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

Part 8: Attaching talent.

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

James Dean on set reading some script pages.

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.

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.