Anatomy of a Spec Sale

Let’s face it: Most writers out there would love to sell their spec screenplay. Or spec pilot. Or the pitch for the pilot or screenplay they’ve developed, that their representation will be setting pitch meetings for. And I don’t mean selling to any old producer off the street, but rather to a studio, network, streamer, or mini-major. Don’t get me wrong: there is nothing wrong with selling your spec screenplay to an indie producer or production company for a nominal but respectable fee. But when most writers inquire about spec sales, they’re talking about those flashy, splashy spec sales we then see reported on as well as the trades.

Thanks to my professional-writer clients who have allowed me along on their screenwriting journey as they’ve taken out spec screenplays, pilots and pitches, I’ve had the privilege of observing these sales up close as they happen, live and in real time. And let me tell you… when it happens, it happens fast, and is a lot of fun to observe.

One client asked me recently: How do you guarantee a bidding war that ends up in a 7-figure deal? In this particular case, the writer was referring to the sale of a feature screenplay. It’s important to remember: There’s no way to guarantee that a script will sell, much less that there would be a bidding war (also known as a “competitive situation”) for it, or that it will end up going for 7-figures. In fact, 7-figure deals are nearly unheard of for first-time sellers. Last year, one of my writers had his screenplay go to market via his manager, who told him: “Maybe it sells for 50k. Maybe it sells for 500k. Maybe it doesn’t sell.” The script ultimately did sell for 7-figures, that lightening-in-a-bottle deal that a first time writer rarely gets to see. All of which is to say that, while strategy and planning should be deployed thoughtfully by the writers’ reps when they take the material out, no one knows how it’s going to end.

The reason that reps often try to get into a competitive situation is that it gives them more leverage for negotiations. Sometimes, despite having multiple buyers at the table, the bidding remains conservative; other times, the numbers can get more aggressive. The upside of representation, including the lawyer who should be negotiating the finer points of the deal, all being commission based, is that the higher the sale price the more they ultimately get paid, so the writer should be able to trust that, within reason, they will push the buyer as far as they believe they can, as it is in the representatives’ own interest to get as much as they can for anything they are able to sell. But there is also a limit for what representation can reasonably ask for, and a good rep knows not to cross the line while getting a good deal in place.

And one more thing, for the record: The sort of sale I’m talking about usually doesn’t take place without representation in place. While a writer may have an industry contact or two, most writers simply don’t have the same reach as representation, which makes it possible to create a competitive situation. 

Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s break down how it all actually works, both for spec screenplays as well as pitches for pilots and features being taken out in the professional space.

Once the material is deemed “ready for market,” and viable for the industry, the writers’ representative, be it an agent, manager, or a combination of both (and hopefully in coordination with an entertainment lawyer who should be on standby to negotiate) will determine the best way to introduce the material and generate excitement. This will be the determination between a wide or narrow send, or a combination of the two.

A wide send means that the reps in charge will send the material out to a hefty list; with spec screenplays, this can mean anywhere from 15 to 20 destinations, or more. With pitches for either a feature or a TV show, reps will try to set upwards of 10 pitches (or more, on the feature side) if possible. These sends or pitches are set up based on matching the material with its best potential buyer or champion. And in order to create a competitive situation, there has to be more than one buyer at the table.

My good friend, manager John Zaozirny broke it down this way when I interviewed him for my book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES:

“You’ll create a territory list. Then you’ll go through the producers at that studio who are best suited to (the material). So it’s, who’s the producer that I think would be best for this? Who’s the right executive to go to at that company? And then you split up all those territories (with the agent) and you take it out to those producers in the first round. And then you split up all the major studios maybe you might also, go to the financiers. And then… when you go to the executive, hopefully they like it and they can sell it to their boss. And then eventually you’ll hopefully, be like, OK, this is the right place.”

Let’s unpack this:

TERRITORIES speak to the studios, networks and streamers you are ultimately trying to sell to. Studios include all the usual players: Sony, Universal, Disney, Warner Bros., etc. Networks include everyone from ABC to FX and Showtime. Streamers refer to Netflix, Amazon, Apple+ and the like. Other territories may include some mini-majors like Lionsgate, or financiers like MRC Media.

With studios, networks and streamers, representation will seek to identify producers and production companies that have deals with those buyers that they ultimately want to sell to, and have the producers within the territory bring it to the territory itself, so that the studio, network or streamer could buy it for them. In other cases, representation may opt to go straight to a network, studio or streamer executive, and try to get interest directly from their buyer, and not from one of their producers.

PODS refer to producers with a Production Overall Deal. These are production companies that have deals with a studio, streamer or network to develop content specifically for them and no one else. Other companies may have a First Look Deal, under which they are compensated to allow their home studio a first-right-of-refusal for anything that they develop. A few examples: 21 Laps, Shawn Levy’s company, has an overall TV deal with Netflix. Lucky Chap, Margot Robbie’s company, has a first-look over at Amazon. The Safran Company has a first-look over at Warner Bros. Shondaland has an overall at Netflix.

In a perfect world, reps schedule the distribution of the material to potential producers and/or buyers with timing in mind. In the old days (i.e., the 90’s), it was standard for specs to go out on Mondays or Tuesdays, with the aim of getting buyers to the table by Thursday, and closing the deal by Friday or over the weekend. These days, I’ve seen material go out early in the week, but I’ve also seen scenarios where materials are distributed to buyers on a Thursday or Friday encouraging an urgent weekend read and hoping for offers by the beginning of the week. There are also situations in which reps will “slip” the material to a couple of buyers before the masses have read and expressed interest, in order to encourage the buyers to “take the project off the table” before others show up and create a more competitive (see: expensive) situation.

There are also scenarios in which material will go out to a narrow list of ideal producers. This will usually include a handful of producers or buyers that the reps have identified as perfectly suited for the material. By slipping the material to only a handful of potential buyers, reps make a more strategic push hoping to, once again, see producers and buyers step up before the situation becomes highly competitive, with only the minimal amount of effort.

When taking out a pitch, the scenario is a bit different, as pitch meetings have to first be scheduled, usually at least 1-2 weeks out. For both TV and feature pitches, reps will try to set meetings to all take place over a single week, or over a couple of weeks’ stretch, in order to once again create a sense of urgency. I’ve certainly had scenarios in which my writers were pitching to as many as 3 buyers in a single day, in order to get all the pitches in in a single week, see who is coming to the table, and then lock in the buyer as quickly and efficiently as possible. There are situations in which something sells “in the room,” i.e. the buyer tells the writer at the end of the pitch that they are going to put in an offer. However, just because the buyer said as much does not mean the writer is committed; the writer can finish all of her scheduled pitches, and then, along with her reps, assess which offers are the most attractive. Once more than one offer comes in, representation will play them against one another to try and get the best deal.

It’s important to remember that often times, it’s not quite “sale or bust.” Especially in features, but also on the TV front, not all projects sell but still find success and interest. This is exactly why tracking services such as Tracking Board now tracks the spec market with an eye to projects getting set up, rather than selling outright. Indeed, more often than not there may be scenarios in which a spec screenplay or pitch doesn’t outright sell, but instead gets set up with producers, who then seek to develop it further and take it out to buyers with or without cast, showrunner or director attachments at a later date.

Of course, there are those scenarios in which a screenplay or pitch goes out but doesn’t sell or get set up. This is, of course, the least-desired scenario, as it doesn’t quite offer the happy ending we are hoping for at the start. However, if those reading the screenplay or listening to the pitch express enthusiasm about the writer despite not picking up the content, it may offer a head-start for the writer next time, laying the groundwork for already-interested parties who are eager to hear what she is putting out there once she takes her new project out.