The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 2]

February 21st, 2013 by

Spec scripts, that is. I’m guessing that perhaps 90% of the people who follow this blog at some point in their lives will write a spec script. And the other 10% are involved in buying and selling them. In light of that fact, last year I interviewed a top manager and some Hollywood screenwriters about the ins and outs of what is involved in bringing a spec script to market. I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to do something with that inside information, so when Vanity Fair recently came out with this article — When the Spec Script was King — a decent piece, but pretty surface level, I figured this is as good a time as any to dig into the subject in a comprehensive fashion.

Last week in Part 1, we looked at the genesis of the spec script in Hollywood from 1900-1942.

Part 2: The Emergence of the Spec Script Market [1942-1990]

The sale in 1942 of the spec script “Woman of the Year” was unusual in that most Hollywood screenwriters worked under contract for the studios. Receiving a regular paycheck, writers had almost no motivation or inclination to spend their time pounding out a screenplay speculating they could sell it on the open market.

However the 50s and 60s marked significant changes in the film business. After the Supreme Court ruled against the monopolistic practice of vertical integration, by 1948 Hollywood studios were forced to sell their ownership of movie theaters. At that same time, television began to grow in popularity with the emergence of four TV networks and sales of TV sets running into the millions. Combined with a drop in movie box office after the post-World War II boom, studios simply did not have the revenue to support the old ‘studio system’ and shed most of their writer contracts. Cut loose from the security of a studio deal, screenwriters discovered the risks and benefits of becoming independent contractors.

One of the first to cash in was William Goldman who in 1967 sold the original screenplay “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” to 20th Century Fox for a reported $400,000. For all intents and purposes, this sale marks the beginning of the modern spec script era.

Deals of this sort were still few and far between. The next major sale occurred in 1972 when Warner Bros. purchased “The Yakuza,” written by Leonard Schrader and Paul Schrader for between $325-350,000. As far as I know, this was the first ‘bidding war,’ where multiple studios made offers for the script which boosted its eventual sales price.

It wasn’t until the 80s the spec script market really took hold. Here is a list of some notable spec sales during that decade:

1984: Lethal Weapon, written by Shane Black. It sold for $250,000 to Warner Bros.

1985: The Highlander, written by Gregory Widen. It sold for $500,000 to Universal.

1987: K-9, written by Steven Siegel & Scott Myers. It sold for $750,000 to Universal.

1989: “Gale Force”, written by David Chappe. It sold for $500,000 to Carolco.

1989: Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot, written by Blake Snyder. It sold for $500,000 to Universal.

But the year that cemented the importance of the spec script in the field of acquisition and development, and indeed in pop culture was 1990. Here are some of the big ticket sales from that year:

Title: Basic Instinct Logline: A police detective is in charge of the investigation of a brutal murder, in which a beautiful and seductive woman could be involved. Writer: Joe Eszterhas Genre: Crime Thriller Agency: CAA Buyer: Carolco Date: June 1990 Note: Purchase price $3M

Title: The Cheese Stands Alone Logline: An off-beat romantic comedy about a superstitious Hungarian hunk who blames his loss of sex drive on a hex put on him by a jilted girlfriend. Writer: Kathy McWorter Genre: Romantic Comedy Agency: Preferred Artists Buyer: Paramount Date: October 1990 Note: Purchase price $1,000,000

Title: City of Darkness Logline: Two young boys bring a comic-book villain and a comic-book hero into the real world. Writers: Patrick Cirillo and Joe Gayton Genre: Action Comedy Agency: N/A Buyer: Columbia Date: 1990 Note: Purchase price $750,000

Title: Cold As Ice Logline: A down-at-the-heels private detective and a young widow team up to solve a diamond robbery. Writer: Mark Allen Smith Genre: Thriller Agency: N/A Buyer: Columbia Note: Purchase price $350,000

Title: Flatliners Logline: Medical students bring themselves near death; their experiment begins to go awry. Writer: Peter Filardi Genre: Drama Sci-Fi Agency: N/A Buyer: Columbia Note: Purchase price $400,000

Title: Hell Bent… And Back! Logline: WWII action comedy Writers: Doug Richardson and Rick Jaffa Genre: Action Comedy: Agency: N/A Buyer: Disney Date: N/A Note: Purchase price $1,000,000

Title: The Last Boy Scout Logline: A down and out cynical detective teams up with a down and out ex-quarterback to try and solve a murder case involving a pro football team and a politician. Writer: Shane Black Genre: Action Agency: N/A Buyer: Geffen Film Company Date: April 1990 Note: Purchase price $1.75M

Title: Prince of Thieves Logline: When Robin Hood and his Moorish companion come to England and the tyranny of the Sheriff of Nottingham, he decides to fight back as an outlaw. Writers: Pen Densham and John Watson Genre: Action Adventure Agency: N/A Buyer: Morgan Creek Date: 1990 Note: Purchase price $1.2M

Title: Radio Flyer Logline: A father recounts a dark period of his childhood when he and his little brother lived in the suburbs. Writer: David Mickey Evans Genre: Drama Agency: N/A Buyer: Columbia Note: Purchase price $1.25M

Title: The Rest of Daniel Logline: A 1939 test pilot asks his best friend to use him as a guinea pig for a cryogenics experiment so he doesn’t have to watch his love lying in a coma. The next thing Daniel knows is that he’s awakened in 1992. Writer: J.J. Abrams Genre: Drama Agency: ICM Buyer: Warner Bros. Note: Purchase price $2M

Title: Stay Tuned Logline: A husband and wife are sucked into a hellish TV and have to survive a gauntlet of twisted versions of TV shows they find themselves in. Writers: Tom S. Parker and Jim Jennewein Genre: Comedy Fantasy Agency: N/A Buyer: Morgan Creek Note: Purchase price $750,000

Title: Texas Lead and Gold Logline: Set in the 1880s, the plot follows a Texas Ranger teamed with a black attorney-turned-thief on the trail of a criminal, who in turn is searching for a lost cache of gold. Writers: Michael Beckner and Jim Gorman Genre: Western Agency: Bauer Benedek Buyer: Largo Date: May 1990 Note: Purchase price $1,000,000

Title: The Ticking Man Logline: Nuclear-armed robot Writers: Brian Helgeland and Manny Coto Genre: Action Thriller Agency: N/A Buyer: Largo Pictures Date: N/A Note: $1,000,000

Title: The Ultimatum Logline: Nuclear terrorist techno-thriller Writers: Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool Genre: Action Thriller Agency: N/A Buyer: Disney Date: N/A Note: Purchase price $1,000,000

With multiple seven-figure deals in 1990, spec scripts became sexy and screenwriters hot commodities. During the next two decades, there was a boom, a settling in, a retraction, then a reemergence of the spec script market. That will be the subject of next week’s Business of Screenwriting post.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

2 thoughts on “The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 2]

  1. churnage says:

    Of the big specs in the 90s, it looks like about half of them didn’t get made.

    1. Scott says:

      churnage, that is one of the pet projects I have on a list: To go through all the spec script sales on the comprehensive list and see how many of them got made, how many by year, what genres did/did not get made, etc. But yes, there was a period of time in the mid-90s especially where a lot of specs were bought, but not produced. In Hollywood, that period is known as a time of ‘stupid money.’ That era is long gone and it’s a testament to the quality of current writing that as many specs sell today as they do in this time of Hollywood’s fiscal constraint.

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