WHY SPEC SCRIPTS FAIL: The Mercedes Test for Your Spec Screenplay

Professional screenplay reader Stewart Farquhar explains the importance of giving your spec screenplay “The Mercedes Test” – is it worth the sales price or even the time to read.


Stewart Farquhar holds Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting certificates from the Professional Program at The UCLA School of Theatre Film and Television. Stewart has analyzed over 6,500 scripts for private and studio clients. Follow Stewart on Twitter @stewartfarquhar.

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The current USA MSRP for a basic 2018 4.7L V8 Mercedes 550 Roadster fluctuates but it’s approximately $110,000 **. The WGA 2017 – 2018 spec script sale range is between $72,600 and $136,000 ***. The average hovers around $110,000. Don’t for a moment believe that the one off MEGA sale is the norm. Even at $110,000 the writer will be lucky to net $50,000 spread out for up to a year or more.

The scribe just had a great sale with no guarantee of any future sales or employment. He or she may get hired to rewrite work of others or flesh out some idea another wannabe writer dreamed up. However, if you’re over 50, good luck.

Unless the writer is hired on a salary deal, with either opportunity, the money is paid as installments. By WGA contract it is six payments. The first two at commencement and delivery of first draft, the second at the commencement and delivery of one rewrite, and the third at commencement and delivery of the polish. Unless, as is what happens in many cases, your story was purchased and you were not, then you get what you and your agent negotiate. Someone else does a rewrite of and gets credit for your work. Any distribution of credit is determined by WGA rules. That is assuming what you wrote qualifies for membership and you joined.

The breakdown of the $110,000 is something like this. Taxes are a best guess and assume no deductions.

Of course, you may be a very stable legal genius steeped in “The Art of the Deal” who can navigate and manage without the help of professionals. Good luck if you ignore sage advice. You will eventually fail.

When you are in the market for a new car, after your research and when it’s in front of you, what do you look at or notice first? Body, tires & rims, and windows; the basic structure and color, does it match the ads and hype? How about fuel mileage, new technology and safety features? What turns you off; scratches, lose or missing parts, perceived price to value and unnecessary additions? Naturally, your priorities may vary. However, you will have them. Unless it’s a sports car or a high-priced specialty car, ultimate speed or performance is secondary at first.


Script EXTRA: The Six Axes of Screenplay Analysis


When a reader or story analyst looks at a script what does he or she look for? Basic format, title page, page count, first page (more likely first line or two) and are the pages “ink heavy”? If those items seem correct then detail vs. detailitus, and the hook come into play. If the first page encourages, then they will subconsciously ask this question; is the protagonist someone I want to spend 90 plus minutes with? For an experienced reader, all this happens in less than 15 seconds. If no interest, no read.

In the case of our Mercedes, if you are satisfied with the first walk-up impressions, you go in for more detail. Car smell, irregular paint, dirt or scratches; any mismatches such as door seams, dash layout, and seat feel; carpet color and sound system. Plus any other items that have bugged you about new cars in the past. Vinyl out-gassing or lack of creature comforts come to mind. For our Mercedes, how it makes you feel is, in many cases, a deciding factor. You develop a strong emotional bond to this inanimate object that will end up on the scrap pile in 13 years or less.

Many, if not all of these items, have no bearing on the vehicles roadworthiness. For the most part, all are aesthetics or personal preferences. Yet these seemingly minor items speak to the care afforded the car from design thru production and on to presentation. If not up to your expectations, it is cause to wonder what else, what possible serious flaw in construction exists. Small items can create large concerns.

It is the same with a SPEC script.

If a physical script arrives in a fancy cover or binder (yes, about 10% still do) this is a sure sign of an amateur writer. If the title page is full of extraneous information such as WGA registration numbers, fancy fonts, pseudo production company info, or author’s name with a litany of pre or post name titles, it is a sure sign of an amateur writer. If the pages that follow are incorrectly formatted by a word processor vs. one of the many professional screenplay programs or if the font is not 12pt Courier with correct margins, again, amateur writer. If the submission is presented with a non-disclosure agreement then this is a given that it will be either tossed or returned (if SASE enclosed). If it is ink heavy on the first page and/or has a page count over 120 (more like 95-105 these days), short trip to the round file i.e. delete button. If there is nothing but lengthy dialogue/action (unless script is presented via personal contacts, think Gigli (2003) Martin Brest, the tome is destined for the virtual dust bin.

I share many of the reasons a spec script receives a toss in my Script Magazine article series Why Spec Scripts Fail: Failure To Do Your Homework parts 1-4

All of these items have nothing to do with the story. They are just used as a filter to wade the through the mountain, or the disk full, of submissions that have to be read. For some of the contests I read for, it is not unusual for me to read and report on 5 or 6 scripts per day. For contests, I scan for the ones that pique my interest and get to the others later.

Is there some way to get more than a one-off sale?

Provided the story, characters, and budget fit the potential buyer’s requirements (because you also did that research) below are a handful of reasons that individually will not cause an immediate toss.

However, if several of these are in your work, they will cause the reader to read with an attitude or give up and just toss it. Here are some of the easy-toss items to consider before you submit.

Again, these are but a few examples of how overworked and underpaid readers filter their workload. Many of these items are evident by the end of the first page.


Script EXTRA: 36 Practical Tips on How Not to Irritate Your Script Reader


Presented in no particular order.

  1. Have you asked your grammarian friend to check and flag everything (except special character dialogue) for grammar, spelling and typos?
  2. Does your hero struggle throughout the story to resolve two or more mutually exclusive needs (not wants)?
  3. Reference to “We see” or “We hear.” Readers see words and, if stressed, they sometimes hear voices.
  4. Is the format for a spec script as opposed to a production or shooting script? (Yes, it matters.)
  5. Is the tension/conflict in each scene sufficient to compel the audience to turn the page?
  6. Is the antagonist (opposing force) active and equal to or stronger than the protagonist?
  7. Are all scenes linked to the character’s objective vs. the writer’s need to “TELL”?
  8. Two spaces after a period in a script (goes to page count and minute per page).
  9. Is the protagonist (hero/heroine) clear and active vs. occult and passive?
  10. Do all scenes propel/develop ether character or story or both?
  11. Does your protagonist face a real or perceived obstacle(s)?
  12. Are the characters ones the audience can care about?
  13. Is your script in active vs. passive voice?
  14. Do we care about your protagonist?
  15. Is all obvious exposition eliminated?
  16. Do we care about your antagonist?
  17. Is all dialogue essential?
  18. Is all action essential?

As in our Mercedes analogy it is easier to say no than to say yes, given all the choices “out there.”

Can your script pass the Mercedes Test?

Is it worth the average sale price?

Will it even get read?

First page death?

Up to you.

* Thanks to Paul Chitlik for suggesting this title.
** NADAguides.com
*** WGAw 2017-2018 Schedule of minimums

More articles by Stewart Farquhar

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