Consider your spec as a calling card of your talent and not a guarantee of a Hollywood sale…

October 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

When I started out on this crazy screenwriting journey, I made the same mistake many beginning screenwriters make when they complete their first specs—believing that everything they write will sell—and sell for a million dollars. When you consider that on the average about one hundred specs a year sell at the studio level and only half of the Writers Guild members report income in any given year, your specs should really be considered the necessary training ground for you to become a better screenwriter—not chances to win Hollywood’s lottery. The recent Scoggins Report for 2016 listed only 47 specs that have sold in Hollywood through September. It’s an eight year low. Horrible numbers.

Trust me, I know it’s hard to accept the spec you are writing probably will not sell and may end up being only a writing sample, but you need to put your specs into perspective. If you don’t put in the necessary work with solid rewrites from constructive feedback and create professionally competitive material—your specs could end up in a drawer collecting dust or worse a dumpster and have a negative effect on your career aspirations.

BoulderFlatSpecs are a necessary part of every screenwriter’s journey because they are the scripts you “cut your teeth on” to prepare you for when you do get hired for assignment jobs. My fifth spec is the one that opened the door to a career for me. Back in the day, a new production company optioned my screenplay and made it as their first released film. My professional relationship with the producers on the rewrites and my attitude during production helped build my reputation with them and they hired me for a series of screenwriting assignment jobs. This opened the door and launched my career. Since then I’ve been hired fourteen times for paid assignments, some of them sadly went into “development hell,” but I’ve had eight of the scripts produced into films and distributed globally.

script oddsNo spec ever wastes your time because you hopefully gain precious knowledge and experience with every new screenplay. I’ve completed 30 feature-length scripts since I started screenwriting and have been paid for sixteen of them (one spec sale, thirteen feature assignments and two TV pilot assignments). My early specs were not great and I look back at them as learning experiences and I realized that I needed time to get better and learn how to compete on a professional level. The truth is that I’m still learning because we never stop mastering our craft. This is why it’s vital to respect the process and journey otherwise the craft and the film business will humble you fast. Trust me, years of rejection and criticism just might make you decided to pick another career to pursue. I’ve had many friends who wanted to be actors and writers and very few achieved any success in the film business today.

Also consider the genre that you’re writing. What genre drives your passion? Many of Hollywood biggest films now are multi-genre movies so they can appeal to a global audience. If you’re writing in every genre and an agent or manager asks, “What genre do you write?” What is your answer? If you replay, “Well… I write everything… horror, drama, comedy, and action.” No writer is a master at every genre and you will appear scattered without a mastery of one genre. Agents want to get you on studio rewrite lists and those are genre specific. Also your first screenplay sale will probably determine the genre that you’ll be working in as you establish your career. If you sell a comedy out of the gate, your agent won’t be sending you out for horror or action assignment jobs.

hang onMoving forward on your spec journey, realize that Hollywood doesn’t owe you or me a read, a job or a career just because we’ve put words on paper in the form of a screenplay. Everyone has a screenplay or has tried to write one, but not everyone respects the craft or the mountain they need to climb for any shot at success. Specs are vital to your journey, but detach from their outcome and protect yourself from the reality of rejection so it doesn’t destroy your creative soul. Also remember what you write about is as important as the execution of the screenplay. My fifth spec was a difficult commercial sell because it was a historical movie about WWII and life on the home front of the United States with four ten-year olds as the protagonists. When I shopped the script, Hollywood was not making historical films and I kept coming up short with my submissions. Yes, it was a top 20 script in the Nicholl Fellowship and I received positive feedback about the story and writing, but alas no sale. It took three years until it found a home with a producer and new company that wanted to make quality independent films. And it was a total of seven years from the day I typed FADE OUT of the first draft to the first day of photography. A long haul journey for sure, but I never gave up and it paid off.

Be smart about your career. Don’t waste time making the same mistakes over and over again. Always remember that it’s your responsibility to chart the course and keep your eye of the big picture. Before you start your next spec and burn precious time, consider how it figures into your overall screenwriting goals—not just the mantra that I hear from so many aspirants, “I have a good idea for a script.” Many times it’s not a good idea and if your goal is to be a horror genre screenwriter, why are you writing a romantic comedy especially when Hollywood isn’t producing that genre now? Think, plan, create a checklist, hit your goals, create a solid story treatment before you start pages, and then put your ass in a seat and fill those blank pages.

Also realize even if you do sell a script there are no guarantees. I’ve been paid to write five production ready screenplays that are in development hell and they will probably never be made due to situations out of my control. What’s the alternative to not writing? You’re guaranteed never to have any shot at success. At least with a solid body of material you create opportunities and the rest is timing and the right project getting to the right producer.

Scriptcat out!

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“Action is hope. At the end of each day, when you’ve done your work, you lie there and think, Well, I’ll be damned, I did this today. It doesn’t matter how good it is, or how bad—you did it. At the end of the week you’ll have a certain amount of accumulation. At the end of a year, you look back and say, I’ll be damned, it’s been a good year.”—Ray Bradbury

“Most writers can’t tell at the premise stage whether they’ve got a good story because they don’t have the training to see the deep structural problems in the idea before writing it as a script.”—John Truby

The 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”

“The key word in art—it’s an ugly word but it’s a necessary word—is power, your own power.  Power to say, “I’m going to bend you to my will.”  However you disguise it, you’re gripping someone’s throat. You’re saying, “My dear, this is the way it’s going to be.”—Elia Kazan

Hemingway said it best, “I still believe, though, that it is very bad for a writer to talk about how he writes. He writes to be read by the eye and no explanations or dissertations should be necessary. You can be sure that there is much more there than will be read at any first reading and having made this it is not the writer’s province to explain it or to run guided tours through the more difficult country of his work.”

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