Script Angel: Writing on Spec – Should You Write a Film or TV Script?

Hayley McKenzie is a Script Editor and founder of Script Angel, helping screenwriters elevate their craft and advance their screenwriting career. Follow her on Twitter @scriptangel1.

You’re writing on spec and the world’s your oyster. So should you be writing a feature film screenplay or a television show pilot script?

One of the not-so-great things about writing on spec is that it’s unpaid, so after all that hard work you may never earn a single cent from it. There’s also the crushing realization that you may slave over your precious script for months or even years only for it to never be seen by more than a handful of people.

writing on spec

photo credit benhelms.com

But every cloud has a silver lining and here’s yours. One day, when you’re writing to a brief and banging your head against a brick wall trying to make your script fit someone else’s vision and budget, you’ll look back on this spec-writing time as some of the most creative and exciting times of your screenwriting career.

When you’re writing on spec you can write anything you want. That’s right, absolutely anything. The choices are infinite. You’ve got a drawer full of half-formed ideas.  There’s some feature film ideas, the beginnings of something that could be a TV show, maybe an idea even that feels like a novel or a stage play. You can’t do them all at once, and you’ve no strong feeling about which to go for.

So what should you focus on? Well, the answer depends a bit on what stage you’re at in your screenwriting career and what your goals are.

If you want to get your writing noticed, to get talked about within the industry, a spec feature and a spec television pilot can both do that for you. Television drama is hot right now (though for those of us who work in it, TV drama has always been pretty fantastic!). But now the big boys and girls in the industry are really starting to take notice of TV dramas and the writers behind them. Having originated a hit TV drama is just as big a career boost as having penned the latest blockbuster movie.

That said there’s still the question of how you get your writing noticed, especially if you don’t yet have representation. The most-respected screenwriting contests remain an amazing opportunity to break in and placing highly in the best of them really can open doors for you. Some contests accept feature and TV pilots and the number of contest accepting both has increased over recent years. However, the reality is that the majority of the big screenwriting contests are still looking for feature screenplays and often have a minimum page count which, if you’ve written a 60’ TV pilot, your script won’t hit.

If you’re writing to show what you can do, without worrying about selling the project itself then the best advice is to be bold and imaginative. You may never again have the opportunity to write a script (TV or film) for which there are no limits. Take full advantage of this chance to be utterly creative in a piece of work that is unrestricted by budget or layer-upon-layer of note-wielding execs.

If you’re writing with a view to selling your project in the immediate future then the reality is that there are big differences between the world of spec film scripts and spec TV pilots. Although there are further differences between the US and UK markets the general rules apply to both.

There is a genuine market for spec film screenplays. There are producers out there looking for a great film script and it honestly doesn’t matter whose name is on the front or what credits that writer does or doesn’t have. The main reason for this is that if the original writer of the feature film spec script can’t deliver during the development process, the producer can bring onboard another writer to rewrite. That’s not just accepted practice in the film industry, it’s commonplace.  In the UK in particular there is a (relatively) thriving low-budget film industry, particularly in the horror and thriller genres. If you’ve got a great low-budget horror or thriller spec script you’ve got a genuine chance of selling it and even seeing it produced.

The spec TV pilot market is a whole different ball game and, to be honest, you’d be pushed to say one really exists in either the UK or the US. If you’ve got no previous screenwriting credits, the honest truth is that your chances of selling a spec film script are vastly greater than selling a spec TV pilot.  One of the reasons for this is that we’re not so much buying a concept in television, but one writer’s very particular execution of an idea. Most producers are reluctant to spend money developing a project unless they know that the writer of that great first episode can keep replicating that brilliance over multiple episodes and to a very, very fast schedule.

A show may be months or years in early development, focusing on the shape of the series and that pilot episode but once the greenlight comes the turnaround time to shoot might only be weeks. You might have had months to polish that brilliant first episode but you’ve now got possibly only weeks to get a ton more episodes to shooting script standard.  Credits matter because they demonstrate you’ve got experience at delivering to a very high standard on very fast schedules. Selling a spec TV pilot is possible, as the oft-cited BBC hit Death in Paradise proves, but the odds are massively stacked against you.

If you want to be able to enter your spec script into the greatest number of screenwriting contests or you want a half-decent chance of selling on spec but have no credits, my advice is to write a spec feature film script.

Of course, that’s all odds and industry and the truth is that you should write the project that you’re most excited about. If that project is a TV show then go for it! Nothing sells a project more than the writer’s absolute conviction in it and passion for it. That, above everything else, should determine your decision.

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