While most screenwriters will insist that you can’t simply put a label on their work, the genre or genres into which a spec falls is one of the script’s most important elements as it hits the market. Genres don’t simply suggest whether your script will be funny, scary, or packed with explosions – but can relay a sense the story’s potential audience, budget, and box office. In our 2015 Spec Book, we’ve once again broken down the specs that hit the market into by the 10 most popular genres.
While action specs accounted for the second-most sold in 2015, the genre has been in a steady decline since 2013. Perhaps because the label of the “action” genre has been overrun by the dramatic increase of comic book movies. In other words, the box office is already filled with action blockbusters based on existing IP rather than specs. Furthermore, with studios more budget-conscious than ever, launching an expensive action franchise based on the spec script of an untested writer could be a risky move. That said, one should never say never: Olympus Has Fallen was a spec script, and it became a box office success that triggered a sequel, this year’s London Has Fallen.
A lot of what was said about action can also apply to the adventure genre. While the Indiana Jones-esque adventure flick waned for a few years, it appears that the genre is making a comeback: Star Wars, Jurassic World, and, yes, Indiana Jones are in the midst of a renaissance. And even though only 22 adventure specs hit the market in 2015, 8 of them sold – an impressive ratio. As the aforementioned franchises continue to fuel audiences’ desire for old school adventure, it appears as though the genre could be on the upswing going into 2016 and beyond.
Out of the 94 comedies that were out in 2015, 28 of them sold. At 34%, that’s not too shabby; consider that in 2013, just 27% of comedy specs were set up. However comedy specs still ranked third to last in sales, just ahead of action and horror. It’s worth noting, of course, that comedy can be a tough sell. Comedic tastes are subjective, and while you might think your script is hilarious, agents and managers, or worse, producers and buyers, might disagree. Beyond that, what’s funny in North America might not be so funny abroad, which limits the potential audience of your movie. The upside? Comedies can be cheaper to produce, and broad comedies – especially those with strong female leads like Trainwreck and Spy – still kill at the box office.
The number of drama specs that went out in 2015 sits close to the top with 122. Out those, 32 were set up bring it to a strong 38.5% sold rate. Drama is slowly making its way to the top of the list when it comes to most specs sold; each year since 2010, the number of drama specs being set up has steadily increased. Drama comprises the broadest spectrum of story, making it a jumping off point that is often tied to thriller and action pics. It can also be argued that the yearly social and political climate influences the popularity of dramas, too. Between 2010 and 2013, the highest percentage of specs set up was in 2012, the same year as the last national election. Between 2016 being an election year – and a particularly ‘dramatic’ one, to boot – and the continued rise of drama specs as a trend, we can expect another increase in the genre this year.
In 2010, the fantasy genre barely made a dent when it came to specs sold. At most, only two have been set up in the past four years. Like action, it’s a potentially expensive undertaking for what could be a relatively narrow audience – or at least, what used to be narrow audience. In 2015, out of the 17 fantasy specs that went out, 6 sold. This is a significant uptick that could be influenced by the popularity of TV’s Game of Thrones and Outlander and the huge box office success of book-to-movie franchises like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The upcoming release of Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them may also contribute to the incline considering the built-in Harry Potter audience and expected success of the spin-off. That said, notable box office misfires can have a negative impact on the popularity of the genre on the market. The Huntsman franchise, for example, saw success with its first installment, but the follow-up failed to live up to the original, while Gods of Egypt poised itself to be an epic fantasy but also ran into trouble at the box office – both factors that can influence the potency of a fantasy spec in the near future.
Since 2010, the number of horror specs out has increased each year — with the exception of 2011, which saw an unexpected dip. In 2013, six out of 30 specs were set up. In 2015, 11 out of the 40 specs were set up. In other words, the number of horror specs out has increased, but the rate of sale hasn’t. Perhaps this is because of how particular buyers can be with horror specs. Even so, horror movies are one of the most profitable genres. They are the second most well-traveling genre behind action and tend to sell big internationally. They’re super cheap to produce, they serve a specific, movie-going audience, and they rake in huge dollars at the box office. This is what’s known as ‘the Blumhouse model’ and it is reflected in their movie franchises like The Purge and Sinister. In 2013, The Conjuring earned over $137 million and based on the success of that, the upcoming sequel is expected to surpass those numbers. Horror is one of the fastest growing and consistent genres but also one that is no longer solely reliant on the spec market.
Good news: in 2015, 40 percent of the rom-com scripts sold. Bad news, only five of them actually went out. Even more bad news: this continues the trend of the decrease of rom-com specs on the market. In 2010, 34 rom-coms specs were sent out and only seven of them were set up. 2015 marks an all-time low in the number of rom-coms to hit the market in the past five years. Rom-coms have that unfortunate “chick flick” stigma attached to them, which is probably why people are shying away from the genre, but with movies like Sleeping With Other People and How To Be Single reinventing the genre, there might be a gradual increase next year.
Sci-fi is like fantasy in that a lot of movies in the genre tend to be adapted from pre-existing properties. But unlike fantasy, sci-fi pics vary from the modestly budgeted & thought provoking (Ex Machina, Midnight Special) to huge popcorn blockbusters (Star Wars, Star Trek). All of which sell very well, and therefore give writers considerable range to work with. In 2015, sci-fi specs sat comfortably in the middle of the list. Out of the 56 specs that went out, 20 were sold. That marked a minor dip from previous years, but the genre will likely get a bump considering the current projection of sci-fi movies box office numbers and accolades. In 2014, audiences flocked to Christopher Nolan’s high concept sci-fi adventure drama Interstellar, which earned over $650 million at the worldwide box office, putting it in the top 10 earning sci-fi pics of 2014. Ex-Machina was a sleeper hit of 2015, taking home an Academy Award for visual effects and earning Alex Garland a nod for original screenplay. This, perhaps, paved the way for his forthcoming adaptation of the Jeff VanderMeer sci-fi novel, Annihilation. Perhaps the most influential for the genre is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which earned nearly a billion dollars at the box office and broke all kinds of box office records. And you’d better believe that studios that aren’t Disney are looking for fresh sci-fi concepts with franchise potential to access the hyperdrive of popularity the genre is currently experiencing.
The supernatural genre came in second to last with 4 out of the 8 scripts being sold — but that means it came in at a 50 percent selling rate. Not too bad, but this is still a low number compared to previous years. In 2013, 11 out of 34 supernatural scripts were sold. The reason people probably rushed to write or buy a supernatural spec is because found footage takes like the Paranormal Activity franchise exhausted the genre. The first film, which was made on a shoestring budget, raked in $107 million in North America alone. With the exception of Paranormal Activity 3, which was highest grossing movie for the franchise, the box office numbers for the other installments dipped considerably. The latest installment, The Ghost Dimension, earned a little over $18 million in the North American box office. But supernatural is also a very specific genre – often a subgenre of horror, and that means ‘relatively inexpensive to produce’ and ‘strong movie-going audience’. Take this year’s The Witch, which not only garnered plenty of critical buzz, but also earned $25 million on an estimated $3.5 million budget. That could very well be the start of a new gritty and grounded supernatural horror trend that plays out over the next couple of years.
The genre topped the list this year, with 53 out of 156 specs sold, or about 34%. This was a modest increase from last year, which saw 40 of the 122 set up, or 32.7%. There seems to be a resurgence of thrillers, but less of the Basic Instinct ilk and more grounded, methodical and less hyper-sexualized. Movies like The Gift and Nightcrawler have provided inspirational jumping-off points for writers to create fascinating three-dimensional characters mixed with suspense-driven storylines. In turn, agents and managers find these kind of thrillers appealing because they’re potentially low-to-mid budget projects that often have great franchise potential (case in point, Taken). The success of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl – which brought in nearly $370 million worldwide and earned multiple Oscar nominations – has kicked off a surge in popularity for literary-based thrillers containing strong elements of mystery and unexpected twists. The Girl on the Train, starring Emily Blunt, is one of the year’s most highly anticipated films, and if it meets the hype, expect the rush to find ‘the next Gone Girl‘ to continue (and to see a lot more books hitting the market with the word ‘girl’ in the title).
Assigning a genre to your spec is more than it seems. Each year the market is different in what managers are looking for. This can be based on what specs sold best the previous year or what is forecasted to be “hot” in entertainment in the upcoming year. The spec market can even be influenced by external factors like an election or pressing social issues. No matter how you look it, assigning there is a strategy and and benefit to labeling your work in a specific genre.
Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer