A spec screenplay is a screenplay that was not commissioned by a buyer. It is written “on spec” (speculatively) in the hope that a production company will buy it and advance it to production.
To the uninitiated this might sound like a pipe dream, but the spec script market exists, although it is not as dynamic as it used to be (more about this below).
Numerous successful films started as spec screenplays, often written by complete unknowns. Examples include James Cameron’s Terminator and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense.
Why write a spec screenplay?
Writing a spec screenplay is the only viable option available to unrepresented writers who want to sign with an agent and find work as a professional screenwriter. The key objective of a spec screenplay is to showcase your skills, sign with an agent or manager and secure paid writing assignments, although the hope that the spec script will be greenlit (officially approved for production) is always there.
Established writers and directors frequently also write spec screenplays in the hope of packaging the project at a studio. There used to be such a thing as “development money,” which was funding given to an established writer or director to develop a film concept that had been successfully pitched to a production company, effectively allowing the writer to write a screenplay without having to work for free (but also without the guarantee that it would be advanced to production).
Development money for speculative projects dried up with the Great Recession of 2008 and still hasn’t made a real comeback.
How to sell a spec screenplay
Writers with representation sell their spec screenplays through their agent or managers. In essence, when the agent or manager says that the screenplay is market-worthy – typically after numerous re-writes — the screenplay is released to the market and they either get an offer or there are no buyers and the screenplay is shelved.
For writers without representation, the process is more complicated. Basically they have to show the screenplay to whomever is willing to read it, in the hope that it will eventually garner representation and an offer. This is a rare occurrence, but in all fairness to the industry, that’s because screenplays with real commercial potential are rare.
They key point here is that a spec screenplay should only ever be released to the market when several professionals have advised the writer that it is ready, because you only get one chance. Unrepresented writers can pay professional script readers to give dispassionate development notes on what the spec script needs to be deemed market-worthy. Almost all screenplays need several drafts before being saleable, so don’t take professional feedback personally. M. Night Shyamalan sold The Sixth Sense without having to incorporate studio feedback, but that’s partly because he only pitched it after completing nine or ten drafts!
Seek harshly honest professional advice, incorporate it sensibly (not blindly) and hit the market with your spec screenplay when professionals you trust say that it’s ready.
Querying literary agents
Unrepresented writers can seek to convince an agent to read a spec screenplay by submitting a query letter or email. This is a very succinct communication in which the writer submits the screenplay’s title and logline, along with details of any noteworthy results (semi-final, final or victory) achieved in reputable screenwriting contests such as the Nicholl Fellowship.
Agents do respond to query letters and emails when their interest is aroused. To achieve that, the query must crafted as exquisitely as the screenplay itself, and the concept must be to the agent’s liking, so a degree of subjectivity is inherent to the process.
The logline is a succinct and carefully crafted description of the movie, typically no longer than 35 words.
Here is my logline for my favorite film, James Cameron’s The Abyss:
An estranged husband and wife find themselves trapped in an undersea oil rig with a psychotic Navy SEAL, a nuclear weapon and mysterious creatures lurking outside.
“Progress to production,” reversion and turnaround clauses
There are some crucial legal concepts that writers must bear in mind if their spec screenplay has attracted an offer from a buyer. In essence, they are contractual provisions that enable a writer to regain control of a script if the production company goes bankrupt or otherwise fails to advance the project to production:
“Progress to production” clause
The buyer undertakes to make tangible steps towards the production of the film by a specific date. These steps include signing key talent and securing locations.
Reversion or turnaround clause
If the buyer fails to move the project forward by a specific date, the screenplay rights revert to the original owner, who thereby recovers the right to put the screenplay back on the market.
The foregoing should not be taken as legal advice: make sure you work with a competent lawyer when the time comes to sign the deal, because this is the point at which screenwriters typically get shafted.
The spec screenplay market’s prospects
There used to be a time, back in the golden nineties, when the spec screenplay market was dynamic and thriving. Bidding wars that culminated in six-figure offers took place regularly. While the spec screenplay market is not dead, it’s not as hot as it used to be, chiefly as a result of a strong studio preference for films based on existing intellectual property.
Nevertheless, spec screenplays remain a viable option for new and established writers who want to give their original idea a chance of being produced.