WRITING SPECS: Development Deciphering the Spec Market

JOHN SCOTT LEWINSKI is a screenwriter, television writer, and interactive script writer. He also appeared as a featured screenwriter at the Cinestory Script Session Awards with “Slabtown.”  His feature script, “Darwin’s Game,” won the Mel Brenner Award for Risk Taking in Screenwriting & entry into the First Annual Telluride Independent Film & Video Festival.  “Forced Perspective” won the 1999 Award from the Wisconsin State Film Commission & Screenwriter’s Forum for “Best Screenplay Set in the State.” Follow John on Twitter @johnlewinski

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*Editor’s note: Originally published in Script magazine January/February 2005, much of the information in this article still holds true today and Script is all about helping screenwriters find as many pieces to the puzzle as possible…

Take your pick of the metaphor you like to use when describing the spec script game and the writer’s role in it

Aaron Kaplan

You’re throwing your fistful of literary pencils at the acoustic ceiling tile, hoping one will stick. You’re one of many standing in line before a pot of gold, and all you want is a chance to grab your one fistful. But, the best bit of imagery has you standing before a mighty river. You can’t see the beginning or the end of it, but you can see across to where you want to go. The river ebbs and flows based upon a myriad of factors beyond a writer’s control, so you wait for your moment to get across to the Promised Land.

Of course, you could use a little help from a guide—anyone who  has made that crossing time and time again. That’s where agents and managers come in, and a few volunteered to share their views on the current state of the spec script market. Be forewarned—they don’t all agree on what they see now and in the future.

AARON KAPLAN: LITERARY MANAGER, KAPLAN/PERRONE ENTERTAINMENT

From his office on the Sony backlot in Culver City, Chicago-born Aaron Kaplan described the current spec script market as static since 2001: “The last time we saw a spike in which specs were bought up was the writers’ strike that never happened.”

Kaplan refers to the drama of 2001 when the WGA’s collective bargaining agreement expired without a new contract in place. Screenwriters rushed to finish their assignments, and movie studios stockpiled spec scripts as they braced for a long strike.

However, both sides announced a tentative agreement soon after— leaving a dead spec script market in its wake. Every studio spent so much acquisition money piling up projects to keep them in business during the strike that never happened, spec sales went downhill for months.

Sadly, just when it seemed the spec business was ready to gear up again, the nightmare of 9/11 shook the country and every industry in it. So, in general, spec sales didn’t settle back into a rhythm until 2002.

“The end of last year and beginning of this year improved,” Kaplan said, “but, the future is uncertain. The loss of some buyers like MGM, Revolution, Miramax and Dimension (whether long-term or temporary) affected it. Also, I’m feeling as if there are fewer buyers out there, so it’s a little scary.”

But, don’t despair. Kaplan reminded everyone that specs always sell because they have to sell. The industry needs them; so, if material’s good, the scripts get bought. There’s always going to be room for someone to buy a script. Kaplan/Perrone’s three biggest spec sales last year included Big Baby by Adam Mazer and Gregg Lichtenstein to Warner Bros. (with Raja Gosnell attached to direct), Bed Bugs by Carter Blanchard to New Line (Jonathan Liebesman is now attached to direct) and Power Trip by Adam Sztykiel to DreamWorks.

“In general, an executive would rather buy a spec than a pitch, in my experience, because the script is already written,” he explained. “But, so much material is getting bought up because of underlying material such as a book, a comic book or a past film to remake. I hope that we’re running out of good material to remake—and that  we won’t start remaking bad material.”

Kaplan defines “good material” as something that provokes an emotional response: “I’ve read more than a handful of scripts that accomplished that, but less than I would like. If you can give readers an emotional response, they see that there’s value here.” But, Kaplan admits that the studios work on more of a marketing slant for their consideration of material. They need the logline—theone-sentence pitch, the trailer and the poster. They need to see the elements that let the marketing department know that they can sell the movie.

“If you’re a writer trying to break in, you should try to bring forward material that has a shot to do something for you. Obviously, you’re looking to sell it or convince someone to hire you on a rewrite as a first-time writer. You need to keep in mind the factors such as ‘It’s difficult to sella period piece. It’s difficult to sell a sports movie without an international tie-in, etc.’

“You don’t want to cover ground that’s already been covered. I don’t want anyone writing a spec that seems like a take on Jurassic Park. That ground has been covered. So, why waste your time?”

While choosing your own “uncovered ground,” what genre should you choose? Does it pay to pick a theme or subject matter designed to push your screenplay through the market?

“In terms of writing in a specific genre, a lot of writers don’t want to be pigeonholed in a specific type of script,” Kaplan said. “But, you should brand yourself initially to give yourself a calling card. Even if you do that, there’s some latitude for any writer. Horror writers can shift from action to thriller or suspense.

“No matter what you write, you should write to sell it. If you don’t have that amazing one-sentence logline, you should write your best script and hope that it sells. But, it’s very difficult to break into the business without selling a spec script. We have had success in the past without clients’ selling a script by getting them jobs in the studio system. But, that’s rare. Usually, a studio exec has a problem taking a chance on an unsold writer.”

While that seems like a lot of pressure on an aspiring movie scribe, Kaplan added, “It’s not essential to sell the first spec that goes out, though. If the first spec is well-written and shows a lot of promise but doesn’t sell, we’ve had success selling their second spec. We develop it with them. There are writers  e rep who have never sold a spec script that work their way into the business, but it helps to get the risk off you. Before hiring you, the execs can say, ‘‘Somebody else hired them. They’re are safe. I’m not going to lose my parking space over a first-timer.’’

Kaplan coaches his writers and gives notes to shape the script during the writing process. It’s all part of presenting a spec script and a writer as an overall package.

“Write a spec that avoids the obvious red flags; and, if possible, write the highest-concept idea you can find. A lot of representatives respond more to that strategy than they do the writing because that’s what the buyers respond to also.”

CHRIS FENTON AND WALTER HAMADA: LITERARY MANAGERS, H2F ENTERTAINMENT

While the spec market appears one way to Kaplan, Chris Fenton and Walter Hamada offer a different take. Their company, H2F Entertainment, is seven for seven this year on selling specs they took out into the marketplace.

Chris Fenton

“We opened up our company on January 13,” Fenton said. “I was an agent at William Morris for six years after starting out as a trainee. Walter was a vice president at Sony. I sold some projects to him. When Walter left to start a management company of his own, I left William Morris to join him. We rep writers, directors and actors with an eye to finding the young up-and-comers. Our directors are generally writer- directors, so we’re always focusing on the written material.”

Hamada added, “Writer-directors can ride out storms when the spec market might be down. They can write their own projects, etc. So, while we’re looking at spec material,we also look to get the writers a chance to direct.

“We don’t tend to be the type of managers who sit back with 100 clients and wait for them to hand in specs,” Hamada said. “We work with writers to make sure they’re writing good material. We know what they’re writing before they begin so we can be sure it’s marketable.

“The fact that we went out with seven projects and sold all seven—we don’t know of another company that’s accomplished that.”

Walter Hamada

“Still, lately we’ve had more success with pitches,” Fenton said. “A big part of that is I spent seven years at William Morris, and Walter spent five years at a studio. We’ve been on all sides of the table to get feedback. So, before our writers go out and pitch, they come in and pitch  to us. They get live input on how to pitch.”

Hamada added, “A huge pet peeve for me in this industry is a writer who’s not prepared for a meeting. When you ask him or her a question, that writer doesn’t have answers. We make sure that doesn’t happen.

“We don’t pitch what’s not a pitch,” Fenton said. “Some script ideas are specs because it’s all in the execution. We make the determination if we’re going to pitch it or spec it.

“When we go out with a spec, we want it to be special. Because of that commitment, we want to keep our trend of selling specs going. We try to avoid good ideas that are poorly written. They might sell, and that’s good for the trades; but our focus on the management side is really good writers who understand story and narrative. We work with them and come up with ideas that they can execute. Good writers are good writers. Good ideas are everywhere. But, you can’t make a bad writer into a good one.”

PEGGY PATRICK: LITERARY AGENT, SHAPIRO-LICHTMAN

An entertainment industry veteran for one of Hollywood’s established boutique agencies, Patrick is strictly no-nonsense when it comes to selling spec scripts: “I’ve always felt that the spec market was  like playing the lottery. If you’ve got a really good script, and you ‘play the lottery,’ you might sell it.

“There are niches that always exist. Horror is always a niche. There’s always interest there. A good horror script that’s different than every other horror script, but still in that genre, is often a good bet.”

“But, there isn’t always a lot of rhyme or reason with the spec market. I’ve sold scripts that weren’t so great and couldn’t sell other scripts that I thought were great. I’ve had writers try to target specific destinations, and I’ve had writers try to do something simple that would appeal to the entire industry—always with varying levels of success.”

Whether a writer tries either of those strategies, Patrick believes all writers should look at trends, see what people are looking for and try to write to that. “There are niches that always exist. Horror is always a niche. There’s always interest there. A good horror script that’s different from every other horror script, but still in that genre, is often a good bet.

“Romantic comedy is a good choice. Everyone wanted How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and scripts like that, no matter how that individual film did at the box-office.”

According to Patrick, if you want to attempt a narrow niche market like the Christian market or a woman’s film, you can pinpoint your material more accurately. If you target material to individual networks (Oxygen, ESPN or E!), no matter how good or bad it is, it might have a shot because they look only for a certain kind of story.”

As an example, Patrick cited the aftermath of The Passion of The Christ and its unbelievable success. As that film soared, everyone wanted a script with a Biblical story or theme. Ironically, for years before the Mel Gibson smash, one of the absolute rules of Hollywood writing was to avoid religion in scripts. So, when the market put out the call for religious material, there wasn’t any. Writers all around town scrambled to come up with something.

“If war movies were popular at a given moment, those would sell. But, they’re not right now because of the real-world situation. You have to be aware of that and be sensitive to it. Right now, the world is grim, and we need escapism. Hollywood is staying away from the grim. Now, that could change, or we could find ourselves at the outside edge of that struggle when it’s not as much a part of our daily lives. But, we’re not there now. You have to be very careful.”

Patrick does see some consistencies in the spec market: “My clients who sell specs seem to have a lot of scripts written in a lot of different genres so the market is covered. That way, there are scripts that are passed on initially that come around again later when they’re in style or after a writer sold something else.

“The market shifts so fast that you can’t always predict where it will go next, so I recommend that writers come up with as many different kinds of scripts as they can.”

As an example, Patrick cited Ladder 49 with John Travolta and Joaquin Phoenix. Clearly, firefighters were always heroic, but they are even more so following 9/11. Someone in Hollywood thinks, “Let’s do a firefighter movie…” because we want to see heroes. We want to see happy endings. In troubled times like these, the market is not friendly to artsy downer movies that deny an audience those heroic, escapist characters and situations.

“The art house stuff isn’t selling,” Patrick added. “It’s too dark and internal. I don’t see it selling anytime soon, either. Everybody that has that script in them to say what they have to say about their childhood—go ahead and write it and then put it in a drawer. It’s not easy to sell, but it could come back into vogue later.”

However, Patrick added some hope for any screenwriter yearning to try something different—such as a story with a little more artistic flare.

“I do think that we are on the brink of something different. It’s about to occur. There’s sameness to everything right now. I see it in the scripts I look at and in the movies I see. Everything is a little watered down right now. If anything surprising happens in a movie now, it catches the eye.

“Movies are marketed before they are made these days. So, they end up looking the same—like widgets. I believe heart can make a big difference in a story, and the industry might be coming around to that again.”

TREVOR ENGELSON: LITERARY MANAGER, UNDERGROUND FILMS

Trevor Engelson isn’t looking for anything to come around again. He likes the business just the way it is. A literary  manager with offices near the Sony and Columbia lots, he speaks of spec sale action with an enthusiasm spiced with vintage New York slang that can’t be reproduced here.

“The spec sale business is great for us right now, but I don’t know how everybody else is doing,” Engelson said in the first of several heavily edited statements. Underground is selling  projects all over town, and Engelson credits the company’s success to the unique role a management firm can play.

“I just think the difference between agents and managers is so significant,” Engelson said. “What we do for our clients as opposed to what agents can do for theirs. We have fewer clients, so we can spend more time working with them. And, we have less of an agenda. We’re friends with managers all over town, and there isn’t that desire to screw anybody else over.

“At an agency, if they sell a spec for a client or if that client gets two jobs back to back, that client is considered ‘booked.’ So, the agency takes them off their available writers list. We just keep going. We’re going to have them going out. We’re going to keep specs out there. Since deals take five or six months to close before the writer gets paid, we keep going out on something else for all of our writers.”

While other agents and managers yearn for the million-dollar spec sale days of the  980s, Engelson is focused on the potential sales present in the market today: “When we started here, everyone was talking about the good old days. We don’t know what the good old days were like, so this is the only market we know.

“We’ve never had a problem selling specs because people aren’t buying specs. People have excuses. They say they are not buying because they don’t have money, or they don’t sell because it’s a bad spec market. That’s bull. We’ve sold things in the dead of summer—even when the exec was literally on a yacht on the Nile.

“We sold something a month and a half ago to Revolution on a 10-minute pitch. That was in late July—all on the phone. Nobody was going out with specs in late July or trying to sell pitches. It was a true story that we felt strongly about, and they asked for the meeting with us. [Revolution] bought it a day later.”

That pitch was Class Act by Neal Schusterman and Eric Elfman. It’s a true story about a woman named Tierney Cahill who was a sixth grade school teacher in Nevada circa 2000. Her sixth grade class was apathetic of the election process. She promised her kids that, if they passed their next test, she’d run for Congress. They passed, she put her name on the ballad and her sixth grade class ended up running her campaign.

“We’ve never had a problem selling specs because people aren’t buying specs. People have excuses. They say they are not buying because they don’t have money, or they don’t sell because it’s a bad spec market. That’s bull.”

“It was a natural. So, you see—if the script is good, it’ll sell.”

By “good,” Engelson means commercial: “We can only speak for us, but commercial is what sells. If you get it off the logline, you can sell the thing. If you can see how to make the movie and how to market it, it makes it much easier to get made. As long as it comes down to what the movie is about—the title, the logline, the poster, the trailer—you’re thinking commercial.

“Beyond that, there are no rules in this business. I’d love to say don’t do a sports movie because they don’t do well internationally, but we’ve been successful in setting up sports movies all over town—with three more coming down the pipeline. If it’s something we’re passionate about selling, we’ll sell it.”

To write a script that gets you access to players like Engelson, he suggests writers pay attention to what’s getting bought by studios.

“Watch the box-office reports. Read magazines like Script Magazine. Check out web sites like Scriptsales.com. See what people are selling. You don’t want to model after that, but it helps to know what’s selling to know how far the parameters go.”

He added, “Just because there are competing projects our there set up at studios, doesn’t mean you can’t sell your spec script that is about a similar story. There is enough room out there for everyone to get foot in the door.”

Originally published in Script Magazine January/February 2005

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