Let’s Talk About Specs

I hear it all the time:

“I want to sell my screenplay.”

“How do I sell my screenplay to studios?”

“My goal is to sell a spec (or two) a year.”

I hear these from writers all over the world. Writers who just finished a new piece of work, either on their own or with input from screenwriting instructors or consultants, writers who are now dreaming of sending their screenplay to Hollywood, getting an offer, making a sale. A year to three later, they are hoping to see that screenplay as a fully realized movie on the big screen.

I also hear that very same sentiment: “I finished a spec, what do I need to do to sell it?” from writers who have been around the industry for years; sometimes, I hear it from writers who were successful a decade or two ago, and who are now hoping to come back with the sort of spec sale that will make a big splash for them. Other times, I hear it from newer writers, who’ve been told that the only measurement for screenwriting success is a high-priced spec sale. And sometimes I hear it from writers who have been at it for years, who still think that a spec sale is something easy to achieve.

Which made me realize that even though I’ve written about it before, it’s time to write about this very topic once again. The spec market. That elusive space in which screenplays written speculatively, without any industry guidance or input, are auctioned off to an interested party or, in a competitive situation, to the highest bidder. A world in which a writer can go from unknown to highly successful at the drop of a hat.

But… does it really work that way?

Let’s establish one thing right off the bat: Today, we’re a long way away from the heyday of the spec market back in the 90’s. Those good old days when a flood of content (that began following the 1987-1988 WGA strike), combined with hungry, privately owned studios (as opposed to today, when all but one are owned by corporations), and the absence of today’s prevalent technology, made selling a spec screenplay in the professional space something that a writer could reasonably aim for, capitalizing on the fact that it all felt a bit like a well-manicured, 3-piece suit attired Wild West. That was the spec market, back then.

Pine for it or not, today, spec screenplays, i.e. those screenplays written not by request or on assignment, just don’t move the same way. The process of breaking into the feature space is just not as simple as: Write a screenplay. Get an agent. Make a sale. It tends to be a bit more complicated, the road significantly more winding than that. Selling a spec screenplay has become akin to catching lightening in a bottle; something that is almost impossible to orchestrate or plan. Yes, there are those reps who have become known for their unequaled ability to continue to move material written on spec (and none are better at this than Verve super agent David Boxerbaum or managers Jeff Portnoy and John Zaozirny) but by and large, in today’s market, a spec sale is just not something that happens every day.

It used to be that the market tracked spec sales closely. Who sold what to whom and when? Who are the busiest buyers? The most successfully-selling agents and managers? What are the studios’ buying trends? Whether an executive was tracking this information through the now-defunct Scoggins Report or Tracking Board’s Spec Market Book that came out annually, this is something that the industry at large had consistently – if not nervously – been observing, even after effectively announcing that the spec market is dead – for all intents and purposes – following the writers strike of 2008.

Over a decade later, there is now no question that things have changed. Instead of “Scripts sold,” scripts are now being tracked as “Scripts set up,” a marked change that implies that while there may be an option or shopping agreement in place, there is no telling whether or not significant money has changed hands in the process of getting material developed. Add to that that The Tracking Board’s last Spec Market Book is from 2017; thus far, we don’t have comprehensive tracking for 2018 in place, and the indication is that even the most optimistic industry observer is highly aware of what is and isn’t happening in the professional space.

All of this comes adds up to one thing: Specs are not selling the way that they used to. They have not for a while. And considering how everything has changed in the last decade, it’s hard to imagine that they will be selling aggressively again.

Today, many reps try to avoid taking out “naked specs,” and instead seek to put together packages before material is exposed to the world. Packages speak to those screenplays that have high value attachments such as actors, directors and/or producers of note, that make the purchase of any particular screenplay a more secure one, assuming some guarantee on investment due to the track record of the elements attached.

While putting together a package used to very much be the function of a producer or development executive, today buyers are significantly less likely to purchase a screenplay before identifying who they might be able to attach to it, in order to guarantee that, if produced, the movie will generate the desired returns. Because of this, studios and production companies have put the onus of packaging on the agent and/or manager handling the property, effectively testing whether or not a screenplay can garner meaningful attachments before the buyer considers the spend. On the flip side, those screenplays that go into the professional space without meaningful attachments are generally known as “naked specs.”

With all of this taken into account, does that mean that you should stop writing those all-important spec screenplays?

Not. At. All.

Absolutely not.

In today’s market, a great spec screenplay has become the writer’s calling card. A door opener. A conversation starter. Want to get a manager? Develop a great spec. Looking to get writing assignments? You have to have that spec. Want to go on those all-important general meetings? Once again, that can’t happen without having a fantastic, current spec on hand. Same goes for reinvigorating old conversations with studio and development execs, for getting on the prestige lists, for getting your agent or manager excited about you again. Every time it’s the same actor: A really exciting, original, voice-y and noisy spec.

As Jeff Portnoy of Bellevue Productions, the hardest working guy in the industry, told me when I interviewed him for my book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES:

“Right now, the best we can hope for when we take out a spec – of course we aspire to sell it to a studio but – we know that the odds are very low. We’re happy if we get it on The Black List, we’re happy if we get the writer an agent, or we’re happy if we get them lots of general meetings, get them put up for assignments. If the script doesn’t sell then it doesn’t sell but if those other things happen then we’re happy. If the studios are turning down packages with A-list directors and actors attached, why would they buy a spec screenplay?”

Original material is the writer’s lifeblood. Of course, everyone wants to write to sell, or, better yet, get paid for every word they put on the page. But in a world as fickle as the feature space, those original spec screenplays, and a steady supply of them, is what keeps the writer front of mind in important conversations. It’s not enough to just write one great spec; in most cases, it won’t be able to power your career forever. Because of this, new specs are a necessity; much as agents and managers send out those writers whose samples they are the most excited about, execs tend to bring those writers that they recently read and loved when considering scribes for open writing assignments (or OWAs). And OWAs are how 95% of how WGA feature writers make their income. 

The road to most writing assignments starts with a spec screenplay: A spec goes out to the marketplace. Executives read it.  As a result, the writer gets generals, i.e. general meetings with producers and development execs who responded to the material, be it the writing style or concept. A general is a get-to-know-you; an initial meeting to identify whether the writer is someone that the exec or producer wants to be in business with. If the meeting goes well and a connection is made, the writer may then, or later, be considered for an OWA. In the entertainment industry, it is near impossible to be considered for assignment work without first meeting the executive or producer looking to develop that project. And the lists that Jeff mentioned? The Black List. The Hit List. The Young and Hungry List. The Blood List. If a writer is able to get his script on one of these, it is very likely that more general meetings with more industry executives, hopefully leading to more opportunities, will be set.

When a possible assignment comes into play, the writer is given a concept, for which to develop her take. This could be based on source material such as a book, a blog post, a news article, a short story, a podcast. It could be as undeveloped as a broad longline or a board-game. She is then asked to, after reviewing the material, develop a detailed “take.” Many other writers could be competing for the same assignments; once the producer, development exec or production company hear the take that they like, and after a round or two of notes, the assignment would be awarded to the writer, who starts her job when the contracts have been signed and she’s been officially commenced.

There is no telling how long it will take for a writer to get her first OWA. I’ve seen it happen in less than a year from the time her first industry-ready spec hit the professional space, or as much as six years before the writer was able to get her first paid writing assignment after establishing herself as a viable content creator whose work is widely considered professional-grade.

There are those writers who are able to deliver successfully on a first, high-profile assignment, and from there, go assignment-to-assignment for years, rather than just months. But very few writers manage to keep this going indefinitely at a high level (though those writers do exist); for many, the quality of the assignments will start to dwindle over time, going from studio assignments to assignments for mini-majors, and then for productions companies that have smaller budgets. When that happens? You guessed it: A great, exciting, original new spec screenplay that’s voice-y and noisy is the best way to remind execs and reps of what she does best, and raise her profile once again.   

This is what I love about screenwriting: It is a blue-collar profession. A profession where throwing hard work at the problem is usually the best way out of it. While actors need an audience, and a director needs a camera, and actors, and a crew, writers need nothing but their storytelling sensibilities, an intriguing concept, and their computer. They are able to create new momentum for a stalled career by sitting down and doing the work. They can create amazing new opportunities previously not available to them by putting meaningful time into a powerful, exciting new spec.

So yes, specs don’t really sell, at least not the way that they used to, these days. But, when done well, they can make careers, create interest, build excitement and generate momentum for their creator again and again.