Recently Vanity Fair posted a pretty decent article on Hollywood’s spec script market. And by the way, the numbers they used for spec script sales apparently came from this humble site… without attribution of course.
It’s a good read in that it provides some sense of how hot the spec market was in the mid-90s. For example:
“Heady days” is how Donna Langley, co-chairman of Universal Pictures, remembers the period. “Screenwriters could pretty much guarantee they would sell their projects for a lot. That was how the system functioned.” The going rate for an original screenplay? While mid to high six figures was the norm, one of the first specs to see a $1 million payday was 1990’s The Ticking Man, about a nuclear-armed sentient robot hell-bent on destroying Moscow. Brian Helgeland, who co-wrote the screenplay with Manny Coto (and later won an Oscar with Curtis Hanson for L.A. Confidential), had the idea to send ticking clocks to buyers in advance of the script. Stories about alarms suddenly ringing in meetings spread throughout Hollywood, and when the script went out the following week, it sold in hours to Largo Entertainment. Fourteen specs sold that year, 10 for a million or more.
The New York Times’s July 1990 article “Thrills? Millions? ‘Spec’ Scripts Bring Big Bids” detailed the unheard-of $1.75 million Shane Black scored for The Last Boy Scout, which was nearly doubled a mere 67 days later by Joe Eszterhas’s $3 million bonanza for Basic Instinct. Eszterhas reportedly wrote that script in 13 days; a two-page outline he subsequently turned out fetched $2.5 million. “Eszterhas used to call and wake me up at night saying, ‘I just sold something for more money than you, ha-ha,’ ” Black says. “I was like, ‘Joe, I don’t care, man.’ ”
I featured that NYT article back in 2009 here.
The Vanity Fair article is at its best in that it provides a set of dynamics that contributed to the shrinkage of the spec market in the second half of the last decade:
* High profile bombs.
* Studios acquired by multinational conglomerates who shifted focus to brands and franchises.
* The collapse of the DVD market.
* The 2008 WGA strike.
But perhaps the most intriguing explanation is this: E-mail.
Something else happened: a sea change in how Hollywood itself works. One day, no one knows exactly when, agents stopped messengering scripts around town. Instead, IsHak says, “you just e-mail-blast it.” Producer Luke Ryan, of Disruption Entertainment, based on the Paramount lot, adds, “Now when an agent’s pitching me a spec, it lands in my in-box before we get off the phone.” Gone is the tense anticipation as a messenger makes his or her way across town, followed by the crisp tactile thrills of glossy agency-embossed envelopes, cover letters, and brads. Today a script is digital static, a title next to a virtual paper clip, closer in form to spam than to Billy Wilder’s copy of Sunset Boulevard.
And as e-mailing scripts has become standard, the industry has seen the development of a new tool that has undercut the traditional agents’ art of rumor-mill manipulation: the tracking board. Started by assistants around 2000 as a way to share information, tracking boards have evolved into an online instant-monitoring system, used by almost everyone in Hollywood to follow the status of every movie project. Now Hollywood’s entire caste system can click to see the actual status of a spec—who has it, who doesn’t, who bid, who passed.
“When people just had telephones,” says Spink, “there was confusion, and I always found confusion led to sales. Could you insinuate things? Everybody did. Now, if it’s not true, tracking would reveal that within three minutes.” Without the ability to bullshit, top agents now find themselves at the mercy of lowly studio assistants with their bosses’ tracking-board password.
The immediacy by which people could get hold of spec scripts as PDFs essentially demystified the phenomenon, creative effort reduced to the feel of spam.
As I say, the Vanity Fair article is a decent read. But it is a surface level take on Hollywood’s relationship with spec scripts. Will the spec script rise again in Hollywood? It already has! 2011 and 2012 are well above the average number of spec script sales since 1991 including multimillion dollar deals such as White House Down. So the question is answered.
Therefore I’ve decided to do a Business of Screenwriting series on spec scripts. Tomorrow I’ll begin with a brief history of spec scripts, then follow that up with weekly posts on the state of the spec script market and the inner workings of how spec script deals happen including observations from professional screenwriters and a prominent Hollywood manager.
To read the Vanity Fair article, go here.