The Spec Script: Channeling a Screenplay Into Career Success
The spec script can be an invaluable tool for Screenwriters wanting to put on display their craft know-how.
Yet many emerging creatives struggle with consistently bettering their expertise through this essential sample of talent and technical skill.
For those wondering why the spec script is so important—or even exactly what it is—follow along as we answer these common questions that Writers often ask.
What Is a Spec Script?
There’s no shame in wondering what a spec script is, considering that the term has two different definitions, depending on who you ask. For TV Writers, a spec script is a sample teleplay of an existing television show. To be sure, a crucial tool for those working in this part of the entertainment industry, but it is not the same as a spec script meant to be produced as a feature film one day.
When it comes to the movies, which is the medium we’ll be covering for the rest of this discussion, a spec script is a non-commissioned screenplay1. Meaning, it’s a script that a Screenwriter writes as a sample or potential future sale—but without payment.
How Does a Spec Script Differ From a Commissioned Script?
Many production companies and studios have properties they want to develop. It may be a book or magazine article they think could make a great film. It could be a sequel they want written for another film. It might even be a one-sentence idea that a Producer or Executive believe has legs as a movie. In all of these cases, one or more Screenwriters will be brought on board to flesh out those ideas with the agreement that they’re getting paid for their work.
Note: Getting paid and getting writing credit are not one and the same. Pending the amount of work done on the screenplay, a Writer might receive payment but not have official credit for the script. For any Writer who accepts an assignment, paid or not, a discussion should be had regarding whether credit will be given.
In any case, getting to the point in one’s career where they are paid to work on a screenplay generally comes only once that Screenwriter has proven that they have the chops for such a job. Hence, the spec script.
Many people refer to a spec script as a Writer’s “calling card” because it is indeed just that. It’s an opportunity for a Manager, Agent, Executive or Producer to read a Writer’s work and decide if their expertise and writing style lend themselves to being the right fit for an assignment. That’s why it’s so important for Screenwriters to choose carefully what they write, as well as to stick to a consistent writing schedule so they have a sample to show when asked.
So let’s tackle the first half of that equation—deciding on the right story. Truthfully, there is no wrong choice. It simply depends on what the Writer is passionate about. For some, that means broad comedy. For others, historical epics. For still others, gritty crime dramas or horror.
One of the biggest benefits of writing a spec script is getting to choose the material, especially given that the Writer typically has zero restrictions on it. But that doesn’t mean that Screenwriters shouldn’t give serious consideration to their script topic and genre. Remember, every time someone else in the industry reads that spec script, it informs on who the Writer is.
Filmmaker and Screenwriter Alice Shindelar weighs in on the topic of genre: “Sometimes I mislead myself by trying to read the market or create the thing that other people think I’m supposed to create, but that always turns out to be fruitless. When I’m being smart, I usually try to take two things into consideration when working on a new idea—can I see this thing through to the end on my own if no one is interested in jumping on board, and is this something I’m really excited about working on. I’m not always able to say yes to both of these questions, but I try to make sure I strongly agree with at least one of them. Finally, I used to think I needed to stick to one genre, but over time I realized I’m drawn to many genres and sometimes trying a new genre is exactly what excites me about a new idea.”
Now on to the next part of the equation—sticking to a consistent writing schedule. The bottom line is that many people, Screenwriters included, are motivated by outside forces, such as a paycheck or a deadline. So even when a Writer has a paid writing assignment for a screenplay that doesn’t inspire them, the need to pay the bills can guarantee that they’ll get the job done.
The opposite isn’t always true. Even when a Screenwriter is in love with their spec script idea, it can be difficult to work on it on a regular basis. Job, family, social and other commitments can and often do take precedence. That’s why many writers find ways to keep themselves accountable2. Writers’ groups are hugely popular for this very reason. Writing classes, even those that are a single day, can help with consistent writing as well. But really, all it takes is asking one person to enforce a deadline to help in sticking to it. Says Screenwriter Talie Melnyk, “What keeps me going is a coach. My accountability to her and having to submit at least ten pages every two weeks propels my work forward and forces me to set clear writing goals.”
Moreover, every Writer has a different definition of what a “consistent writing schedule” looks like. Some creatives really do write every day (maybe it’s just a line or two, but it still counts!). Alternately, some Writers have designated days during the week when they know they’ll be sitting down to work on that spec script. It’s totally individual and there’s not necessarily a wrong way to do it—just so long as those pages are getting written.
What Are the Current Industry Trends Towards Spec Scripts?
It’s probably time to get to the question that many aspiring Screenwriters ask: What are the chances that I can sell my script?3
Even as recently as 10 or 15 years ago, some spec scripts sold for millions of dollars4. In particular, Talladega Nights ($4M) and Déjà Vu ($5M). But times have changed. Especially as developing existing IP, or intellectual property, has been a steadfast Hollywood trend with no indication of winding down anytime soon, it has become more difficult for Screenwriters to get production companies and studios to take a chance on original material.
That being said, nothing is impossible. Especially for Screenwriters who have shown modest success with prior produced screenplays, the opportunity to sell a spec script exists. What is more likely, though, is the optioning of a spec script.
When a spec script is optioned, an agreed amount of money is given to the Screenwriter while the person who optioned it holds the rights for a predetermined amount of time. If they aren’t able to make progress with the script, as decided by the Screenwriter and entity that optioned the spec script, the rights revert back to the Writer at the end of that period.
Script optioning is a more cost-effective way for Executives and Producers to get a feature film off the ground without spending millions of dollars for something that may not ultimately make it to the big screen. As for the Screenwriter, the odds of being able to sustain oneself financially on the hopes of selling or optioning a spec script are not overwhelmingly positive, so it’s important not to put all of one’s proverbial eggs in a single basket.
While the chance to sell or option a spec script may have less-than-guaranteed results, in many ways it has never been a better time to write one. Why? Over the last several years, a plethora of contests and film festival competitions have popped up, allowing Writers to submit and potentially place in them5. With placement in one of the more prestigious contests, an emerging Screenwriter might just get the kind of traction that could lead to getting not only a Manager or Agent but also a paying job!
Before going further, it’s important to note that not all competitions are the same and Writers thinking of submitting to one should do their due diligence to make sure the entity can deliver on what it promises. However, contests like the Academy Nicholl Fellowships, which is hosted by the Academy Foundation and largely considered the most respected of all screenwriting competitions, can provide some highly beneficial industry attention for those that place well in it6. Other competitions can likewise provide exposure to those with hiring, selling and optioning power in the entertainment industry.
For those who place in these competitions, it can be a great affirmation that they’re on the right track with their writing. For those that do not, don’t be discouraged! Screenplay writing is a highly subjective craft, and many successful Writers have had fulfilling and lucrative careers without a single contest win.
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- 1. "What is a spec script?". Screenwriting.io. published: . retrieved on: 16 December 2019
- 2Bradshaw, Claire. "7 Useful Tips For Establishing A Writing Routine". Writer's Edit. published: . retrieved on: 16 December 2019
- 3Hellerman, Jason . "How To Sell A Screenplay In Hollywood". No Film School. published: 24 October 2018. retrieved on: 16 December 2019
- 4Myers, Scott . "The 10 Most Expensive Screenplays Ever". Medium. published: 3 May 2013. retrieved on: 16 December 2019
- 5Miyamoto, Ken . "10 Mistakes to Avoid When Entering Screenwriting Contests". Screencraft. published: 27 September 2019. retrieved on: 16 December 2019
- 6. "Academy Nicholl Fellowships". Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. published: . retrieved on: 16 December 2019