Ah, the ’90s. Headlines of huge spec sales and bidding wars filled the trades. The spec screenplay replaced the Great American Novel as the pastime everyone and his uncle was working on. If you could write a halfway decent actioner or rom/com, you had a shot in Hollywood.
Not so much today. According to Gointothestory.com, there were 173 spec sales in 1995… and 62 in 2017. Ouch! But do those numbers tell the whole story? “There was a long period when financiers weren’t buying as much,” UTA agent Alex Rincon said. “In the last 18 months, they have perhaps looked at their development slates and realized there was not as much original development as they had hoped and got slightly more aggressive.”
Indeed, things are heating up. Spec sales are again making headlines — witness the recent sale of not one but two specs by Emilia Serrano to Sony. Verve partner David Boxerbaum is positively upbeat. “It’s a really great time to have an original piece of material that can be sold in the marketplace,” he said. “The new buyers like Amazon, Netflix, as well as the studios, their appetite for content is at an all-time high right now.”
Great, so time to dust off that Peloponnesian war drama on your shelf? Not so fast. “The marketplace isn’t open to certain genres,” said Boxerbaum, who last month sold Cory Goodman’s horror thriller “The Oberlin Incident” to Paramount after a competitive auction.
Manager Jake Wagner from Good Fear elaborates: “The three genres that seem to be working at the box office are superhero, horror and animated family movies. But the only genre a writer could really write on spec is horror and, traditionally, horror specs don’t go for a lot of money — horror budgets are typically not that high, $5 million or so.” In other words, smaller payday, less incentive for reps to hustle.
Yet the studios are developing all kinds of films — and specs in other genres will often get a look. “A lot of places are buying straight-up action,” Rincon said. “And believe it or not, there’s a healthy spec market for — I’ve seen a bunch of musicals and live-action family in development.”
Earlier this year, APA agent Adam Perry sold Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman’s family-adventure script “Harry’s Hamburgers” to Warner Bros. in a high six-figure deal. “It’s kind of like a new take on ‘Back to the Future’ with parallel universes as opposed to time travel,” Perry said. “There is definitely a lack of that type of material at the studios, especially that’s not IP-based. Writers haven’t been speccing that kind of material for years because it hasn’t been selling.”
Perry also said that Netflix has shown interest in the genre, especially since Disney is phasing out its content on the streaming site: “Over these next two or three years, I think there’s going to be a lot of success selling these big, original family films.”
And while it is rare for a studio to buy an animation spec, they do buy animation pitches. “That’s much more challenging from an emerging screenwriter,” Rincon said. “But from established screenwriters with track records from TV or elsewhere, those transactions occur frequently, as there is such a demand for animated stories.”
What about writers who don’t write in those genres? Fortunately, Wagner feels that streaming companies can take more risks “because it’s not dependent on the box office. The big studios won’t really touch comedy and drama right now, but Netflix might come in and take something off the table, which is great.”
The submission process has also changed over the years. “With each piece of material, [we] have a very custom-tailored plan, as opposed to, when I started in the business, you took one script out to 30 producers who went to 15 territories,” Wagner said.
It’s often crucial to go out with a package with other elements attached to the script. “Get the right producer, do some more work on the script, get the right director, do some more work on it, maybe even get an actor as the icing on top — and then go to specific buyers,” he said.
As for going out with a “naked” script, manager Zach Cox from Circle of Confusion said, “You might get lucky, but more often than not, the response is going to be, ‘Hey, that’s really cool — come back to us with a package.'”
While agents can sell an unpackaged script, Rincon noted that it may not be in the project’s best interest to do so. “If the material is strong enough to sell on its own, then it’s probably strong enough to get a good producer, director and some cast attached as well. And then you’re not just talking about a piece of development — you now have a movie and hopefully you’re negotiating progress-to-production language, instead of what the third polish step might be on your script.”
Boxerbaum noted that some buyers want to see a director or talent attached, while others may prefer the material free and clear. “Every script is different,” he said. “A period piece definitely would make much more sense to have someone attached. But on a high-concept comedy, it might make sense not to attach a director because it might not be a director meaningful enough to move the needle on it.”
With some material, it’s best to take the time to find the right producer to help assemble a package or champion it in the marketplace. Cox said that an interested producer may not commit, but will sometimes ask to be informed if another offer emerges. “It’s not that they want to compete; it’s more like, ‘Let us know if you get an offer because then we are out, but if you don’t get an offer, then we will scrounge together an option payment,'” he said.
Another arrow in the agent and manager’s quiver: the annual lists of hot screenplays like like the Black List, Hit List and Blood List. “It kind of blesses the project,” Wagner said, noting that everyone is aware that lists drop at the end of the year. “You do try to position these pieces to get on those lists by just getting the right people to read them that you’re keenly aware will vote.”
Perry said he keeps a grid tracking everything he sent out and the response to it. “With the ones that are overwhelmingly positive, come November or December or whenever people are voting on these lists, I don’t think it hurts to send out a one-sentence friendly reminder to say, ‘Hey, remember this one from back in February?'”
While he will send scripts to tastemakers he knows, Cox said, “”I don’t actively go out there and campaign … I think those lists have been around long enough that we all know that there is an element of politicking and maneuvering to get scripts on there.”
Making a list can give the project an extra boost, but it also provides cachet. “It’s a point of pride for some writers,” Perry said.
The good news: There’s still a market for specs.
“There are definitely still people who are looking for original material — always with an eye towards production rather than development,” Rincon said.
And even the prospect of a Disney-Fox deal removing a major studio doesn’t worry these lit agents and managers. “There’s always new companies popping up — film funds — and there always will be because people will always want to get into the movie business,” Wagner said.