The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 9]

May 28th, 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.

Part 9: “Own All The Tickets”

So let’s assume a writer has nailed a spec script. It’s ready to go to market. Now comes a crucial component: The actual process of taking out the script. Check out these observations from Chris Fenton, literary manager and producer of H2F Entertainment from an interview I did with him:

I have a philosophy called “Own All The Tickets.” It’s the idea that everything’s basically a lottery, but it’s not a lottery if you own all the tickets. By that I mean, you want to have the best team possible put together, you want to have the best piece of material that’s ready to go, you want to time it right with movies that might be similar to the script that open the weekend before and make a ton of money… you want to put all the lottery tickets into your hands, anything you have control over. Because if you have them all, you can end up winning.

If you have half of them, you have a 50% shot of winning. If you just got one, it’s truly a lottery. So you have to try to pick up every single advantage you can, put it all together, and hopefully that gives you an edge to get it done.

Good agents working with good managers and a team that’s out there spraying the market with phone calls and e-mails, creating buzz and hype, and using relationships to see if there’s a last-minute piece of packaging, hopefully that all adds up to a sale for a writer with a good piece of material. And that’s what I mean: Own all the tickets.

This goes back to discussions we’ve had before, how a big key to a spec script sale is to hit a buyer’s comfort level. Their default mode is one based on fear because a bad decision that leads to an unprofitable movie casts a dark shadow on their career. This is a big reason why most people on that side of the desk in the movie business are leery of fresh, original stories, preferring the safety net of familiar titles — remakes, sequels, prequels, adaptations, and so on.

So what do reps do? Attempt to pull together as many elements as they can for a script project that hit a buyer’s comfort level. A producer the studio is comfortable with. An actor a studio is comfortable with. A sense of heat generating around town about the script suggesting it’s a strong commodity.

Of course, so much of this goes directly back to you and your choices in terms of story concept, genre, and how you shape the story itself. Which is why if you are attempting to sell a script to Hollywood, you need to make yourself aware of what studios and financiers are buying, what they’re producing, what’s working at the box office and what’s not.

Just by doing that, you can provide a rep with lot of ‘tickets,’ thereby making their job easier, and raising the chances you will land a deal.

Next week: Another installment in this series.

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.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 8]

May 21st, 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.

Part 8: Attaching talent

What about attaching actors and/or a director? Screenwriter Justin Rhodes weighs in on that:

In my experience, it’s either the agent or the producer who approaches other elements. Almost always these attachments are made before the script goes out. For example, if you’re at one of the bigger agencies, they may have an internal conversation about the project to see if they represent actors or directors that they think might be right or could benefit from the screenplay. If so, your literary agent will pitch the project to the actor/director’s agent, and if they like it, they’ll take it to their client, who will, depending upon his/her reaction, decide whether or not he wants to read the material/hear the pitch. Oftentimes you’re also dealing with the actor or director’s business partner/manager/etc…, so there are a few hoops to jump through. In the agent scenario, though, you’re only going to be talking about actors and directors the agency represents.

The other situation is that your producer has some existing relationships with talent. Oftentimes when this is the case, you’re also talking about the ability of one person to literally call the other on the phone, so you get to skip a lot of the go-betweens in terms of access. But your mileage varies, again, depending upon the reputation and abilities of the producer you’re working with.

This goes to the heart of what is known as “packaging” a project. Let’s say screenwriter Alan Smithee is repped at the major agency EGO. This agency represents lots of actors and directors. Seeing as they get 10% from all the revenues generated by all their clients, it behooves them to get as many of them working as possible.

So Smithee writes a hot spec script. Does EGO go out with the script as is? Probably not. Why not try to package the script with talent the agency represents? 10% of two, three or more elements is better than 10% of one element (i.e., the screenwriter).

If the talent attached are in-demand and perceived to bring value (i.e., box office dollars) to the project, that can help elevate the script’s marketability.

On the other hand, waiting for actors and directors — their ‘people’ that is — to read, review and recommend (or not) scripts and agree to attach themselves to the project can turn out to be a long, drawn-out affair and ultimately a big fat waste of time.

This is where your reps and producers play a huge role, assessing the temperature of your script as it gets read.

The upside is your script gets packaged in such a way with a delicious combination of elements, it’s a no-brainer for a buyer.

The downside is if your script starts gets a number of passes from talent, that can transform what was perceived to be a hot script into a not-hot script.

This is all part of the magical mystery tour that is handling a spec script. Hopefully you end up with smart reps who know what they’re doing.

But the single best thing you can do is write a great script. Yes, I keep harping on that, but it’s true. Another observation from Justin Rhodes:

In the end, though, you’ve got to remember that people don’t sell your script. Your script sells your script. In the end, if the screenplay is all the town needs and wants it to be, your mom could probably get it set up.

Next week: Another installment in this series.

[Originally posted April 4, 2013]

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.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 7]

May 14th, 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.

Part 7: Attaching producers

This question has come up several times on the blog: What about attaching a producer to a spec script? I posed the question to screenwriter Jeremiah Friedman. Here is his response:

Like most attachments, this likely depends on the quality and frankly, the clout of the producer.  Having a major producer attached – somebody with a studio deal, multiple credits, relationships at the major agencies, independent financing maybe – can definitely be a plus as it adds credibility to the spec.  For instance, when we sold “Family Getaway,” Mosaic was attached to produce.  However, producer attachments can also be complicated.  Taking a script out with a producer who has no real track record likely won’t attract any greater attention and may just complicate any potential deal by giving the buyer another headache to worry about.  In short, the big question to ask is what is the attachment bringing to the table?  How does this producer add value to the spec?

So there is a bottom line: How does the producer add value to the spec? Good question. Screenwriter Justin Rhodes weighs in with these thoughts:

Having a producer attached generally means that he, and more often his development people, have had a role in developing the story with a writer before sending it out to the market. It’s a bit like writing a spec, because during this phase you’re still not getting paid, but it’s also a bit like writing for the studio in the sense that you’re getting notes that you’re expected to deliver on. More rarely (at least in my humble experience), a producer might read a screenplay and decide that he’s willing to attach himself to it after it’s been written. But both the producer and the people he employs are in the business of putting their stamp on things, and even in this scenario there would probably be at least a cursory bit of polish work done to bring the project in line with the producer’s vision for it.

But that’s the mechanics of the relationship. The question pertains to what a producer’s involvement portends for taking the script/pitch to market. What you have to remember is that studios don’t really produce movies themselves. If you read about the studio execs assigned to any project after a sale, the trades will always refer to them as “overseeing” the development process. From the studio’s perspective, the producer is the trusted chaperone who will make sure the artists don’t get into too much trouble. He provides a buffer for the writer as well, as hopefully he becomes an ally to help run interference for you when the studio’s notes are vague, destructive, or otherwise difficult to manage. The studio sees its job as managing its slate from a macro point of view. They see the producer as the man they pay to manage a particular granular entry on that slate.

So, if you sell a screenplay, you are going to get a producer attached no matter what. The studio won’t proceed otherwise. Your options are either to try and attach someone you respect and who you believe is on the same page with you with regards to the material, or wait for the studio to assign this person after the fact. It’s a bit like picking your first dorm roommate: do you want to room with a friend, or let the RA assign you to a stranger?

As far as advantages/disadvantages go, I feel this is really depends upon the particular producer in question. If you’re talking about a producer who the studio sees as “hot,” who has great relationships with the execs and equally great access to talent, then basically his involvement is a blessing that greases all the wheels through the first couple of gauntlets your project must pass through on its way to becoming a movie. If, on the other hand, your producer is seen as impotent, ineffectual, difficult, or otherwise has a bad reputation, then you’re project inherits all these qualities regardless of the words you’ve put on the page. Because, remember, nobody else gets paid unless the movie gets made. Not the producer, not the studio, not the crew, not the director. So nobody really cares about buying a script, per se. They care about buying a movie, and your producer plays an enormous role in helping them visualize what kind of movie-making experience they’re actually buying.

From my point of view, and especially during the attachment-dependent buyer’s market we’re dealing with right now, I would almost always recommend attaching a producer at some point before you attempt a sale, because this is the time where you have the most control over who you become involved with. Ideally you find someone whose reputation and work you respect who also believes in you and the project.

If your reps decide to go wide with your spec, most often they will try to attach producers to go into every major buyer. This producer for Studio A, that producer for Studio B, another producer for Studio C, and so on. Why different producers? Because even with studio-producer deals about half what they were 10-15 years ago, studios still want to work with producers they have relationships with. Yes, there are some producers who carry heft with multiple buyers, but generally if your reps do decide to pursue producer attachments – which is almost always – they will try to position your script to represent as strong a package as possible, and that means targeting producers with a deal at an individual studio.

It can all be quite exciting. Script goes out. This producer. That producer. This buyer. That buyer. Names you recognize, movies they made. Wow! Great! But there’s also this:

Do they believe in you and the project?

The reality is a deal could go down and you’ve never even met the producer in question.

Seriously.

This is where you have to balance trusting your reps and trusting your gut. Normally you just want to make a deal and whatever attachments can be made to facilitate that process, you go with that strategic flow. This is more in the trust your rep territory.

However if this spec script is one over which you’ve slaved, sweated blood and pieces of your soul — in other words this is not just a script, but a part of who you are — then this could very well be gut-check time.

What does that mean? At minimum, how about a phone call with the producers who attach themselves to your script? Talk with them about your story. Get a feel for their sensibilities and how they match up with your own. Because the fact is after all the high fives and drinks and dinners and whoops and hollering after there is a deal…

You have to work with these people.

So much of the process is about making a deal. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s plenty of money to be made even if your script that sells never gets produced. Depending upon where you are in your career, the deal may be the most important consideration.

But do we get into this business just to make a deal… or to make movies?

To make the latter happen, we have to do our part which is write the shit out of our stories. Process notes. Rewrite. More notes. More rewriting. Yet somehow through it all keep the vision alive.

And to support that process, we need champions, advocates, and mentors. Producers can fill that role. But only if they ‘get’ our stories and what we’re trying to do.

So to sum up: Attaching a producer to a spec script can be extremely helpful in making a deal. But depending upon your connection to your script and what your ultimate goal is for that story, you may need to call a time-out in the process and say this: “I want to talk with them about my story.”

In other words, your gut may be take precedence over your wallet.

Hopefully that translates into a writer-producer relationship which results in a great script and a movie getting produced.

Next week: Another installment in this series.

UPDATE: Timely guest column in TheWrap from producer Jon Landau.

[Originally posted March 28, 2013]

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.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 6]

April 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.

Part 6: Rolling out a new writer’s spec script

There are multiple ways in which managers and agents take out a spec script, but when it involves a new writer, there can be an additional value in going wide. Check out these observations from Chris Fenton, literary manager and producer of H2F Entertainment from an interview I did with him:

It depends on the script. We’d like to have something that works for both the studios and the financiers, a script that could be a big blown-out studio movie as well as something a little more constrained that can work for financiers with smaller budgets. If we have something like that, I want to introduce that writer and their script to everybody in town. I want to create excitement around a piece of material, make sure the tracking boards are covering the project, and try to get it out to 120 producers, get everybody reading it. Because you never know what can happen with a good piece of material and the right producer. Maybe it doesn’t sell, but it gets that producer thinking about another assignment, creates an opportunity for the writer that way, too. Bottom line the spec market is a fantastic way for getting a new writer to be read.

A lot here. Let’s unpack it:

* First and foremost, everything depends on the script. As Chris said elsewhere in our conversation, “It’s super important for us to be very critical and have a high quality control when it comes to representing writers because every time we sell something, that makes it that much easier to get everybody to read our next writer client and their script, and read them fast to try to make another sale.” This underscores what we discussed in Part 5: No script goes out until it’s ready.

* The desire for writers to craft material that can be sent to both sets of buyers — the major studios and independent financiers — is understandable. As discussed in Part 4, the odds of a deal are much better when dealing with 50-75 buyers than no more than 9 major players. The subtext here is that writers would be wise to don their producer’s hat when conceiving, developing and writing a spec script, one that is cognizant of budgetary issues. If you write a script that can only be produced for $100M or more, you seriously reduce the pool of buyers. If, on the other hand, you create a script that could be made for $30M, but if a major studio wants to step in and lay in all sorts of special effects and set pieces, then you have two sets of buyers.

* 120 producers or whatever the number, the goal here is to get a writer and their material maximum exposure. All it takes is one set of eyeballs to get the script, to become its champion. Moreover, as Chris noted, producers are involved in multiple projects. Perhaps they like what you’ve written and have another script in development they can plug you into. And yes, Hollywood players are in a constant state of motion, moving from this gig to that, that gig to this. Exposing a writer to as many producers and studio execs as possible may not translate into anything specific in the present. On the other hand, if a writer can make connections with multiple players, that increases the odds that at some point in the future, the writer’s name will arise in relation to another project.

* “The spec market is a fantastic way for getting a new writer to be read.” The meaning of that is simple and plain, and should encourage each of us — aspiring screenwriters to professional screenwriters. There is nothing quite like a spec script in terms of its potential to introduce a new writer, redefine an established writer, reawaken the career of a floundering writer, and generate enough heat to translate into a writing assignment or an actual sale.

Next week: Another installment in this series.

[Originally posted March 21, 2013]

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.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 5]

April 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.

Part 5: Developing the Spec Script

Every screenwriter is different. Some have agents. Some have managers. Some have agents and managers.

Every screenwriter-rep relationship is different, too. Some writers pretty much do their own thing. Some writers work closely with their reps, especially managers. How close? Check out these comments from Chris Fenton, literary manager and producer of H2F Entertainment from an interview I did with him:

We’re blessed with having really talented writers as clients. For the most part, they use us as a sounding board for ideas. We go through them and say, “That one works, that one might not, that one doesn’t seem right for the market right now, what financiers are looking for. That one doesn’t seem very international, but this one seems like you could sell it on a one-sheet, let’s do it.”

From time to time, we find some interesting IP — books, articles, comic books, life stories. We bring those to our writers and see if something excites them. But more often than not, our writers come up with ideas and we help weed through them to focus on the great ones.

When they start writing, a lot of them like us to look at their pages… every 10 pages or every act. Some like to pump out a script and show us the first draft, then we tell them what we like, things we feel need to be altered, whether we think the act structure works, whether the A plots and B plots are all there, whether the story has great low and high points, strong set ups, do we get into the movie quick enough, will execs get engaged or is it drawing out too long… all that kind of stuff.

We like to manage what our writers are writing, but we’re only as good as our writers. We complement their process by helping them craft the best specs possible.

Here is a perspective from Jeremiah Friedman who with his writing partner Nick Palmer sold the spec script “Family Getaway” to Warner Bros., wrote the remake of The Bodyguard, and sold the pitch “Speeding Bullet” to Universal:

Long before you think about selling your spec, you should have a solid idea about what kind of movie you’re writing. You’ll need advice from your reps about which specific buyers might be the best targets for the material since they’ll know what each buyer is looking for in the current market – one studio might have a lot of comedies, but is looking for thrillers for instance or another studio might have a similar project already in development. Your reps should have the inside word on all of that. But before you even sit down to write your script, you should have a strong idea of the story you’re telling and the audience you’re trying to reach. You should know the genre, the size and scope, the strengths and weaknesses of the material. And you should be striving to develop a professional understanding of the marketplace. What types of movies are studios making? What types of movies are other buyers making? What’s the difference between a Warners movie and a Sony movie? Why might your movie be a good fit for Focus?

But as Justin Rhodes (“Second Sun,” “The Breach,” “The Join”) reminds us, screenwriters can and should understand the basics as well:

You’re basically only asking three questions: how easy is it to market, how broad is the appeal, and how much would it cost to make? If the answers are very, very, and a lot, then it’s definitely a studio movie. If the answers are hmmm, I don’t know how it will play in China, and less than fifteen million, then indie financing probably makes more sense (unless it’s a horror movie, which operates in its own space.) Comedy is a genre that can turn this stuff on its head, but again, simplicity of concept and broadness of appeal is probably your answer. Is the concept that people get hungover in Vegas, or that bumbling terrorists have a hard time pulling off their plot? Or, do you have the right attachments to take the project out of indie land.

Bottom line, no script goes out until it’s ready as neither writer nor rep wants to be connected to a sub-par product. That can mean many long months of prep, writing and rewriting.

At some point, your spec is ready. What happens then? Tune in next week where we take an inside look at what can be a simple or quite complex process — bringing a spec script to market.

Let me end with an observation from Chris Fenton:

Original material is the key to success in this town. You have a great script, you control a lot of the levers in the community. So no matter how good or bad the spec market is, writers should always be writing.

[Originally posted March 14, 2013]

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.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 4]

April 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.

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

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

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

Part 4: The Buyers — Studios and Financiers

We may tend to think of Hollywood buyers as the movie studios: Disney, Paramount, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, Warner Bros. For those with advanced math skills, that translates into a whopping total of 6. There are subsidiary divisions such as Fox 2000 and Fox Searchlight (Twentieth Century Fox), Focus Features (Universal),  and New Line (Warner Bros.), but those acquisition dollars are presumably part of the overall studio’s pot. We can add Lionsgate to the mix, a so-called mini-major, so let’s say 7. And DreamWorks as long as they have funding which at present they do. Last year Millennium Films acquired 6 spec scripts, more than Twentieth Century Fox, Disney and Lionsgate, so perhaps we throw them into the mix.

So… we’re talking 9 buyers? That’s it?

No, that’s not it. Fortunately for screenwriters and the film community as a whole, there are financing entities like IM Global, Content Film, Between the Eyes, Bold Films, perhaps 50-75 in number who are actively buying, developing and producing movies.

I spoke with manager Chris Fenton, literary manager and producer of H2F Entertainment about the spec market and he gave his thoughts on the state of things with regard to buyers:

The business model is going to continue to change and as it changes, I don’t expect the [spec script] market to get worse than it is now. I would like to believe that it gets a little better, but we’re never going back to the over-development days of the mid-to-late 90s. Not so fortunate for those trying to sell original material, but better in the long run for the health of the major studios.

But there are all these financiers and financier-driven projects we’re having a lot of luck with outside of the studios. Last year, we sold a relatively good amount of projects to the major studios, but then we also sold a lot of stuff to the financiers. And while the financiers don’t necessarily pay a lot of upfront money when they purchase or option a piece of material, they don’t develop a lot either.

So if you actually get one of those companies on board with a script, chances are it gets made, and the deals you can make with these type of financiers are such that if the movie does get produced, sometimes you can actually get a production bonus that might be greater than one at a studio.

In that respect, writers are actually in a strong scenario. They’re setting up a project, and while they’re not making a lot up front, when the movie gets made, they might actually be making more and on top of it, they’re more likely to get a produced film.

And by the way, if you look at it as a business model, you don’t make any money as a studio or as a financier developing material. Where you make the money is actually making the movie and distributing it and getting it out there. That’s what everybody’s goal is now.

What type of projects are these ‘financiers’ buying? It varies from company to company, but I think it’s safe to say there are two commonalities across the board: (1) They are interested in genre films such as Action, Action-Thriller, Thriller, Horror, Horror-Thriller. (2) They tend to focus on lower budget movies as compared to the major studios. By lower budget, think $5-25M. Some may partner up with other financiers to stretch budgets above $30M, even $40M, but those projects have to have major talent attached, super strong marketing potential, and so on.

As you track spec script sales here on GITS, make sure to note the buyers. As I’ve said before many times, the easiest way to sell a spec script is to write what they’re buying. Your understanding of that marketplace can help you assess story concepts you generate so you make smart use of your time as you develop and write your next original screenplay.

Next week, we start looking into the actual process of bringing a spec script to market.

[Originally posted February 28, 2013]

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.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 3]

April 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.

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

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

Part 3: Boom, Bust, and Back Again [1990-2012]

Check out the sales year-to-year from 1990 to 2012:

1991: 28
1992: 40
1993: 89
1994: 101
1995: 173
1996: 155
1997: 141
1998: 110
1999: 83
2000: 92
2001: 101
2002: 114
2003: 89
2004: 75
2005: 58
2006: 60
2007: 64
2008: 87
2009: 67
2010: 55
2011: 110
2012: 99

If we throw out the totals from 1991 and 1992, artificially low numbers due to limited coverage of spec script sales at the time, we see some trendlines:

* There was a boom from 1994-1998 with a total of 680 deals, an average of 136 per year.

* There a bust from 2003-2010 with a total of 610 deals, an average of 76 per year.

* Now we appear to be back again — partially — in 2011-2012 with a total 209 deals, an average of 105 per year which sits precisely in the middle between the high and low averages for the last 20+ years.

What explanation for the boom? Lots of reasons, but we can’t overlook the fact that money was flowing freely in Hollywood then, an era of “stupid money” as some call it. More buyers, an irrational exuberance about spec scripts, and a willingness to acquire scripts that may not have been completely baked as long as the underlying story concept was seen to be especially marketable.

What explanation for the bust? Again lots of reasons, but a big one is the belt-tightening that happened industry wide as corporate overlords clamped down on spending. Part of that was also consolidation — fewer studios and mini-majors. Part of that was an attempt to make the R&D aspect of the movie production process (i.e., acquiring and developing scripted projects) more efficient.

What explanation for back again? Once again lots of reasons. Hollywood’s fear that moviegoers are suffering from ‘sequelitis’. The emergence of new money, smaller independent and typically foreign-based financing / production entities back-filling script acquisition and development as the major movie studios scale back film production. But I also want to posit this: Writers are crafting better screenplays.

I’ve heard this in the many interviews with screenwriters I’ve been conducting of late, a consistent opinion that there are some great new writers making their mark. That confirms a theory I’ve been playing around with for some time now and that is this:

In the 80s came the growth of screenwriting gurus coinciding with the emergence of the spec script market. That drew the attention of a multitude of screenwriter wannabes with dreams of knocking out The Great American Screenplay, cashing in for seven figures, and the start of the good life in Hollywood. To be sure some strong writers did distinguish themselves, but into the 90s there were perhaps more Shane Black, Joe Eszterhas and Quentin Tarantino clones than original voices.

But something has happened. Two generations of writers have come and gone since Syd Field first published “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” in 1982 and I believe the overall level of knowledge and understanding about the craft has settled in among writers. This current crop is smarter, more well-read, has more writing tools and overall savvy than ever before.

Remember that group of filmmakers in the 70s? Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorcese, DePalma, and many others, a group that had immersed themselves in cinema, and discovered a way to tell stories that were both compelling and commercial.

I wonder if what we are seeing nowadays is something similar with screenwriters emerging onto the scene… writers who have immersed themselves in the craft of screenwriting, building on the theories, ideas and writing of the last several decades, inspired by the very idea of Storytelling, and infused with a more complete and deeper understanding of what it takes to write a solid, commercial movie.

Whatever it is, let’s all hope it continues: More and better original screenplays… because that can only lead to more and better movies.

Next week, we shift to the present day and start an in-depth exploration of how reps handle the process of rolling out a spec script to the marketplace with observations from a top Hollywood manager and some professional screenwriters.

[Originally posted February 28, 2013]

UPDATE: So what happened in terms of spec script deals in 2013 and 2014? Here are the numbers:

2013: 100
2014: 62

So 2013 capped off a decent three-year run, but there was definitely a fall-off last year. But historical perspective based on the numbers from 1991 to present reveals there are always ups and downs in the spec script market.

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.

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

April 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.

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.

[Originally posted February 21, 2013]

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.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 1]

March 26th, 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. To wit:

What exactly is a spec script? How did they come into being in the first place? What are some of the things that can happen with a spec script? How are managers, agents, producers, talent and buyers involved in the process of acquiring a spec script? What is the state of the current spec script market? What are trends in what studios and production companies are buying in the way of spec scripts? In this special TBOS series, “Everything you wanted to know about specs,” I’m going to do my best to cover these questions and any others you might have.

Caveat: I don’t claim to be anything other than who I am. A screenwriter who broke into the business in 1987 by selling a spec script. I’ve pretty much tracked the spec script market since then, informally at first, but on a systematic basis since the early 90s. That’s why with the support of the Black List and in association with Done Deal Pro, we put together The Definitive Spec Script Sales List, listing every spec script deal I could find and verify from 1991-2012. That said, I’m sure there are things I don’t know, so I hope this is a participatory process and welcome both questions from aspiring writers and insight from established industry insiders.

As long as we’re here, I thought we should start with some historical context, drawing upon a university level course I teach called History of American Screenwriting.

First a definition of spec script. “Spec” is short for speculative, meaning a writer pens a script without initial compensation with the intent of selling the completed screenplay on the open market. As we shall see in this series, there are all sorts of variations on this theme, but let’s start with this basic take on what a spec script is.

Part 1: The Genesis of the Spec Script [1900-1942]

From the earliest days of nickelodeons and as one-reelers evolved into longer films, the insatiable desire by consumers for new movies put original and adapted stories at a premium. Thus in a sense, the reality of ‘spec scripts’ has been in place since the very beginning of the film industry. Writers from inside or even outside the movie industry would present story ideas, primarily in treatment or synopsis form, with the hope that a production company or studio would buy it.

Thus the speculative part was there from the beginning. The script part took some time to evolve. With filmmakers churning out movie shorts over the course of a few days, what passed for a ‘script’ in first decade of the 20th century was often nothing more than a shot list folded into the back pocket of a director.

It’s not until the next decade when Thomas Ince created the first extensive studio facility known as Inceville [in Santa Monica] that scripts began to become formalized per Ince’s specifications. Here is an excerpt from a script for the Ince 1914 western Hells Hinges:

SCENE L: Close-Up on the Bar in Western Saloon

A group of Western types of the early period are drinking and talking idly – much good fellowship prevails and every man feels at ease with his neighbor – one of them glances off the picture and the smile fades from his face to be replaced by the strained look of worry – the others notice the change and follow his gaze — their faces reflect his own emotions – be sure to get over a good contrast between the easy good nature that had prevailed and the unnatural, strained silence that follows – as they look, cut.

Even here we can see the rudimentary elements of what we know today as screenplay form.

In the late teens and early 20s, writers churned out thousands of scenarios and photoplays. Interestingly it’s estimated that women comprised over 50% of the writers working in Hollywood primarily because at the time they were on the whole better educated than men and they could better write stories for the female target audience — melodramas, romance and adventure movies. Indeed female writers like Anita Loos and Frances Marion were under contract to studios for $50,000 or more per year.

But the first official spec script didn’t arrive on the scene until 1933. Screenwriter Preston Sturges first made his way to Hollywood in 1932. After cutting his teeth with a writing stint at Universal, the following year Sturges wrote an original screenplay on his own dime called “The Power and the Glory.” Sturges’ son Sandy reports this fact on a website he manages about his father noting: “Sells original screenplay, The Power and the Glory, to Fox.” Per Wikipedia:

He [Sturges] also sold his original screenplay for The Power and the Glory (1933) to Fox, where it was filmed as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy. The film told the story of a self-involved financier via a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, and was an acknowledged source of inspiration for the screenwriters of Citizen Kane. Fox producer Jesse Lasky paid Sturges $17,500 plus a percentage of the profits, a then-unprecedented deal for a screenwriter, which instantly elevated Sturges’ reputation in Hollywood – although the lucrative deal irritated as many as it impressed. Sturges later recalled, “The film made a lot of enemies. Writers at that time worked in teams, like piano movers. And my first solo script was considered a distinct menace to the profession.”

And right here we see something associated with spec scripts — at least potentially: A great spec script gives the writer power. Why? Because if one or more buyers wants it, that puts the writer in a position where s/he can negotiate a deal on their own terms.

Yet it appears virtually every other writer in Hollywood at the time did not follow in Sturges’ footsteps, preferring the security of working within the studio system, deals ranging from weekly and monthly contracts, or if the writer was particularly good, multiyear arrangements.

Sturges continued to write original screenplays including “The Great McGinty” which in 1939 he sold to Paramount for $1 in order to be able to direct it, his attempt at controlling what happened to his scripts. Sturges went on to write and direct many notable movies based on his original screenplays including Sullivan’s Travels, The Palm Beach Story, and The Miracle at Morgan’s Creek.

It’s not until 1942 that the next notable spec script deal occurred: “Woman of the Year” written by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin. From the New York Times:

”Katharine Hepburn was our agent. We had her in mind when we wrote the story. She loved it. She took our names off the script and sold it to M-G-M. We were making $300 a week. The studio would never have paid a lot for a script by us, and she knew that M-G-M would not make the kind of picture she wanted unless they paid an enormous amount of money.”

The script sold for $100,000. One would think that staggering amount of money would have opened the floodgates for spec scripts. However that did not happen until four decades later. Next week we’ll look at how the breakdown of the ‘studio system’ and emergence of screenwriters as independent contractors led to the evolution of the spec script market in the 80s, leading to the pivotal year of 1990.

[Originally posted February 14, 2013]

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.

The Business of Screenwriting: The Birth, Life and Death of a Movie (Part 3)

March 12th, 2015 by

In Part 1, we went from an emotional high to low in setting up a remake of the 1955 comedy The Court Jester, going from a done deal to no deal due to rights issues.

In Part 2, we experienced joy as the project was resurrected at MGM, then landing none other Mike Myers as the star of the movie who at the time was an incredibly hot actor.

I suspect you know where this sad saga is headed. Hell, I gave it away with the title of the series:

Part 1: Birth.

Part 2: Life.

Part 3: Death.

How did the project die? Let’s go back in time, shall we, to relive that obituarial moment in the present tense.

I am in my home office, grinding away on another project. Frankly, I haven’t even been thinking of The Court Jester all that much, simply basking the warm background glow of a go project with an A-list movie star who has publicly declared the movie to be his father’s second favorite film.

I mean, this is one movie that is destined to get produced, right?

Rrrrring.

Hello?

It’s CAA calling.

Uh, so… Jester? It’s dead. Again.
What? Why?
The studio read the new draft… and they didn’t connect with it.

“Didn’t connect with it” is Hollywood-speak for “hated it”.

Evidently Mike and his guy took the story in a whole other direction. They passed on his take. So he walked. Project goes from A-list actor to zero attachments like that.

Why don’t they just go back to our draft?
Scott, you know how it is…

Indeed I do. When a PLAYER walks away from a project, no matter the reason, the heat the project previously had immediately vanishes, replaced by a big black cloud perpetually hanging over it. It’s hard to get any movie made. When a project has negative associations… virtually impossible.

Hence… Death. The Court Jester just one more slain project, the script a PDF corpse piled upon a tower of other felled projects reaching toward the heavens… or perhaps more aptly, down toward Development Hell.

What’s a writer’s takeaway from this story of woe? Two things.

First, you can never expect a go project to actually go. You get a green light, that means absolutely nothing until the first day of principle photography.

Second, this kind of shit happens all the time. If you cannot handle extremes highs and lows arising from a business where the decision-makers desperately want to say No to save their ass from potential failure, but sometimes have to say Yes… to create product… to generate revenue… to pay the bills, do yourself a favor: Become a novelist.

If you love movies and TV with a kind of mad obsession, fine. But be forewarned: Someday you will have a project that is born, lives and dies before a single frame of film gets shot. Many more movie projects don’t get produced than do get made.

As that sage observer of the movie business Bruce Hornsby wrote, “That’s just the way it is.”

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.