The Business of Screenwriting: The Path of Least Resistance

September 2nd, 2015 by

There is no right way to write. No correct way to approach your career as a writer. No single secret to success. You can take some of the most ingrained supposed pieces of conventional wisdom about how Hollywood operates, invert them one hundred eighty degrees, do precisely that, and bust into the business doing everything not according to Hoyle.

That said…

There are some strategies an aspiring writer can adopt which in effect create a path of least resistance toward getting representation and establishing yourself as a viable writer in Hollywood. Here is one such approach:

  • Write 3 scripts: Not just one. Not two. But three scripts. Written, rewritten, reviewed by pro readers and/or a strong writers group, revised again, and brought to the best level of readability and marketability possible.
    • Rationale: If you have 3 scripts in hand, this demonstrates to someone in the business you are not a one-hit wonder, you are prolific, you are persistent, and you have an effective approach to mapping a story and getting it from FADE IN to FADE OUT. Also 3 scripts triples the chances you can find a set of eyeballs which responds to at least one of your stories.
  • Write 3 scripts in 1 genre: Not 3 scripts in 3 different genres, but 1 genre.
    • Rationale: It is easier to sell you to the town if you are known as an Action writer, a Comedy writer, a Drama writer, and so on. The fact is, people will put you on lists based on whatever script first gets their attention. Like it or not, this is your brand. And having a brand makes the life of managers and agents a whole lot easier to sell you and your writing services.
  • Write 3 scripts in 1 genre which is mainstream: Action, Comedy, Drama, Family, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller.
    • Rationale: Scripts in mainstream genres as opposed to those that are not (e.g., Western Musical, Animated Horror) are easier sells because they are more likely to represent what studios, production companies, and financiers are actively developing. So much of it is about their comfort level and if you’re up for a writing assignment in a certain genre, and you have credibility in that genre, again path of least resistance.
  • Write 3 scripts in the $5-20M budget range: Write at least one on the low end and no more than two at the upper end.
    • Rationale: If you write a script with a budget of $100M or more, there are only 6 potential buyers. If you write a script with a budget of $50-100M, there are virtually no buyers. However if you write a script in the $5-20M range, there are literally dozens of buyers. Even if they don’t acquire your script, your reps can paper the town with it and get you meetings. With a $100M script and severely limited number of buyers… not so much.
  • Write 3 treatments: In addition to your 3 spec scripts.
    • Rationale: Assuming you go on the bottled water tour, the first thing they’ll say is, “Love your script.” The second thing: “What else you got?” Having 3 stories worked out in your back pocket makes you that much more marketable.
  • Write 3 treatments based on your strongest story concepts: And this goes for your spec scripts, too.
    • Rationale: Along with execution and voice, story concept is one of the most important sales elements of your script. Moreover if you can demonstrate you can generate great story ideas, that makes you all that much more desirable for representation.

Again to be perfectly clear, I am not saying this is the way to approach your craft. It may be anathema to your creative process. Always… always… follow your creative instincts.

However if you can be creative while following these strategies, you can create a path of least resistance for breaking into Hollywood.

So to sum up: 3 scripts. 1 genre. 3 treatments. Strong concepts. Budgets: $5-20M.

This path gives reps and buyers less reasons to say ‘no’ and more reasons to say ‘yes’.

P.S.: The idea of you being a brand may seem entirely antithetical to your creative process. However what if you look at it this way: What types of stories do you most love writing? What types of stories play most to your strengths as a writer? If you can identify that… and focus your attention on generating, developing, and writing scripts in that literary space, you are in effect following your creative bliss. And the reality is, if you break in as an Action writer, Comedy writer, Drama writer, Whatever writer, chances are writing assignments you may be able to land will be in that arena. This is where brand merges with creativity… because in order to write a single genre for 5, 7, or 10 years, you want to be in love with those types of stories. Sure, you can always write specs in other genres to prove to the town you can cover a wider variety of material. But if you think of brand as being tied to your passion — the types of stories you love the most and have the most talent writing — then the decision is as much about your creativity as it is about the pragmatics of the business.

The Business of Screenwriting is a 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.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 20]

August 13th, 2015 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.

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

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinized the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledged the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discussed the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

In Part 14, we drilled down into the strategy of going wide.

In Part 15, we indulged in the ultimate fantasy of a bidding war.

In Part 16, we got a first-hand account of a preemptive purchase.

In Part 17, we thought about one creative choice to write what they’re buying.

In Part 18, we pondered another choice to sell them your dream.

In Part 19, we reflected on the value of a spec script even if it does not sell.

Part 20: The value of a spec script… if it does sell

Congratulations! You just sold your spec script. And for big bucks. Or not so big bucks.

If the latter, it’s still probably for six figures which ain’t bad for sitting on one’s arse all day conjuring up stories.

If the former, maybe it’s mid-six figures. Or even seven-figures. Hey, it can happen witness the sale of “Grim Night” for a cool million dollars to a pair of first-time writers.

In either case, you have broken through the protective bubble that surrounds Hollywood, transitioning from outsider to insider.

But remember this: As difficult as it has been for you to get to this point and achieve this goal, it is just the beginning. And no matter how excited you are by the whirlwind of activity surrounding you, how bedazzling it feels to be the flavor-of-the-week in Hollywood is, how much smoke is being blown up your keester, you must remember this:

Movies don’t owe anybody a living.

So be smart.

* Even if you sell a spec script, I would recommend not giving up the day job. Just yet. See how things shake out for a year or two. You get a few paid writing projects lined up, maybe then make your move to L.A..

* Sock away at least 20% of what you earn into savings to give you a buffer when the Hollywood winds starting blowing in your face, not at your back.

* Treat each script as if it’s your first and last chance to tell a great story. Yes, there will be assignments you take where the subject matter doesn’t lend itself to being ‘great,’ but even then you need to bring your A-game to your writing.

* Put in more blood, sweat and tears now than you did before. The competition is fierce. So no matter the amount of hours you have put in to get this far, redouble your effort. You want to play with the players? You gotta be able to stay up with the players.

Depending upon how hard you have worked at learning the craft, how savvy you are at working with your reps, how well you slot into the film development system, and how willing you are to put your nose to the proverbial grindstone, you can make a shit-ton of money in Hollywood.

And that spec script you sold? That is your calling card. Depending on how good it is [Black List?], it can become your springboard to a screenwriting career.

Okay, that’s it. Everything you wanted to know about specs in 20 installments. If you have any further questions about the spec script marketplace or writing a spec script, please post in comments. If not, we’ll move onto another subject starting next week.

The Business of Screenwriting is a 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 June 27, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 19]

August 6th, 2015 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.

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

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinized the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledged the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discussed the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

In Part 14, we drilled down into the strategy of going wide.

In Part 15, we indulged in the ultimate fantasy of a bidding war.

In Part 16, we got a first-hand account of a preemptive purchase.

In Part 17, we thought about one creative choice to write what they’re buying.

In Part 18, we pondered another choice to sell them your dream.

Part 19: The value of a spec script… even if it doesn’t sell

Obviously your goal is to write an original screenplay that sells. That’s the fantasy, right? Seven figure deal. Big splashy item in the trades with great quotes from the buyer: “An incredible script with a fresh, distinctive voice.” Buy a house in the Hollywood Hills. Trade in the Chevy Vega for a Porsche. You know, the whole La La Land nine yards.

The fact is, however, most spec scripts do not sell. And yet they can have real value to you as a writer in many other ways.

* They can get you representation: If you are outside the business, a quality spec script with a strong story concept that is well-executed can get the attention of a manager who could take you on as a client. Depending upon who you are, what type of script you’ve written, what genre you specialize in, and how strong your writing is, you may end up with an agent as well.

* They can create access to buyers: Once you are represented, you are officially in the game because all the buyers who do not look at unsolicited material will now consider your scripts because you are represented.

* They can serve as a writing sample: Because everyone in Hollywood knows how hard it is to sell a spec script, they understand there is a lot of good material floating around that is not set up. So it’s possible for your reps to use an unsold spec script as a writing sample to send around town.

* They can create meetings: Whoever responds to your writing sample becomes a target for your reps to set up a meeting. Getting face time with producers, talent and studio execs is critical, to put your mug, your personality, and your creativity into their consciousness. Plus you never know where a meeting may lead, now or in the future.

* They can put you in the OWA game: Your writing sample can open doors for you to go up for Open Writing Assignments.

* They can be optioned: An option offers significantly less money to a writer than a sale, but a deal is a deal, and beyond the cash, the PR value of landing a deal can be considerable as it adds to the perception you are a hot commodity.

* They can be an asset: Just because a spec script doesn’t sell now doesn’t mean it won’t sell down the road. For example, the spec script “The Chung Factor” sold in November 2011. It made the Black List in 2005. That’s 6 years! Times change, tastes change, business cycles change. Your horror zombie psycho dude musical may not fit a niche now, but in 2015, it could slot right into that future Zeitgeist.

And then there is this intangible: The experience you gain as a writer by writing spec scripts.

I’m reminded of screenwriter John Swetnam who said in this interview he wrote 16 specs before making his first sale “Evidence.” That script has been produced and the movie comes out in theaters in a month. If we asked John did he have to write all of those 16 scripts in order to acquire the knowledge and experience he needed to write “Evidence,” I’m sure he would say yes.

There’s every reason for you to have a goal of writing a spec script and selling it. Take that dream, make it your own and use it to fuel your creative aspirations.

But also know this: Even if that spec does not sell, it still has value to you as a writer.

Next week: The value of a spec script… if it does sell.

If you have additional questions or areas you want addressed related to spec scripts, please post in comments, and I will be happy to consider adding however many more posts to respond to your inquiries and concerns.

The Business of Screenwriting is a 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 June 20, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 18]

July 30th, 2015 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.

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

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinized the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledged the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discussed the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

In Part 14, we drilled down into the strategy of going wide.

In Part 15, we indulged in the ultimate fantasy of a bidding war.

In Part 16, we got a first-hand account of a preemptive purchase.

In Part 17, we went down one creative choice to write what they’re buying.

Part 18: Sell Them Your Dream

For the first 16 weeks of this series, we have taken a comprehensive look at the spec script market. Okay. Now what do you do with that information and insight?

Let’s consider this a response to a reader question because I get this type of inquiry pretty regularly from aspiring screenwriters. It takes different forms:

What type of stories should I focus on writing for my spec script?

I have a lot of story ideas: How do I know which one to write as a spec?

What’s the best approach to take to maximize my chance of selling a spec script to Hollywood?

There is no one right answer. Even if there was and I gave it to you, you can be certain you would open the trades tomorrow to read a story about some writer who came along and did precisely the opposite, and just sold a spec for six figures.

That said broadly speaking, there are two basic paths an aspiring screenwriter can take when writing a spec script.

The most obvious approach is this: Write what they’re buying. We explored that last week. If you haven’t read it here, you should before continuing.

But what if your interests run to independent type movies. Or you just don’t want to track the marketplace and would rather just write your own stuff precisely the way you want to write.

In that case, you’re choosing an alternate path, one I call: Sell Them Your Dream.

At its core, this is about believing passionately in yourself as a writer and specifically your own unique vision of the world in combination with your ability to translate that perspective into a story. You watch movies, you analyze scripts, you read books, the same basic practices any aspiring screenwriter should follow, but it’s all about providing fodder for your creative instincts.

It’s Tarantino writing Reservoir Dogs. It’s Soderbergh writing Sex, Lies and Videotape. It’s Kaufman writing Being John Malkovich. It’s Joel and Ethan Coen writing The Big Lebowski.

Think of these two approaches in terms of Hollywood’s mantra re acquisitions, how the studios want something ‘similar but different.’

The Write What They’re Buying path is more about being similar.

The Sell Them Your Dream path is more about being different.

If you do go this latter route, two pieces of advice: (1) Write a script with budget in mind. A $5M project is easier to get made than a $50M movie. Better yet, why not aim for a $1M movie? Funding is a big goddammed deal when it comes to getting an indie movie made with any chance of recouping the investment, so think smart and write low. Budget, that is. (2) Write key characters who name actors would kill to play. Many top actors like to vary their work: Take a big picture to pay the bills, then do a small indie feature to sink their teeth into a fascinating character and story.

As to which path to take, my advice? Go off by yourself for a day. Take a good honest look at your skills, what you bring to the table as a writer. Consider your creativity, how it works. Pay special attention to what types of movies inspire you, what kind of stories for which you have passion.

Then look at your story concepts, the entire list. If you don’t have a list, put one together. Sit with each of your ideas. Which ones bubble up to the top as being the most interesting ones? Which ones feel the most like a movie?

Finally imagine you are standing at a fork-in-the-road: One path has a sign that reads Write What They’re Buying, the other path has a sign that says Sell Them Your Dream.

Which path feels right to you? Which path pulls you in its direction?

You’re not looking for the right choice or a wrong choice, rather you are looking for an honest choice: Which best reflects your instincts as a writer?

Hopefully one or the other path will speak to you. If not, don’t worry. Follow Yogi Berra’s advice: “When you come to a fork-in-the-road, take it.”

Go down one or the other, and write something. That way, you will end up with something that has the potential to sell. Perhaps more importantly, you will learn about yourself as a writer.

How about you? Which type of writer are you? Which path will you take?

Next week: The value of a spec script… even if it doesn’t sell.

Week 20: The value of a spec script… if it does sell.

If you have additional questions or areas you want addressed related to spec scripts, please post in comments, and I will be happy to consider adding however many more posts to respond to your inquiries and concerns.

The Business of Screenwriting is a 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 June 13, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 17]

July 23rd, 2015 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.

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

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinized the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledged the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discussed the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

In Part 14, we drilled down into the strategy of going wide.

In Part 15, we indulged in the ultimate fantasy of a bidding war.

In Part 16, we got a first-hand account of a preemptive purchase.

Part 17: Write What They’re Buying

For the last 16 weeks, we have taken a comprehensive look at the spec script market. Okay. Now what do you do with that information and insight?

Let’s consider this a response to a reader question because I get this type of inquiry pretty regularly from aspiring screenwriters. It takes different forms:

What type of stories should I focus on writing for my spec script?

I have a lot of story ideas: How do I know which one to write as a spec?

What’s the best approach to take to maximize my chance of selling a spec script to Hollywood?

There is no one right answer. Even if there was and I gave it to you, you can be certain you would open the trades tomorrow to read a story about some writer who came along and did precisely the opposite, and just sold a spec for six figures.

That said broadly speaking, there are two basic paths an aspiring screenwriter can take when writing a spec script.

The most obvious approach is this: Write what they’re buying.

It’s the first rule of sales: Qualify your customer. If Hollywood is your ‘customer,’ then you find out what they are buying. That can mean right now, that can mean established patterns in terms of genres and movie story types over a decade or more, that can mean reading the tea leaves for what you think may be the next big thing. You do due diligence in terms of gathering information about the Hollywood acquisition market so when you assess your story concepts, your own interests, and your potential as a writer to develop your voice, you can make an intelligent choice in what you pursue.

I know there is a pretty persistent piece of advice given by established writers that goes something like this: “Don’t pay attention to the market. Things change. What you write today won’t reflect what they’re buying tomorrow. Besides it’s important to be authentic. The old adage is true: Write what you know.”

The problem with this take is while it may be sound advice for some types of writers, it can be absolutely the wrong tack for others. For example, if your passion is action, those are the movies you watch, those are the scripts you’ve analyzed, that’s the type of story that oozes from your creative soul, then you’d probably be dumb not to track that part of the acquisition market.

First off, what if there is a script that sells or a project in development that is the precise concept you were planning on writing? What a waste of time that would be to write a script that has zero chance of selling.

Second, determining what’s going on in development and production may provide you with just the spark for a variation on a preexisting idea to use for a new spec.

Third, you can be damn sure professional screenwriters track what sells to know what’s going on. Shouldn’t you?

In the case of this type of writer, why would they consciously not pay attention to the acquisition marketplace when in fact there are multiple good reasons to do precisely that?

So if you read an article like this one in the Hollywood Reporter — “Revenge of the Over-40 Actress” — which notes that with a plethora of great, well-known actresses over the age of 40 in combination with studios beginning to make more movies targeting the 40+ and Baby Boomer demos, maybe you start thinking about that when assessing your next spec story concept.

Or when 19 of the 45 spec script sales this year have been some variation within the thriller genre, that could influence your choice to write a thriller.

Or maybe not. Maybe the buyers are reaching a saturation point on the genre. And that’s the thing. You may research market trends until your skull has devolved into a cavity filled with mashed yeast, and your success, while influenced by information you learn, will still come down to talent, voice, and instinct.

Besides some writers simply cannot function by tracking movie trends or even trying to write what they think the buyers will buy. For that type of writer, there is another path to pursue in the spec script market

That’s the subject of next week’s post.

The Business of Screenwriting is a 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 June 6, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 16]

July 16th, 2015 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.

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

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinized the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledged the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discussed the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

In Part 14, we drilled down into the strategy of going wide.

In Part 15, we indulged in the ultimate fantasy of a bidding war.

Part 16: Preemptive Purchase

It’s January, 1987. Through sheer serendipity, the spec script K-9 has wound its way from a low-ball offer from 20th Century Fox, to a threatened lawsuit from Fox, to them relinquishing all rights to the script, to everyone in town reading the script, so that when I drive my 1978 beat-to-shit Ford onto — ironically — the Fox lot on Pico, that tiny part of the universe known as the Hollywood movie community is pretty much abuzz about the 112 page screenplay I co-wrote.

And at noon today, the bidding period is scheduled to commence.

This is heady stuff for a guy who has a lifelong passion for movies, but barely any understanding of how the movie business works. Plus there’s this: I’ve got maybe $500 in my checking account [making a living as a stand-up comic can do that]. So the figures my agents are batting about in terms of potential deals for K-9 — $100K… $150K… maybe even $200K — sound astronomically delicious to my ears.

I am twitching with excitement as I edge into the expansive offices of the project’s producer Larry Gordon, former head of production at Fox [hence the location and opulence of his digs]. But as soon as I enter, I hear this:

“THE FUCK YOU WILL!!!”

It’s Larry. Yelling into his phone. The person on the other end is screaming back. I can tell it’s one of my agents, Marty Bauer. The fact I can hear his voice is noteworthy… seeing as he’s not on speakerphone. Rather the decibels he is creating, which I can hear clear across the conference room, are emerging like a shrieking pterodactyl from that tiny phone speaker.

Back and forth they go, Larry and Marty, dropping F-bombs at each other, Larry red-faced, Marty doubtless as well.

I turn to one of Larry’s people, utterly confounded.

“What’s happening?”

“Larry and Marty are negotiating his producer’s fee. Marty wants 10%. Larry only wants to give up 5.”

At that precise moment amidst F-bombs and other expletives being flung about by these two cinematic warriors, I see my bright shiny future flying out the window before I’ve even had a chance to experience its delights.

I turn to Larry’s guy.

“This is not good, right. I mean could this cause everything to like… go south?”

The guy smiles at me.

“Nah. Don’t worry. Larry and Marty are friends.”

Sure enough, after a few more expletives, the guys settle their deal, and that’s that. All smiles.

Welcome to Hollywood, Mr. Myers.

It’s now 11:50AM. Larry sits at the head of his long conference table. Seated there are his people, one of my agents Peter Benedek, and my writing partner and me. Larry is fielding calls, his assistant poking her head in the door every few seconds.

“Sherry Lansing on line 2.”

That would be Paramount’s president of production.

“Dawn Steel on 1.”

That would be Columbia Pictures.

TriStar… DEG… Eddy Murphy’s people…

Larry rolls calls, each one about 30 seconds, quick inquiries about the script.

“Lansing says she doesn’t want to get into a bidding war. She’ll call back.”

Assistant enters.

“Sherry Lansing on line 3.”

Larry winks. Picks up the phone.

And the clock keeps ticking toward noon…

Suddenly the door bursts open. It’s Dan Halsted, the junior agent at Bauer-Benedek who signed us after reading our script.

“Universal made an offer.”

Beat.

“All in, seven-hundred-fifty thousand dollars.”

A long silence as we take turns looking at each other.

Larry says, “Well, boys, like the sound of that?”

I turn toward Peter and Dan. They’re smiling like cats who just caught a pair of birds.

I tilt my head toward my writing partner. He looks like Nosferatu, the blood drained from his face.

$750K can have that effect on a person.

I shrug. He shrugs.

Larry slaps the table and says, “Looks like a deal to me.”

And that, my friends, is what you call a preemptive purchase.

When a studio has a strong interest in a spec script or other type of literary material, and they want to avoid getting into a bidding war where the sale price can get jacked up and up, sometimes they will decide to step up to the plate and make a substantial offer. Their hope is the amount of cash and other benefits will be high enough, the sellers decide to take that deal and forego putting the script on the open market.

There is risk involved in this type of strategy on both sides.

For a buyer, they may in effect be bidding against themselves as they don’t know for sure what sale price might transpire in an auction environment.

For the seller, if they accept the preemptive offer, they may be losing out on the potential for more money in a competitive bidding scenario. On the other hand if they opt to pass and go out wide, there is always a chance the script could end up not finding a buyer.

But when the offer is for three-quarters of a million dollars, that’s pretty much a no-brainer.

We take the preemptive offer.

For 16 weeks, I’ve been taking you through the ins and outs of the world of spec scripts. I have four more posts planned to round out the series.

Week 17: Write what they’re buying.

Week 18: Sell them your dream.

Week 19: The value of a spec script… even if it doesn’t sell.

Week 20: The value of a spec script… if it does sell.

The Business of Screenwriting is a 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 May 30, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 15]

July 9th, 2015 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.

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

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinized the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledged the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discussed the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

In Part 14, we drilled down into the strategy of going wide.

Part 15: Bidding War

This is it: A screenwriter’s fantasy. You write a spec script. Your reps send it out. Then more than one buyer compete against each other to acquire the script, jacking up the purchase price. That, my friends, is a bidding war.

Some notable examples in the recent past:

“White House Down” [James Vanderbilt]: “In what amounts to the biggest spec deal of the year, Sony Pictures has closed a $3 million deal to acquire “White House Down,” an action spec from “Amazing Spider-Man” scribe James Vanderbilt that had studios buzzing this week. Heated bidding came down to Sony and Paramount.” — March 29, 2012

“El Tigre” [Aaron Buchsbaum & Teddy Riley]: “The project is an action comedy about a family vacation gone wrong when the father is mistaken for Mexico’s most ruthless drug lord, El Tigre… A bidding war broke out between multiple suitors, including Sony, Paramount and MGM. The sale price was in the mid-six figures, according to sources.” — April 27, 2012

“Glimmer” [Carter Blanchard]: “The logline is unknown but is described as Amblin-esque… The bidding came out down to DreamWorks and Paramount, with DreamWorks closing a deal a progress to production term.” — June 6, 2012

I got a behind-the-scenes look at the “Glimmer” deal when I recently interviewed its screenwriter Carter Blanchard:

Scott: Let’s jump to June 2012. Your script ends up in a bidding war between DreamWorks and I think Paramount was involved?

Carter: Yeah.

Scott: Could you maybe walk us through a little bit of the chronology of how that deal happened and what that experience was for you?

Carter: Well, I was thinking about going back to Boston and teaching before it happened. My buddy teaches at BU now. That was a compelling option. I was out of money, drawing off my IRA. I had a good feeling about “Glimmer,” but you never know. It went to producers first and by the end of that day, I was getting an email from Adam saying, “This is blowing up all over town. Sit tight. Stay positive.” It felt like good news, but because he added, “Stay positive” I got worried, because I’m used to someone saying “stay positive” as a sign that things are not going well.

The next morning, my phone rang at 8:30. It was my lawyer, my agent, and my manager. They said, “Okay, DreamWorks made an offer.” I was jumping up and down saying, “Great, take it!” They said, “No dude, this is only the first studio to respond.” We talked about some details and then they said, “Go back to doing your thing. Don’t worry about it. Just always have your phone ready.”

I was meeting a friend for lunch when I got another call from the team saying Paramount and DreamWorks both wanted it and I had to make a decision on the spot. Paramount was offering a little more up front, but DreamWorks’ was a progress-to-production deal, meaning they had to start shooting in 12 months or I got the script back free and clear. Then Boxerbaum [agent] said, “You’re also going to meet Steven Spielberg tomorrow if you go with them.” So then it’s not even a question anymore. DreamWorks! [laughs]

My favorite movie of all times is “Jaws.” Hands down. That movie is ultimately why I went into the movie business, if you go back to the real origins of what inspired me. So this whole situation was so great. It was just an amazing thing. The deal closed in the middle of lunch and my friend was like, “You’re buying.”

The next day I went in and met Mr. Spielberg. He was incredibly nice and really complimentary about the script. I kept thinking maybe he wasn’t really there and I was talking to a hologram because it was so surreal. I had another meeting five days later and then I was commenced on the rewrite. It was the fastest I’ve ever been commenced after a spec sale before. Usually it takes months. And DreamWorks’ notes have been excellent. The script has improved enormously under their watch

This brings up another point: If your scripts creates a bidding war, it’s not just the purchase price that’s in play. It’s everything. You can try to get a producing credit. A progress-to-production deal. Even a meeting with Steven Spielberg himself!

There are very few times when a screenwriter finds him/herself in a power position. One of them is when they have multiple buyers vying over their spec script. It’s like this little corner of the universe — the Hollywood acquisition and development community — casts a lion’s share of its focus on your 100 pages or so of written content. It’s an experience that can completely transform your life… as well as your checking account!

Next week, something akin to a bidding war: Preemptive purchase.

The Business of Screenwriting is a 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 May 23, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 14]

July 2nd, 2015 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.

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

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinized the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledged the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discussed the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

Part 14: Going Wide

When most people think of a spec script, their image of what transpires as it goes to market is this: Going wide. Sending the script out to multiple producers who then take the script into multiple buyers. Why? Screenwriter Justin Rhodes explains:

The advantage of going wide is that, if you get multiple buyers interested, you can have them bid against one another and end up getting a lot more money for selling the same thing. The disadvantage of going wide is that you basically get one shot at it; if everyone passes on the first attempt, the script gets taken out behind the shed and shot (although it’s really sad, and the script looks you in the eye, and kind of makes you cry, but you have to kill it anyway, on account of what it did to the Ellis boy.) So, like gambling, going wide is big risk/big reward.

All you need to know about this strategy is the last two words of Justin’s explanation: Big reward.

First off, this approach gets the script in front of a maximum amount of eyeballs. Even if the script doesn’t sell, that can be a win because — assuming producers and studio execs like the script, even if not enough to acquire it — that can lead to a round of meet-and-greets. And there is no telling what any one [or more] of those meetings can lead to, all part of the magical mystery networking phenomenon that is such a crucial part of a screenwriter’s life.

Of course, there is the “big risk” possibility as well by going wide. The script goes out. Everyone passes. Crickets chirp. If a screenwriter can be perceived as a hot commodity, they can also easily lose that heat and become cold. And going wide with a spec that lands with a thud can turn down a writer’s heat in a hurry.

But there is a rep’s wet dream: To get more than one potential buyer vying for a script. And that is simply the most awesome thing in a writer’s life [and his/her reps] where for a holy rolling moment in time, the entire focus of the Hollywood movie development community is on your script.

Not to mention six, even seven figure deals.

It’s called a bidding war. And that’s the subject of next week’s TBOS post.

[Originally posted May 16, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting is a 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.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 13]

June 25th, 2015 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.

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

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinized the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledged the role that serendipity can play in the process.

Part 13: Targeting Specific Buyers

Sometimes a rep will slip a script to someone. Occasionally a script can take on a life of its own through serendipity. But more often, reps will come up with a strategy that – broadly speaking – goes one of either two ways: They target specific buyers or they go wide. Today we look at the former. Observations from screenwriter Justin Rhodes:

Targeting people specifically means the material can evolve or shuffle between different parties in a gradual way. You can afford a few no’s before you’re finished, if that’s the way things shake out. The advantage, hypothetically, is that you’re more likely to sell the thing if you take pains to mitigate any hurdles that come up. The disadvantage is that it can take a couple of months for the whole process to play out, especially if the project isn’t seen as a “slam dunk.” And slam dunk means: star parts for stars the studio likes, clear genre, clear simple concept that’s easy to market, and an obvious place in the studio’s slate. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how well you’ve written the thing.

Much of this choice is determined by the script itself. It could be a project that by its very nature, whether through content, genre and/or budget, would appeal to a limited set of buyers. It could be so unique, it requires a company with an established openness toward unusual fare. It could have a distinctive angle or hook that might slot into a handful of buyer’s slates.

As Justin indicates, the process can take months. We’ve seen this happen with several Black List scripts. For example, Murder City, a 2012 Black List script didn’t get set up until March of this year. Another 2012 Black List script Don’t Make Me Go just recently found a home in April.

Scripts like these can require more finesse, commitment, patience and luck. There are other scripts, however, where the concept, genre and execution are so mainstream, they deserve to go wide, out to dozens of buyers at the same time.  That’s the subject of next week’s Business of Screenwriting post.

[Originally posted May 9, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting is a 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.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 12]

June 18th, 2015 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.

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

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we looked at the practice of slipping a script to someone.

Part 12: Serendipity

Hollywood is one of the world’s most famous brands. And of course, there is that iconic sign:

If you don’t live and work in Los Angeles, you may think the movie community is this enormous entity.

It’s not. Instead it’s actually quite small, particularly if you are just talking about those who are involved in project acquisition and development. There are perhaps a few thousand people. Think about that. A few thousand people. The Hollywood film community is like a small town. Well, one where everyone is on speed dial. So serendipitous things like the following can happen.

From my interview with screenwriter Ashleigh Powell in March 2013 [emphasis added]:

Scott: So you write this script [“Somacell”]. How did David Goyer get involved and what was the process whereby it ended up selling?

Ashleigh: I wrote the script. I was going out to a handful of producers that I had already met and had a relationship with. We gave it to an exec I actually knew from my assistant days – we were both on desks at the same time and were always scheduling meetings and calls for our respective bosses. He read it and liked it, but ultimately it wasn’t right for his company. But he passed it on to his wife to read… and she just happened to be David Goyer’s Creative Executive. So that’s how it got into his hands. Which was amazing. I was just thrilled for that. Then, simultaneously, Warner Bros. somehow ended up with it. No one on my team even knew they were reading it, and one evening they called up my agents and said, “Hey, we want to make a deal on this script tonight.” It was shocking moment. It took us all by surprise. It was just a random confluence of events.

Scott: Boy, does that speak to the power of writing a great script.

Ashleigh: It’s been really fun for me to hear that people are passing the script to their friends or to other executives on their own, without any intervention from my manager or agent or anything like that. It’s just working its way around.

Like I said… small town. It’s why networking can work so well in Hollywood. There are these subcultures — movie development, TV development, production, post-production, and so on — all these aspects of making entertainment product inhabited by people who as it turns out pretty much have one or at most two degrees of separation.

So sometimes a script gets slipped to Person A who gives it to Person B who is married to Person C who works at Studio D. And you can be Agent E and Manager F suddenly getting a call from Studio Executive G saying they want to buy Script H written by Writer I. All complete serendipity.

That’s the exception, not the rule. Generally reps have to decide whether to go wide with a spec or take a more targeted approach. We’ll dig into that in next week’s TBOS post.

[Originally posted May 2, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting is a 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.