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Spec Market Sizzled in 2011: Twice as Many Sales as Year Before (Exclusive)

With their film franchises fading, the studios are buying again, but with money still tight, the chances a project will be greenlit have increased


With Harry Potter casting his last spell, Batman ready to hang up the cape and "The Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise looking ready for dry dock, Hollywood has apparently rediscovered its appetite for original ideas.

More than double the amount of spec scripts — screenplays written without a contract — sold this year compared to 2010, according to an exclusive survey by TheWrap’s sister site, ItsontheGrid.com.

In all, 130 specs were snapped up in 2011 — the highest level since before the Writer's Strike, when studios stockpiled scripts in anticipation of a work stoppage. By October, the year's spec sales had already passed 2010 levels.

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“We haven’t seen numbers like this in at least five years,” said Jason Scoggins, author of the Scoggins Report and founder of ItsontheGrid.com. “The amount of new material on the market last year was consistent with 2010, but twice as many pieces of material got set up. The market started strong in January and just stayed consistent throughout the year.”

Of the 368 scripts that hit the market, 31.8 percent were sold. That’s compared with 17.2 percent in 2010 and 16.7 percent in 2009.

The industry-wide buying spree is linked to the graying of many major Hollywood franchises and the declining domestic movie attendance, agents and literary managers say. Potter is over, the final “Dark Knight” and “Twilight” films hit theaters this year, and 2011 came and went without a new franchise on the level of a “Transformers” or “Avatar” being launched.

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“People keep telling me, ‘we need more material,’” Mike Goldberg, a literary manager with New Wave Entertainment, told TheWrap. “Sequels, prequels and all the branded material is not doing as well as studios thought and hoped, so there’s a real swing back toward original intellectual property.”

That’s good news for the frequently under-appreciated, under-paid screenwriters in town.

The projects that had the studios reaching for their checkbooks covered a broad range and included a biopic about code-cracking mathematician Alan Turing, a social media-laced rom-com with Emma Stone attached and a semi-fictionalized tale of the first moon landing.

Among the most active buyers was Warner Bros., which, not coincidentally, is winding down its Potter and Batman series. The studio led the field by acquiring 16 scripts, up from nine the previous year. Also showing a lot of activity was Fox, which bought eight scripts compared to two the previous year. Sony and Universal bought seven scripts apiece, up from one and two respectively.

It wasn’t just a quest for the next big thing that set cash registers ringing. Studios had stockpiled scripts in anticipation of the 2007 to 2008 writer’s strike, but the cupboards are apparently looking bare after several years of lean sales.

The global financial crisis and a move by most of the major studios to trim their production slates contributed to the sales slowdown. Some of the economic tensions appear to have eased now.

“The recession drum isn’t being beaten as loudly as it was a year ago,” Goldberg said. “We’re not being drilled every day about cutting cost, so people are feeling freer with their money and studios are freer about making decisions.”

The money has not returned to the level it was a decade ago. But agents and managers say that, if a studio buys a script, there is a much greater chance the movie will be greenlit than in past years.

“There is more development money, but everyone is being much smarter on a bottom line level,” Chris Fenton, partner at management company H2F Entertainment, told TheWrap. “Because so little is being bought compared to the heyday of the mid-'90s, the upside for writers and guys like me, is that whereas it used to be that one out of every 40 scripts bought would get made, today people won’t buy a script unless they’re serious about it.”

“The key thing is that you have to see what kind of production bonus you can get for writers,” he added. “It becomes how can you make more money for writers in success, now that a spec is five times more likely to get made.”

That also may mean being smarter about how specs are marketed. In addition to attaching hot producers or directors, some writers have even taken the unusual step of making trailers to go along with their loglines.

It’s also important that writers have scripts that could conceivably be made at almost any budget.

“The sweet spot is to target studios and financiers at the same time,” Fenton said. “So if you have something like a contained action film that can be shot for $20 million or $30 million, or can be a big studio film with franchise potential, that’s going to be extremely special no matter how tight the market is.”