Marginalia, Graduate Blog

Show Me The Money

Conor O'Farrell

In industry terms, a spec script—more formally known as a speculative screenplay—is a non-commissioned, unsolicited screenplay. It is usually written by a screenwriter, oftentimes with a development producer, whose intention is to sell the finished script to a production company or studio afterwards. In the modern day landscape of filmmaking, this practice is now routine, but spec scripts have not always held as much cachet in the film business as they do now. In the golden age of Hollywood, roughly between the 1930s and 1960s, great story ideas were born within the movie studios. Producers at the likes of Paramount or MGM subsequently hired writers with whom they developed these ideas into screenplays. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (West Side Story, North by Northwest) says of the golden age that, “if you went to a party in Hollywood, and somebody realized you were working on a spec script, they would think, ‘oh…he’s in bad shape’”. To pen a spec, or original, at the time was frowned upon. But, that was then, and this is now.

Last week, the folk over at @GoIntoTheStory released findings from their analysis of movement on spec scripts in 2012, and by all accounts it was a good year. Hollywood studios and production companies acquired ninety-nine spec scripts during the twelve months. Scott Myers delved further and uncovered the following figures and trends, and you can click on each heading for more detailed information:

GENRE SALES: In terms of genre sales, action was the biggest seller with twenty-nine scripts purchased. Tied for second place are thriller and comedy, which were each responsible for twenty sales. In 2011, action also lead the genre pack, so in the next few years you can expect to be inundated with Tom Cruise.

ACQUISITION MARKET: For the second year running, Paramount Pictures is the most active of the major studios in the script acquisition market. Interestingly, Sony and Universal tied for second place in that same market, in both 2011 and 2012.

REPRESENTATION: In terms of agencies shopping these scripts around town, William Morris Endeavor, having sealed twenty-five sales, is 2012’s clear leader, followed by United Talent Agency who closed the deal on sixteen scripts, and Creative Artists Agency, who sold twelve.

$$$: Depending on the background of the team behind these spec scripts, the price range can vary quite drastically. James Vanderbilt, the writer behind such blockbusters as Zodiac (2007) and The Amazing Spiderman (2012) takes first place for the action thriller White House Down, which he sold to Sony in 2012 for a whopping $3m dollars.

FIRST-TIMERS: That’s not to say first-timers can’t demand some serious cash money, because in 2012 twenty-one writers broke into the film industry with the sale of their first script. Among them were writing duo Aaron Buchsbaum and Teddy Riley, who sold their comedy El Tigre to Sony for a mid-six figure amount.

If I’ve learned anything here—and take note, writers and producers—the most probable equation for success that I deduce from this 2012 analysis is: develop an action thriller, knock on the door of William Morris Endeavor, suggest they take the script to Paramount Pictures, and then dollars. To the typewriter!

Show Me The Money

In industry terms, a spec script—more formally known as a speculative screenplay—is a non-commissioned, unsolicited screenplay. It is usually written by a screenwriter, oftentimes with a development producer, whose intention …

Cinema Art + Science - Creative Producing Conor O'Farrell, conor.ofarrell@loop.colum.edu
600 S. Michigan Ave. Chicago, IL 60605

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