First, the pros:
- You own your spec. If it’s truly amazing and everyone wants it, you can leverage the frenzy into a producer credit to have more control. A bidding war can garner a great sale.
- Specs are exactly the way you envision. No producers have unleashed their idiotic tinkering yet. Your spec is pure—it’s a virgin project. (Do not get used to this, as once it sells it will become defiled and corrupted).
- If you spec does not sell, it can serve as a showcase your unique voice and style. It can open doors, get you meetings and even get you hired to write a screenplay on assignment (the bread and butter of working writers).
- No producer or executive can stop you from writing your spec. Nobody can take the experience away from you. Every time you fill the blank page, you become a better writer. It could take you five or ten specs to make enough noise to get noticed, but most importantly—you’re writing.
And now… the cons:
- Specs burn time. Precious time with the hopes the script will move your career forward by selling, getting you meetings, or assignment work. It’s always a necessary gamble, but know the thankless lack of rewards a spec could offer.
- Ideas are constantly floating around in the ether.
- You can spend a tremendous amount of time on your spec, only to find out a very similar idea is in development or production. Storytelling though the ages breaks down into seven basic plots using Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama. So, considering screenwriters register 50,000 ideas/scripts with the WGA every year, the odds your spec is similar to another is pretty good. It comes down to whose is the most original take on the story and if your competition has big name talent attached.
- If your spec is similar to a movie that did not do well at the box office—Hollywood will avoid it completely.
- Is your spec a good idea for a movie? A bad idea will undermine any potential for a spec to succeed.
- You may have poorly executed your spec and nothing can save a bad spec from being a doorstop or thrown into the recycling dumpster.
Now you know the risk–benefit analysis. You can soldier on with courage, knowing the potential victories and losses that may befall you on your journey writing a spec screenplay. You’re always a success if you keep writing and never lose sight of your dream. The light may flicker and grow dim at times, but if you keep marching toward the light, it always becomes brighter.
Keep on writing! Every day, seven days a week, year after year.
Check out this fantastic article in Vanity Fair by Margaret Heidenry that asks, “Will the spec market rise again?”
“The artist committing himself to his calling has volunteered for hell, whether he knows it or not. He will be dining for the duration on a diet of isolation, rejection, self-doubt, despair, ridicule, contempt, and humiliation. The artist must be like that Marine. He has to know how to be miserable. He has to love being miserable. He has to take pride in being more miserable than any other soldier or swabbie or jet jockey. Because this is war, baby. And war is hell.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“A professional respects his craft. He does not consider himself superior to it. He recognizes the contributions of those who have gone before him. He apprentices himself to them.” — Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“I think there are three steps to writing a script. First, you have to have a theme, something you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a particularly great thing, but you have to have something that’s bothering you. In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for that theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness. Then you have to find a plot, which is the easiest part of the process. All plots have been done; they’re fairly easy, you just work through all the permutations until the plot accurately reflects the theme and the metaphor. You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot.”—Paul Schrader
The first official spec script didn’t arrive on the scene until 1933. Screenwriter Preston Sturges first made his way to Hollywood in 1932. After cutting his teeth with a writing stint at Universal, the following year Sturges wrote an original screenplay on his own dime called “The Power and the Glory.” Sturges’ son Sandy reports this fact on a website he manages about his father noting: “Sells original screenplay, The Power and the Glory, to Fox.” Per Wikipedia:
He [Sturges] also sold his original screenplay for The Power and the Glory (1933) to Fox, where it was filmed as a vehicle for Spencer Tracy. The film told the story of a self-involved financier via a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, and was an acknowledged source of inspiration for the screenwriters of Citizen Kane. Fox producer Jesse Lasky paid Sturges $17,500 plus a percentage of the profits, a then-unprecedented deal for a screenwriter, which instantly elevated Sturges’ reputation in Hollywood – although the lucrative deal irritated as many as it impressed. Sturges later recalled, “The film made a lot of enemies. Writers at that time worked in teams, like piano movers. And my first solo script was considered a distinct menace to the profession.”