Your current spec may not be the one, but it’s one of many you’ll have to write…

December 7, 2014 § 1 Comment

script oddsIt’s a screenwriter’s ultimate dream, right? Write a spec screenplay, sell it for a million dollars and launch your career. It could happen, but it’s like winning the lottery. You have to play and play and the odds are stacked against you. Considering that Hollywood studios only purchase about just over a hundred specs a year, and conservative estimates say there are 40,000 or more projects bumping around town, you can see it’s a numbers game at best. The spec you are writing now should be considered just another tool in your arsenal to gain the necessary writing experience, open doors, and create opportunities to show your talent and ability. Nothing more.

Yes, I know the stories you may read in Variety about the fetus who dictated the script from his mother’s womb, kicking like Morse Code to his mother as she typed the scenes, and it sells for a million bucks. It’s not the norm. It’s stories like this that bring countless aspirants to the screenwriting game seeking fame and fortune. Many will burn out after a few script failures and many others will realize just how difficult it is to sell anything. I’ve only sold one spec in my professional screenwriting career and that opened the door for steady assignment work (just completed my 14th paid assignment) and it’s been my bread and butter since. I’ve written many other specs for sure over the years, but now I’m usually so busy writing on assignment that I don’t have the time to write a new spec. I know—these are “champagne problems.”

I see too many screenwriters hang their hopes and dreams on just one spec and when it doesn’t sell, or they don’t receive the feedback they expected, they are destroyed. This is why you need to detach from any outcome after writing your spec. Detachment will allow you to survive better over the long haul journey as your writing is subjected to criticism, notes and rejection. The ups and downs can be brutal and wear on your mental outlook. We are creative artists who continually face an uphill battle to get our work read, considered or produced. BoulderFlatWhat you write is as important as how you write it. I also see many aspirants writing big budget screenplays and chasing the studios with their tentpole ideas. That’s great, but it’s such a huge gamble especially from an unknown writer without credits. Seriously consider the genre you are writing and see if those films have been successful recently in Hollywood. I love a good Western, but since the recent flop at the box office of THE LONE RANGER, I don’t expect many Westerns will go into development anytime soon. It had a $ 215 million budget and has only taken in $ 260 million worldwide. This doesn’t bode well for Western films in the near future in Hollywood.

They usually run from a genre that bombs. harris-sequels-1I know we will certainly see more superhero movies taken from comic books, as they already have a built in following and the ideas are owned by the studios and not from spec screenplays. So you can see if you write a particular genre that does not do well, it’s almost certain it will not be produced or even be something a studio or a production company is looking to make. You don’t need more strikes against your spec in addition to the ridiculous odds it faces anyway. Write something that appeals to you personally and your writing will show through. Look at the films that garner awards every year. Many are independents with uplifting stories about people.

Sure we all want to chase that elusive brass ring of the tentpole studio picture with all its fame, glory and money, right? Keep chasing and you’ll wake up one day and five years will have passed wondering what’s going wrong. It’s like being in the end zone of a football field, turning out the lights, and trying to throw a football into the goal at the other end. You could try a hundred times and come up short. This is why you can’t write in a vacuum and need to be aware of the business realities of Hollywood. Fewer studio films are being made and they are coming from properties that either the studio already owns in the form of remakes, or projects that already have a built in following as books or comic books. All of those scripts are being written on assignment, not spec. Ninety percent of working screenwriter’s livelihood comes from screenplay assignment jobs.

Maybe look to television companies that may produce your screenplay? There is no shame having movies on TV as millions of people watch in one airing and it can air repeatedly. I know, my TV movies air quite a bit here and overseas. Now your big tentpole script just might be a great writing sample for you to land an assignment with a studio, but unfortunately most of those big writing gigs go to A-list, known and credited screenwriters who are on the studio lists to do rewrites, polishes and script jobs. If your intent is getting your spec produced, write something with a more realistic budget, a smaller film and this will open up the opportunities of where your project could actually get produced. If you chase the studios with your big spec, there is only a handful of places to go and when your script is rejected where else can you go? You can’t approach the small indie company that makes five million dollar budgets and below with your $ 100 million epic, right?

Screenwriting success is a numbers game with luck and timing—right project, right producer, right time. It’s like the stars must align and then BAM! And how often does that happen? Yes, it does happen and that’s why we continue to write and become better screenwriters. Even when a script sells, it has many hurdles to jump before it becomes a film and it can end up in development hell never being produced too. This is why you’ll need a stack of scripts to burn through, each finds its way along the journey, some fail, some succeed and then fail, some succeed and go all the way. So, one spec will not do it. And the spec you are writing now (no offense) will probably not be “the one” that does the job. It might, but don’t hang all of your hopes and dreams on it.

Don’t quit your job and put yourself into the dangerous situation of “having to sell your script.” It’s one thing to believe in your work and hope for the best, it’s another to be foolish and not look at the realities of the business. Specs are always necessary to gain precious screenwriting experience and develop your unique style and writer’s “voice.” The more you write and learn, the better you will become as a screenwriter. Experience takes time and you’ll need to dedicate the necessary time to mastering your craft. Treat your current spec as just another tool to move you forward on the playing field. It’s probably not going to be “the one”, but one of many you’ll have to write to stay in the game and have any shot at success. Keep writing because if you stop, you’ll never have any chance at success. Scriptcat out!

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“Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard. When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”—Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson

“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”—Ray Bradbury

“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. But the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. [F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. [R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.” ~ J.K. Rowling

“Unlimited budgets make for a lack of precise decision-making.”— producer Lynda Obst

“People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are. Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich.”—William Faulkner

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