[Originally posted April 2, 2012]
I read about spec scripts, or screen rights “going to auction” or acquired in a “bidding war.” Although I am familiar with the concept of an auction, I am wondering if you may explain what exactly this means in a Hollywood setting. What is the process? What are the formalities, if any? Who manages the auction? How are offers submitted? Fax? Email? Phone call? Where, and to whom, exactly are they submitted to? Where does the auction even take place? How much time can the auction take?
As fate would have it, I’ve received a few inquiries on the broader subject of how a spec script goes out to buyers, and I’ve forwarded a series of questions on the matter to several screenwriters I know who have sold specs in the last 2 years to get their additional insights into the matter. But for now, let me zero in on one facet: bidding war.
Simply put, a bidding war is when a literary property [spec script, pitch, book rights, etc] is being pursued by two or more buyers. Of course, this is a rep and writer’s dream scenario because the competition drives up the purchase price.
We have seen a couple of these in the last few weeks. For instance, the movie rights to the book “Fifty Shades of Grey” recently sold to Universal for $5M:
Hollywood interest erupted in the past two weeks, no doubt spurred by a New York Times article that detailed the passionate readership. When the author and her agent, Valerie Hoskins, came to L.A. last week, studio heads and producers came to them hat in hand at Soho House meetings. New Regency put in an early bid of $3 million, and Sony late last week bid $5 million, according to sources.
This was clearly an orchestrated operation with the author and agent making the rounds of all the potential buyers, then working through the various bids [they supposedly turned down an $8M offer to go with Universal].
Then last week, there was the spec script “White House Down” which sold to Sony for $3M. From what I’ve heard there were multiple offers on the script, coming down in the end to Paramount and Sony [although with Vanderbilt doing so much work for Sony, there was probably no way the studio would allow itself to be outbid by a rival]. Again this was a scenario orchestrated by the writer’s reps.
Sometimes bidding wars can break out in a less systematic fashion. For instance, there have been cases where a spec script was ‘slipped’ to a producer or studio exec, then the script filtered out to others, and suddenly offers started to emerge. While the reps may have hoped for something like that to happen, this is less a case of a planned auction than serendipity.
There have even been cases where there was a bidding war… when there was only one buyer. As rumor has it, that happened with the 1990 spec script “Texas Lead and Gold” in which the property went out for the back-then well-established practice of the ‘weekend read.’ A lot of heat generated about the script over the weekend. The agent started fielding calls on Monday. All passes. But when the eventual buyer called, the agent inferred there were other offers happening. The buyer hung up, then called back with a million dollar offer, in essence bidding against himself.
Admittedly bidding wars do not happen often because they require certain elements:
* A hot script: This is the most obvious thing, the script has to generate a lot of buzz around town.
* Buyers flush with cash: Like all businesses, studios have their own fiscal years and their own development funds. Sometimes they have a lot of money, other times they do not.
* Buyers who have a need: If a script goes out and it’s in a genre that several studios need to fill, that’s a good thing. If the studios are all filled up in that genre, not so much.
* A meaningful attachment: This seemed to be a requirement as recently as 2010, spec scripts needing to go out with a desirable actor and/or director attached. But during this recent upswing in spec sale activity, I’ve been noticing a lot more scripts selling free and clear of attachments. That said depending upon the name, attachments can help give a project juice.
* Magic: You can go out at just the right time and generate a lot of buzz, and not end up selling the project, which demonstrates that sometimes the project needs to have magic to make a deal happen.
As I said, we will be getting into this whole area of discussion as I get feedback from the screenwriters I approached.
As usual, if anyone in the GITS community has other insights into the question, please feel free to post in comments. But in sum, as you fantasize about breaking into the business by selling a spec script, you most definitely want to include in your dreams the idea of a bidding war breaking out over your story.
If you want to read a comprehensive take on the wider subject of spec scripts, go here for my 20 part series: “Everything You Wanted to Know About Specs”.
UPDATE: A nice bit of synchronicity as there was a bidding war yesterday in Hollywood. Stay tuned for details in the next post.