Everyone can unclench, the spec market is still just fine. Sure, it might not be as strong as it was two decades ago, but all things considered, it’s still doing pretty well.
Not good enough for you? Let’s put it another way: Reports of the spec market’s demise have been grossly exaggerated.
The numbers certainly tell a tale, what with 2015 seeing the second highest amount of specs sold over the last six years, and that alone is enough to make a writer sitting in his or her dank apartment clacking away at the computer take note. In fact, of the 375 specs that went out last year, 129 were set up, an significant increase over the year before, in which just 101 of 369 found a home. Add in the fact that, as recently as 2010 there were only 67 set up (out of 378), and it’s tough to be too pessimistic.
Now, this is not to say that the studios are paying out a whole heck of a lot of seven-figure paychecks for these purchases, but that doesn’t mean the market itself is sounding its death knell, it just means the business has changed, as it tends to do.
Doubt it? Just look at the number of intellectual properties and franchises in development or the release slates of the various distributors around town. Without question, that has affected the overall number of spec script sales, but the fact that the most recent numbers are a substantial uptick over the year prior is worth noting and, in fact, celebrating.
But don’t take it from me, one of the great unwashed writers sitting in said hovel and clacking away, listen to a couple of the guys getting their hands dirty on a daily basis.
“It’s never going to be what it was. It can’t,” says a motion picture lit agent at one of the major agencies, who asked to remain anonymous for fairly obvious reasons. “Especially with the way the studios have shrunk and are making fewer movies, cut their development departments, are spending less money on anything but tent poles and so on. But, that said, a good script that sets an exec’s hair on fire is still going to get a lot of attention, and that interests buyers.”
That, of course, refers solely to the actual sale, but it’s not just about that. Very often, it’s about getting a writer’s work in front of people who might be willing to hire them to do other work. Be it rewriting something, adapting an existing intellectual property, or perhaps even a producer’s original idea.
In fact, I’m sort of the perfect example of that. I’ve never sold a spec, but a couple I’ve written have passed before eyes that decided they liked my work enough to hire me to do something else. That actually is just as good, because it means I’ve kept the rights to my own work, while also getting the chance to be employed by producers who appreciate what I’m doing.
“I like to tell my clients that the best thing that can happen is we sell it,” says a separate lit agent at a different agency whose desire for anonymity was identical to his colleague’s. “The second best thing is that we don’t sell it, but people are going to recognize the writing and say it’s stupendous. Let’s meet with the writer about something else. That script will generate a job. If the spec generates a job, it will pay for itself.”
Indeed, as I said. There’s another thing to consider, too. Even as studios and production companies continue to develop franchises and IPs, those properties don’t allow them any kind of nimbleness. The spec script provides them with that, as well as opportunities to jump into a project head first.
“What makes a spec screenplay desirable is how close you are to a finished product,” says the first agent. “When you pick up a book to develop, if all the stars align perfectly — a quick deal, first pick of writer, brilliant first draft, et cetera — you’re still 18 to 24 months out from a film. If you find a great spec screenplay and everything falls into place, you could be in production in a third of that time. People are always aggressively on the lookout for these screenplays, because any issues a particular studio might be having at a given time can be cured with a great screenplay.”
That alone should be enough to reassure spec writers that we’re not going to be kicked to the curb on any kind of permanent basis. Sure, it helps if you have some kind of existing relationship with a producer or exec (“Any studio exec has that list of 20 or 25 screenwriters that they can trust, who can either get them the green light, or get them pretty darn close,” says Agent Number Two), but the best way to even get in the door is the old fashioned one.
That is, writing a spec, in case I wasn’t clear.
The fact that the studios are not buying like they used to actually does have an upside. Yes, it’s lowered the number of buyers, but it’s also opened the door to production shingles to develop material themselves, thus giving everyone involved a chance to attach more talent and present a complete package to either the studios or financiers. That option, in fact, has Agent Number One in something of a tizzy.
“What I think is so exciting about the business now,” he says, his voice almost jovial, “is that writers can retain much more control, because anything that’s really unique and interesting, they write outside the studio system because the studios aren’t developing that much. There are a lot of great producers in the indie space, and plenty of financiers making movies like that, that aren’t just making $5 million movies, they’re making $20, $30, $40 million dollar movies, so the studios have marginalized themselves in that area because they’re not doing the development.”
What’s this all mean? Well, for starters, it’s probably not realistic to expect an enormous pay day for the magnum opus you’re currently writing. But, as it has always been, so shall it ever be, if the thing ain’t half bad, it might very well lead to one.
Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades in the independent film world and writing about Hollywood. Aside from being a screenwriter/director and Tracking Board columnist, he is also a senior editor at SSN Insider.