What should you do with your old spec screenplays that don’t sell?

March 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

old specs collecting dust

Spec screenplays. We need to write them, but the reality is that most specs you write will never sell. I’m not being negative but giving you a dose of reality so you won’t flounder and become frustrated that some big Hollywood script sale has passed you by. The odds are astronomical to sell any feature spec—especially from an unknown screenwriter with no credits.

The Scoggins Spec Market Scorecard for 2016 estimated around 70 specs selling, and last year was an eight year low for sales. It’s also estimated that 50,000 projects are registered with the Writers Guild every year and bounce around Hollywood trying to get noticed. It’s like stepping up to the plate and hoping for a grand slam home run every time out. Difficult at best and impossible most of the time. And the odds become worse to secure any writing work if a screenwriter cuts out the entire business of television or the web. I don’t mean to discourage you with these odds, but it’s to put a perspective on what you’re actually up against as you pursue a career.

I’ve only sold one spec in my career, but the sale opened the door to sixteen paid screenwriting assignments to date. Yes, I’ve written many other specs, but now I will only write a spec if it’s a true passion project because I’m generally too busy working. I’ve also collaborated on specs with directors for no pay, but as it’s our project, I’m contracted to also be a producer if it goes. I took the risk because I considered the cost/benefit was a good gamble. So, what becomes of your spec screenplays that don’t sell or get optioned for development?

1.  They collect dust and become a memory.

2.  They end up as kindling in a producer’s fireplace in Aspen.

3.  They become excellent writing samples.

I hope you answered number 3 above.  I believe a solid spec that never sells is never dead—so, what does happen to your old spec screenplays? My ex writing partner and I would always joke when a producer agreed to read our spec, we’d envision him going to Aspen for the weekend with his pile of reads. He’d snuggle down on a bearskin rug in front of the fireplace with his Playboy model girlfriend and they’d drink wine and get cozy.  Strangely enough there would be no firewood next to the fireplace, only his large pile of twenty scripts.  He would tell his girlfriend, “honey it’s getting cold in here… put another script on the fire.”  And she would take a script from the pile and toss it into the fireplace.  Oh, the horror.  My ex writing partner and I would have a good laugh, but sadly this might have been the fate of our specs.

If you’ve exhausted the viable options for your spec, and the process hasn’t moved you or the project down the road to production… set your old spec screenplay aside for a while and later take a fresh look. I’m sure some of your old scripts that are solid projects are in need of a good polish. This is exactly what I did last year with three of my old chestnuts.

scripts 2I always loved these scripts, but I couldn’t find anyone else to loooooove them enough to buy them. That’s okay. I knew the writing was solid, so I took the time and gave them a fresh nip and tuck — and it’s paid off in spades as solid writing samples.  Last year when I pitched a family film idea to a producer who loved the concept, she needed a comedy writing sample to read before she would take me into the network and pitch.  As I had worked on a polish of my comedy last year, my old spec was ready to go and in the best shape ever.  She wanted to read it right away and because it was ready, I didn’t need to take a few weeks to polish it.

This also happened when I met with another producer who needed a writer to write her idea into a TV pilot with a show bible. I gave her two of my original spec TV comedy pilots as examples of my work, and she responded to the writing and thought it had the same comedic sensibilities that she was looking for in her project. My old specs got me hired for the job.

script oddsYou’ll always need solid writing samples in your bag of tricks and these may end up being your specs that didn’t sell. I know it seems like the end of the world if a spec doesn’t sell, but you can get meetings from your script and it can become an important writing sample.  Producers, agents and managers will always need to read your material to see if you can actually write a screenplay.  If your spec doesn’t sell but lands you an agent, manager or an assignment job, it was worth the effort. In fact, writing a script and finishing it can never be diminished, because you always gain precious writing experience every time you make it through and type “THE END”.

I suggest always have your old specs ready to read as writing samples. If you’re on this screenwriting journey for the long haul, you will write many scripts that don’t sell and others that do.  It’s the nature of the game. Selling a spec script is like winning the lottery. I know it’s possible because I’ve sold a spec, but the odds are not good and the Hollywood spec landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. This is why you must use your spec scripts as way to push your career farther down the road so you can advance and hold new ground.

You never know where your project may end up years later. This is why I believe old specs that don’t sell, never die if they are viable concepts that are well written. Ultimately, they become what you make of them. If you work your old material into the best shape possible, you’ll be ready when new opportunities arise. Who knows, years later your old spec script may find new life with a producer who responds to the material and wants to produce it into a movie or hire you to write on assignment.

Keep writing. Every day. Fill your blank pages by any means necessary, keep learning, don’t be afraid to fail, remain humble, and let your passion drive you through the ups and downs.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE blog.

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“Time stays long enough for those who use it.”—Leonardo da Vinci

“This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling

“Hollywood is Hollywood. There’s nothing you can say about it that isn’t true, good or bad. And if you get into it, you have no right to be bitter—you’re the one who sat down, and joined the game.” —Orson Welles

“Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed.  It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye.  Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work.  In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”

“Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”—Ray Bradbury

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