Biggest year since the Writers Strike — “feels like 1997 all over again”
After three years of reboots, sequels and prequels, the market for original scripts is finally sizzling again in Hollywood.
No fewer than 18 spec scripts – screenplays written without a contract – were sold in October. That's the highest monthly tally since before the Writers Guild strike in 2007-2008.
The projects range from a biopic about code-cracking mathematician Alan Turing to a “found footage” thriller centering on killer hurricanes to a relationship counselor comedy that will likely star Ken Jeong of “The Hangover.”
“We already knew that 2011 was going to be the hottest spec market in five years, but October’s numbers are beyond all expectations,” said Jason Scoggins, author of the Scoggins Report and founder of ItsontheGrid.com, a division of TheWrap. “And when you add in pitch sales, buyers' appetites have never been stronger.”
In a robust sign of health for long-neglected screenwriters, studios are competing to bid for the hottest scripts and pitches.
In total, 86 spec scripts have been snatched up through October – more than the number that sold in all of 2009 or 2010.
“A lot of the safe bets in terms of branded [intellectual property], the Harry Potters or the Hasbro products, have had their run, or have not worked out,” Brooklyn Weaver, owner of the literary management company Energy Entertainment, told TheWrap. “When you look at things such as ‘Inception,’ what’s working is the original ideas from original voices.”
Of the 302 spec scripts that hit the market this year, 28 percent have sold, up from 17.2 percent in 2010 and 16.7 percent in 2009, according to The Scoggins Report.
Just last week, buyers scooped up seven scripts.
All of the major studios have purchased multiple specs over the past 10 months after spending much of the previous year sitting out the market entirely. Among the big buyers are Warner Bros. and Sony, which have snapped up 14 and seven specs respectively over the past year. Fox, Paramount and Universal have each purchased five scripts.
“Buyers have been so cold for so long, but if you look at 2012 or 2013, there is not a lot of product out there for studios,” Mike Goldberg, a literary manager with New Wave Entertainment, told TheWrap.
In some cases, the studios are also looking at much improved balance sheets, having weathered the worst of the downturn, a period that also saw a dramatic reduction in the number of major theatrical releases.
“As the recession tapers off, [studios] are feeling a lot more free with their money,” Goldberg said. “They’re back in the development game, but they’re doing it smartly so there’s not excessive waste.”
Gone are the seven figure sums routinely commanded by writers such as Shane Black or Joe Eszterhas in the mid-nineties. Instead, agents and managers tell TheWrap that screenwriters are typically settling for sales prices in the low to mid-six figures, sometimes with a significant bonus coming after a film goes into production.
Moreover, concept alone is not always enough to inspire a bidding war. Getting a prominent producer, director or star attached to a script has become de rigueur to attract studio interest.
One rare exception to the rule, the thriller “Grim Night,” netted relative newcomers Brandon Bestenheider & Allen Bey a high six figure deal after the two writers submitted a teaser trailer along with their script.
In some cases, successful screenwriters have kept in touch with studios even after they pass on a pitch or initial draft, revising their projects to reflect their input before ultimately inking a deal.
Some industry observers also suspect that, after sitting out the lean years, screenwriters are putting their best scripts out in the market, creating a snowball effect.
“Fall spec season seems like it used to be,” Aaron Kaplan, a literary manager at Kaplan/Perrone, told TheWrap. “It feels like 1997 again. The studios seem to be biting.”
All of October's spec sales will appear in The Scoggins Report on Friday.