The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs

Part 10: Creating Buzz.

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”.

Part 10: Creating Buzz

Building off last week’s post about agents and managers trying to orchestrate a scenario in which they “own all the tickets,” basically to maximize the chances of a spec script sale, there is this first rule of managing the roll-out: Create buzz. Here is an NYT article from all the way back in 1990 about the fevered spec script market back in the day:

The psychological game of selling spec scripts has another important player: the Hollywood agent. It is the agents who whip up the frenzy.
Triad Artists sent ticking clocks to studio executives the week before sending out the script of ”The Ticking Man.” Says Marty Bauer, whose Bauer-Benedek agency has sold more than a dozen spec scripts for more than $250,000 apiece, ”What you do is put studio executives under time pressure to get their competitive juices flowing, so they have to make a decision based on their competitive instincts, not their rational instincts.”

So as far back as two decades ago, agents would try to generate buzz with gimmicks like ticking clocks. Twenty years later, we see the appearance of teaser trailers that accompany spec scripts. A notable one is for “Grim Night”:

In the case of “Grim Night,” a spec written by first-timers Brandon Bestenheider and Allen Bey, the script sold for high-six against seven figures to Universal.

But more often, buzz gets generated the old fashioned way: by word of mouth. In my interview with screenwriters Jeremiah Friedman and Nick Palmer, they discussed how their spec script “Family Getaway” got set up:

Nick Palmer: The initial plan had been to attach talent because you’re right, it is really difficult to sell a spec today, especially from first-time writers, with absolutely no one attached.
Jeremiah Friedman: But we were lucky in that our managers, Dawn Saltzman and Emily Rose, had done a really amazing job building interest around town as we were still rewriting so that by the time the script went out, it was already on the radar at a number of studios, which no doubt helped.

“Family Getaway” ended up at Warner Bros.

Bottom line, you could hire the Goodyear Blimp to float from one studio to the next with the name of your latest spec script emblazoned on the side accompanied by Lady Gaga dangling below giving a live blaring musical performance. Yes, that would generate considerable buzz. But if your script isn’t great, all the buzz in the world is likely not going to help you get it sold.

Conversely if your script is great, that becomes the basis of some legitimate buzz, leading to a deal and a blizzard of follow-up meetings where everyone wants to meet the hot new writer.

So as always, you have your marching orders: Write a great script.

Next week: Part 11 — Slipping a Script.

For more articles in The Business of Screenwriting series, go here.

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.