I usually look forward to this assignment with a mix of anticipation and trepidation – anticipation because it’s a fun gig and because it’s interesting to see what’s going on out there in Spec Script Land. Trepidation because, as I’ve learned from brutal experience, 99% of all specs are, um, not so hot and there’s always a large percentage of not-so-hot to wade through to find those three or four scripts worth sending to the finals.
In contrast, this year’s Big Break™ was an exceptionally rewarding experience. While there were still a lot of bizarre, poor, or just plain uninspired entries, there were also an exceptionally high number of excellent screenplays as well. Out of the approximately 300 or so scripts that I read, I found at least fifteen worth recommending for further consideration. Of these, four went to the finals and one actually won the contest. Although these scripts came from a wide range of genres (from romantic comedy to fish-out-of-water pieces to blood-soaked horror-fests) and in a variety of shapes and sizes (from intimate two-handers to ginormous epics), they had similar things in common – they were all fresh (either wholly original concepts or fresh takes on traditional paradigms), filled with interesting and sympathetic characters; and written with highly individual voices. They were all a pleasure to read and moving in unique and unexpected ways.
Thinking about what lessons these scripts might impart to the writers that are currently toiling on specs to enter in next year’s contest and beyond, I found myself coming back to what I have finally come to realize is the only “rule” for writing that I think is absolutely unbreakable – that is that you have to write stories that you are absolutely passionate about. Don’t focus on penning scripts that you think will be commercial or that you feel “will sell,” because if that is your only criteria for writing, then I guarantee you that the end result – however slick and professional – will be absolutely lifeless and therefore won’t sell or serve as a viable sample to help you land assignments.
Why do I say this? Because, there were hundreds of scripts in the contest that were based on strong, commercial ideas and that were undeniably well-executed and yet just lay there on the page. The scripts that grabbed me were all filled with passion – it’s clear that their authors cared deeply about their subject matter and were driven to get their tales down on paper to inspire others the way they themselves were inspired. This doesn’t mean that the only scripts worth writing are “personal” ones – not at all. There were many terrific genre and high concept scripts in the contest. The difference between them and the ones that didn’t work was that you could tell that their authors really loved the stories they were telling and weren’t simply writing with an eye on the marketplace.
At this point, this is the only real way to do it – the cold reality of the business these days is that the studios and production companies aren’t buying many specs – everyone’s too busy looking for pre-sold, “branded” properties (comic books, television shows, remakes, toys, etc.) – so the odds of original material selling is about as slim as it has ever been. But there’s always a hunger for good writers to work on these projects, so your goal with a spec these days should be to create a startling representation of your voice and skills that will attract the attention of potential employers. And you can’t do that with a calculated piece of business – it has to be something that comes from your gut, your heart, your muse. That’s how the writers of all of the finalists in this year’s contest wrote and it is definitely how the winners created their showpieces.
So “thank you” to the authors of these screenplays for making my summer job such a pleasure this year. Congratulations to Third Place winner Larry Brenner (Flesh and Blood), Second Place winner Mick Connolly (Crims), and First Place winner Tejal Desai (Cowboys and Hindus) – your scripts were great and you all have bright futures ahead of you. Finally, a special thank you to Jason Groce—the author of Transit, a script that didn’t make it to the top three, but was one of the best specs I’ve read in the past ten years and a wonderful reminder of how magical and powerful good screenwriting can be.