You may think a spec script is something only relevant to aspiring screenwriters. Not true. Established screenwriters choose to write spec scripts as well. In fact, the top ten biggest paydays for spec scripts per this website are all by established writers.
So why would an established screenwriter, some of whom make tons of money on writing assignments, adaptations, production rewrites, and polishes, choose to write something on spec? For a variety of reasons:
* They may write a script on spec in the hopes of generating so much heat on the project, they get to make a deal which allows them to helm it as a first-time director.
* If a writer is pigeonholed in one genre, they may write a spec script in another genre with the hopes of breaking the town’s perception of the type of material they can write.
* Similarly if they are known for big-budget special effects movies, they may write a smaller, character-driven script in order to explore indie filmmaking.
* Sometimes it doesn’t require that much more work to write a script than to prep a pitch, so depending upon the subject matter, the marketplace, and advice of the writer’s reps, they may choose to take those additional few months to knock out a spec.
* On the other hand, if a writer pitches a project and finds no buyers, they may decide to write the script on spec – if they really believe in the story – hoping that when the studios read the full story, they will see what the writer sees in it.
* Some screenwriters prefer to write on spec or at least used to in the Good Old Days, such as Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge), because that approach can minimize the amount of hassles you have with a studio in terms of development and maximize the potential payoff.
* If a writer has an established writing partner, they may decide to write a spec script in order to carve out a niche of their own as a solo writer, or write with another writer as Terry Rossio, normally Ted Elliott’s partner, did with Bill Marsillii on Deja Vu.
* If a writer’s career has stalled, their only choice may be to write a spec script in order to make a sale and get back in the game.
And then there is the purity of the experience. When you write something spec, it is completely yours. You are that story’s God and you can do anything with it. That’s not the case for a working screenwriter in any other situation — writing assignment, adaptation, production polish, rewrite, punch-up, in those circumstances there are all sorts of other opinions involved, a multitude of variables to handle, seemingly every choice layered with this other ‘stuff’ that has nothing to do with the story, and yet in a way everything to do with it because that’s the nature of developing a script — dealing with the exigencies of the studio, talent, producers, and so on.
Not so a spec script. It is the purest form of storytelling a screenwriter has available to them short of penning a novel. And sometimes the appeal of just writing a story for the story’s sake is precisely what a working screenwriter needs to maintain their sanity.
So while your Hollywood fantasy may involve selling that spec script you’re currently working on for a million dollars and jump-starting your career as a screenwriter, leading you to think, “I’ll never have to work for free again!” — don’t be so sure.
You may well find a spec script in your future once again.
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.
[Originally posted February 3, 2011]