next summer writers meeting, after which I would be contacted if anything became of my script. Which never happened, so I'm assuming it won't be used.

At the same time, the producer/director also informed me that when they handle scripts from newer writers, those scripts are often heavily re-written by the staff writers, or if they get a premise that sounds promising enough, they'll reserve it in an "idea bag" for the writers to refer to if they're looking for something for a 'B' story. Perhaps there's still a chance that elements of my spec my still be used in the future (if it continues to be renewed, which looks iffier and iffier each year), but I doubt it.

Either way, it was an interesting experience.

Aaron Sheckley said...

I'm saying this as a guy who used to love comic books, but the geeks have strangled the creativity of the movie industry. Just hearing fans trying to dredge up some sort of deeper meaning to a movie about super heroes beating each other up, and trying to imbue that movie with some sort of importance, makes me truly sad. Knowing that so many great movies couldn't even be made now because studios are only interested in adolescent power fantasies with childishly simple plots that can easily be digested by audiences in China that can't actually understand the dialog (and really don't need to) makes me feel that the movie industry SHOULD die, at least in its current incarnation.

E. Yarber said...

A spec script doesn't automatically make someone a screenwriter, but they're the only way to tell if a wannabe can actually set up and complete a project, which means much more than listening to them talk about the wonders of their hypothetical blockbuster. Too many people have the fantasy that they can simply pitch a script to an executive and get a huge payday before a single page is written, but that sort of thing is best left to established writers who have already proven they can follow through on what they promise.

Just like an actor or musician auditioning for a job, a writer has to be able to demonstrate their talent to a potential employer. At least the writer has all the time in the world to hone their material and get honest feedback before they submit their stuff, unlike a performer who has to create magic on the spot.

The upside is that most of the stuff submitted to studios and agencies is so bad that a genuinely entertaining spec script has a chance for an enthusiastic reception by staffers who are HOPING to find something decent to promote. Unfortunately, the spec scripter is also a sitting duck. At least in television, a beginner will work under the supervision of an experienced writer. In film, you're generally at the mercy of the people paying for the film, and the very quality that got you through the gate is often the first thing to go as your work goes through the system. I've seen first-hand how arbitrary changes will be imposed on a manuscript simply as a sign of someone's higher rank in the pecking order.

I'm particularly grouchy on the subject right now because a spec project of my own looks dead on the vine as of this month. The work was taken away from me and rewritten badly by some crony of the guy who hired me. I thought I had repaired the damage, and sent the client a corrected version to submit professionally. After waiting weeks for a response from the first potential contact, the project was rejected. Only then did I learn to my horror that the client had submitted the version his buddy had done. Not only was this junk I'd never bother a serious company with, but it went to them under my name. Now the client has submitted my original text as a Plan B, having wasted everyone's time trying to prove his pal could write. It's hard enough to do good work, but impossible if you're stuck with people with agendas that have nothing to do with quality.

Terrence Moss said...

Hollywood is killing itself. And it doesn't have to.
Great movies can still be made economically and be viable at the box office.
That they rely on blockbusters to survive is foolish and short-sighted.

Steve B. said...

Ken, why has there never been a market for original specs for TV series? Instead of having writers in to pitch and then hiring them to write a draft, wouldn't it make more sense to read scripts that are already written and thus knowing exactly what they're going to get? We know they will rewrite it to death anyway, but buying a script vs. a pitch seems like it would put a studio or network a few steps ahead.

Peter said...

OK, so this is what I don't get. If sales of spec scripts are falling and studios are focusing more and more on franchise product, how do so many low budget generic movies still get produced both for theatrical and straight to DVD/streaming release? Looking at the range of Netflix's own "original" movies available right now as well as new releases in general, I'm staggered at how totally bland and unoriginal so many of them sound. I've lost count of the number of movies that are about a family being haunted or a CIA agent in trouble or cops versus drug dealers. Seriously, there have been about a billion movies with those subjects. My question is how does such unoriginal, unimaginative and derivative stuff get greenlit?

I read all the time about how difficult it is for original material to get produced and that producers and studios want something fresh when they read a logline. So I just find it hard to fathom how someone can read a logline like "A mother and son move into a house but soon feel a sinister presence" and not yawn and move on to the next thing? And yet I swear I've read about 50 variations of that premise when looking up horror movies and new releases on Netflix.

Another example. I recently watched a Bruce Willis thriller called Extraction. This is the logline on Netflix: "When a retired CIA agent is kidnapped, his son, a government analyst, embarks on an unauthorized mission to find him and halt a terrorist plot." The film was as predictable and routine as it sounds. But it got made. That's what gets me.

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve) said...

Thanks for this info, Ken. I'm a big believer that if you want to write something, and see it on the big (or TV) screen made with quality, devotion and with at least some true adherence to *your* vision... you should produce, and perhaps even direct, it yourself.

In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, I was heavily involved with public access TV in Lakewood, California, and it was a great treat as well as a real education, because besides actually seeing all the teamwork, hard work and heavy lifting (sometimes literally) that went into producing even "little things" like a half-hour talk show in a studio, we had access to equipment that pretty much wasn't affordable or available to independent filmmakers.

But thanks to the great digital revolution, pretty good production equipment, cameras, lights, editing equipment, and almost everything else you can think of, can be acquired by aspiring artists much more affordably, and thank God as well for the great new distribution networks known as YouTube and blogs. Creative people aren't limited to the old models of production and distribution anymore, and good riddance to those relics.

Obviously it all isn't nearly as glamorous or lucrative as the "good old days" and you probably won't end up the next Spielberg, but at least your film, TV pilot, or even a miniseries, if you have the discipline, can finally get made, your talent can be shared, and your finished product can be shown to others. Tons of them in fact, if you also have the marketing talent. Of course I recommend new writers and budding directors learn as much as they possibly can to excel with all of these.

Tom Galloway said...

I recall reading about the Black List, an annual list of what were somehow determined to be the best unproduced spec scripts. A fair number of which then got picked up due to being on the list (and the increased awareness of them it led to). Is that no longer a thing?

Friday question: Sort of related, do movie stars exist any more? At least in the William Goldman definition of someone who can open a movie? The only one I can think of these days would be Tom Cruise in an action-adventure movie and even then he seems limited to franchises. While there are actors who have prestige (Hanks, Streep, let's say Clooney, Mirren, etc.) it seems for the last few years it's the franchise or overall type of picture that opens, not any of the actors to any great degree. So, while for example you've got the Chrises as "stars" (Hemsworth, Pratt, Pike, etc.) I don't think any of them have done well with movies outside of particular franchises. And unlike Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler, Eddie Murray, etc., I can't think of anyone who can open a comedy these days.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Steve Lanzi As someone who's been struggling on YouTube for over ten years now, I can go into a long-winded debate about how and why YouTube is no longer a, "great distribution network," as you say, for little guys like me to gain exposure on the internet for their original work, but I'm so fed up with them, I'm not even going to bother. I will say, however, that there's writing on the walls: they're slowly shifting towards streaming their own in-house productions (episodic series, feature-length movies); I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if in the next few years, they follow in Hulu's footsteps, and all us little guys have our channels shut down entirely while they focus exclusively on streaming their own in-house productions.

Steve Lanzi (formerly known as qdpsteve said...

Joseph Scarborough, that's sad and maddening to hear about YouTube. It would also be horribly hypocritical of them IMHO; only a few years ago, they were announcing opening up their own studios for "little guy" content creators to make productions, which of course YT would present and publicize (and, presumably, own).

Hopefully (and in my admittedly Pollyannish view, most likely) other online sites will open up which independent filmmakers can utilize to share their works.

That Guy said...

Stars could always open pictures in their genre, but not necessarily outside of it. Clint Eastwood was one of the most consistent stars of the 60s, 70s and 80s, but he still couldn't get people to show up in a film like "Broncho Billy" or "Honky Tonk Man" where he was doing an adult drama rather than something where he was shooting people or hanging out with an orangutan.

I would simiarly suspect, for instance, after "The Greatest Showman" has proven to be a movie that's kept on earning week after week that Hugh Jackman has suddenly gotten a lot more meetings for musicals than he used to, and similarly, Zach Efron is suddenly getting a lot more offers when he sings and dances and a lot fewer where he has to take his shirt off and make fart jokes.

Matt said...

I cannot tell you how sick-to-death I am of comic book superhero movies. Especially the ones which spend 40 minutes near the end destroying some huge city, which is to say almost all of them.

...and "reboots." If I never hear the word "reboot" again ...

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Steve Lanzi You're not wrong, actually; alternatives to YouTube have been surfacing during the last few years, but they all have their own problems. Admittedly, while YouTube has been screwing over the little guy more and more since Google taking over, it's still a necessary evil in that you're able to upload video content without time or file size constrictions, which a lot of these alternatives impose, as a lot of them are coded to be more like classic YouTube of 2005-2009, when they still had the 10-minute time limit, and videos were compressed down to 360p.

Johnny Walker said...

Ken, I’d love to see a collection of spec scripts that were successful in allowing people to break in. Undoubtedly they’d be different than what made it to air, but it would still be fascinating I think!