By Lee Hamilton.
Breaking into the industry is hard. Really hard. Every writer out there hoping to have their script produced or to become a fully-paid screenwriter is at some stage going to feel like the odds are invariably stacked against them.
A spec script, by nature, is a non-commissioned piece of work, meaning that until it’s optioned, the writer is using their own time and money to craft it, and with spec sales almost at an all-time low, many aspiring writers would be forgiven for thinking that the mountain is just too steep to even try, so why should you put all that time and effort into something with such a slim chance of success?
Let’s not beat about the bush here. If you think being a screenwriter is a quick and easy way to make millions, you’re in for a rude awakening. If you’re passionate about telling stories, enjoy writing, and have the time and dedication to learn the craft, here’s why you absolutely need to have a spec script (or preferably many!).
WHAT USE IS A SPEC SCRIPT?
The thought of spending months, or even years, working on a project without the guarantee of being paid for it can be off-putting, but it shouldn’t be. It should drive you. Fact is, without a spec script, you’re limiting your chances of breaking in even more. No one is going to take you on your word that you can write and offer you a job. You need to show evidence, but a spec script isn’t just proof that you can write, it’s also proof that you can create original content, that you understand how to construct a compelling narrative, and that you’ve got a unique voice. Need more convincing? Here are five more great reasons as to why having a spec script is essential: –
- First and foremost, writing spec scripts is how you learn to hone your craft. The more experience you have in writing, the easier and faster the process becomes. An amateur script is easily discernible from a professional one, and this only comes by one way – practice.
- You need a spec script in order to gain representation. Don’t expect an agent or manager to put you on their books based on a great idea or one-page pitch alone. You also need to have a sample of your writing in order to convince them that you’re worth investing in. An agent doesn’t have time to nurture your writing ability. It’s something you already need to have before you approach them.
- Submit your spec script to contests. You don’t need an agent to submit to a contest, but it’s a great way to help you find one. Contests are one of the best ways to get your writing in front of industry professionals but they usually only accept spec scripts (always check the FAQ), and not only are they great for helping you gain exposure if you place highly, you can also get some valuable feedback on your work too.
- Use your spec script to gain funding. Whether you’re applying to funding bodies, schemes, fellowships, or film grants, etc, you’ll have a much higher chance of success if you have a completed spec script available. A polished and professional script is a pivotal part of the pitch package, making it a valuable selling tool to have.
- Use your spec script when pitching to production companies and studios. You don’t always need representation (although it helps) to get interest in your script, but you do need a great spec script. Be prepared for a lot of rejection, but also be prepared to be asked “what else do you have?”. The more spec scripts in your portfolio, the better.
UNDERSTAND THE MARKET
This doesn’t mean looking at what’s selling or what’s doing well at the box office and then copying it, it means learning which projects to pitch to which producers, what type of scripts are more likely to be bought from first-time writers, and diversifying to suit different opportunities when they arrive.
Research is good. Scott Meyers regularly posts reports on yearly spec sale analysis with info on which studios are buying what, who represented the writers, how many were sold by first-time writers, and which genres are hot, etc, and while this can be useful info to know, don’t automatically start to copy trends. Screenwriting is such a long process, that by the time you’ve written something you think is currently hot, the market will have moved on to something else.
Yes, there was a lull in spec sales last year, and a lot of that’s clearly attributed to the pandemic, meaning that hopefully with recovery, sales will only go up. There was also a break in production, but studios are trying to make up for lost time as the pandemic also meant that film and TV consumption sky-rocketed. Streaming services took the helm in response and have subsequently become viable places for new writers to approach, so it’s not just the big studios anymore.
Knowing who to approach with your spec script is key to increasing the chances of a sale. There’s no point sending your original horror to production companies who only make Hallmark movies, for example, so do an IMDb search to look at the production crew behind similar movies and start making a list from there. The same applies to representation. Find out which companies manage the writers and directors of those movies. Having a genre fan champion your script is going to be a whole more advantageous than someone who isn’t.
Understand that studios are a lot less willing to buy a big-budget script from an unproduced writer than from someone who has a list of successful credits behind them. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a big budget spec script in your portfolio, but realize it may be a project you have to put on the back burner until you become more established. The lower the budget, the lower the financial risk, so having a spec script that can be made on a shoe-string could help you get your foot on the ladder a lot quicker. Indies, horrors, and high-concept dramas are your go-to genres here.
A spec script is also a versatile piece of IP to own. The world, the characters, and the story that you create in your spec script is your own intellectual property, meaning that while you’re waiting to sell your script, you can also use them to create other sellable pieces of art. Adapting your spec script into a fiction podcast, a novella, or a web series can help you build a fan base at the same time as making money. If the opportunity arises, you can use your spec script to find alternative ways into the industry this way.
Use your spec script as the first step in building a package. Increasingly, streamers and studio’s aren’t buying directly from the writer anymore. Nine times out of ten, sales come via production companies who pitch a project that’s already in development, meaning that there might be a director or talent already attached or/and some external financial backing in place, not just a screenplay on its own. Getting a team behind you means that you’re not going it alone, but it can also increase the chances of getting your spec produced.
There’s always going to be an exception to the rule; stories about overnight successes, being in the right place at the right time, and million-dollar spec sales, but these are usually one-offs and you’ll often find that behind most of these stories are the unmentioned years of knock-backs, as well as countless years of writing. Is a spec script extremely hard to sell? Undoubtedly. Is it still worth the effort? Absolutely. You won’t find a better way to break in without one.
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.