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Speculative Reasons Why Sales of Spec Scripts Penned by Women Are Lowest in Two Decades

Female ScreenwriterI — love — screenwriting. I love it. And if you love it too, you’ve probably had dreams of selling a spec script to Hollywood and finally earning a living doing what you — love. And now might be a good time to start finishing up those drafts. Spec sales are on the rise — nearly doubling in the last two years. However, even though those numbers are up, the number of purchased female-written specs is down. In fact, a recent infographic shows that the percentage of sold spec scripts penned by women is the lowest it’s been in the last 2 decades.

First of all: what’s a spec script? You know all of those scripts you’ve been working on after work and on weekends, hoping that one day you’ll meet someone who knows someone who’s dating someone in the business that you can pitch it to? That’s, essentially, a spec script. Basically, it’s a non-commissioned speculative screenplay that you wish to sell on the open market.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way — spec script sales are on the rise, but not for women. Why? We’ve touched on the topic of women in the film industry before, and it’s one I love to open up for discussion, but maybe it’d help to first dig into a little bit of history as far as spec script sales go. Scott Myers and the team at Go Into the Story, the screenwriting blog of The Black List, has compiled an exhaustive collection of spec script sale data from 1991 -2012 and kindly put it in an easy-to-read infographic.

Gender in Spec Sales

1991 saw a paltry 33 spec scripts sold. The number soured in 1995 to 226, marking the Age of the Spec Script of the mid-90s. However, the number of specs began to fall, and it wasn’t until the beginning of the millennium that the number began to rise again from 107 to 125. 2010 saw the lowest number of specs sold since 1992, at 72, but in the last two years, this figure has nearly doubled — and then all of the spec script writers rejoiced and were glad, because having a 0.5%-0.3% chance of writing one of the 127 spec scripts to be picked up out of 25,000-40,000 isn’t all that bad.

But, what if you’re a woman? That percentage drops to 0.04%-0.03% — which is about the same percentage of female college basketball players drafted into a pro career every year (2 of my childhood dreams — so out of reach.) The fact is, the percentage of female spec scripts sold is as low as it has been in the last 20 years. The infographic says that only 1 out of 8 spec scripts sold are written by women.

TypewriterNow, these lists don’t account for scripts written under aliases or ones that simply aren’t accounted for for one reason or another. (The numbers of spec scripts sold each year on the sales list is lower than on the infographic, so perhaps the process of acquiring all of the data is still in progress.) Also, how are multiple screenwriters (groups of men and women, groups of men, groups of women) accounted for in the data? There also isn’t data that shows how many male/female-penned spec scripts are rejected.

I doubt, though, that more data would drag that 9% up to 50% (a girl can dream.) The question here is: why are female screenwriters being underrepresented? Is it sexism? Are women not writing what’s being bought? Are there just not very many female screenwriters?

In my experience, in both my Dramatic Screenwriting and Advanced Screenwriting classes there were far less women in the class than men. However, when I took an independent study course to write a feature, it was just me and another woman (technically 100% of the class was women.) Furthermore, the men in the class almost exclusively wrote cop dramas, action, and sci-fi/fantasy screenplays, while the women almost exclusively wrote female-centered dramas. I say “almost” because I was the weirdo who wrote one about an 8-year-old cannibal. (Don’t steal my idea, guys!) So, from my tiny pinpoint-sized piece of the universe, the numbers just weren’t there, and of those women who were there, their chosen genres generally aren’t the most sought after by studios.

Screenplay imageThe fact is, though I really do wish women took more than just a sliver of a piece of the screenwriting pie, I’m not so sure if sexism or discrimination carries as much of the blame as it does with other areas of the film industry. A good story is a good story, and I highly doubt that readers are paying a whole lot of attention to the gender specificity of the name under the title. (Please tell me if I’m wrong.) There’s not a whole lot left to prove once you have a finished product, anyway.

My screenwriting professor told my class at the end of Spring Term that a studio will rarely turn away from a great story if at all. It doesn’t matter the content, the genre, or how “girly” and Steal Magnolias-esque it is — if it’s good, someone will pay it some attention. Maybe that’s just me being naive, but if that’s what it takes to keep me writing, instead of being bogged down by the cold hard facts, then I’m totally fine standing at the base of an uphill battle — thinking it’s an escalator.

What do you think? What do you think the information in the infographic says about the future of women in screenwriting? Do you have any experiences that could shed light on the subject?



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Description image 34 COMMENTS

  • The data has too many holes to to be able to come to a definitive conclusion.

  • Simple reasoning that you started to touch on, but I think holds the key: It’s a male-dominated industry. When more and more and more men enter into it every year, the likelihood of a female spec being sold will naturally drop because there are fewer and fewer spec scripts from women to choose from in comparison. It’s not sexism or discrimination. In order for the statistics to change, the small, ever-shrinking minority of women writers has to write more and/or better spec scripts, and get them into the right hands, than the large, every-growing majority of male writers that is doing the same. And with fewer studio pictures being produced, that’s an EXTREMELY difficult task.

    It’s just the reality of the situation.

    • If women have to write more and better specs in order to compete in a male-dominated industry, then yes, that is sexism.

      • Justin Gladden on 06.24.13 @ 3:15PM

        No, no it’s not sexism. That’s called the America. As I’ve said (and as has been ignored) many times before, other minorities have had it much harder than women.

        The end result will be the same each time. If people want to see more women/minorities succeed in the business, those folks will have to work harder and do more with much less.

        • Also, it get more difficult depending on what race of woman you are.
          Stories written by a woman about women; who happen to be African American, Asian or Latina will have a more difficult time selling a script than a White American woman.

        • Well, probably people are ignoring you saying that because it’s a remarkably ignorant thing to say, and they’re trying not to be offended. And also, calling it America and calling it sexism isn’t all that different, sexism is a pretty big part of America. And that’s a classic argument to justify racism and misogyny, but it’s really misguided. I’m sure their are plenty of minorities and women who are working very hard to produce scripts. The problem is that the way the industry is set up makes it more difficult for these people to gain access and to get their scripts, which are no doubt as good as any that I white man could write, made into movies. It’s really problematic for you to say such things, and please don’t try to make it even worse by telling your students these lies. It’s not that oppressed people need to work harder, its that the system that oppresses them needs to change and teaching students the opposite is what makes it so the system can’t change.

          • Justin Gladden on 06.25.13 @ 6:11PM

            It’s not a lie, and acknowledging that more than just women have it hard is not offensive. That’s the main problem with race relation in America, no one wants to talk about it.

            Tell my students that they DON’T NEED to work harder is shear lunacy. I should tell them that they should just do mediocre work and their films will be funded and scripts bought because this country has finally broken the race barrier and respects all races and genders equally?

            Or should I prepare them for a racist and sexist industry, that has proven over and over again that it will only produce/fund/market/distribute films that meet only one type of agenda . . . . the one that even this article is trying to uncover.

            I in no way am trying to argue, but I will say that you are trying to sugar coat and push under a rug an issue that stems far deeper than just a general statement . . . . “women in the film industry,” should read, “minorities in the film industry. . . “

      • I don’t think he meant that it’s not sexist if a woman has to perform better than a man to get the same success as that man, I think he meant that with so many men entering the business, women now have to work even harder than themselves (meaning than at the current level they operate at, and harder than other women) since there is even greater competition now.

      • No, that’s not sexism. It’s numbers/math/statistics. The underdog always has to work harder, regardless of an individual’s sex, age, race, etc. Please don’t skew my words to fit your argument.

  • Don’t female writers dominate the romantic/adventure fiction novel market to the point that some guys work under the female nom de plume? You go from Danielle Steel to Jackie Collins to Suzanne Collins to Meg Cabot to Stephenie Meyers to Terry McMillan to Nora Roberts to EL James and on and on. That’s beaucoup bucks right there.

    • Darren Orange on 06.24.13 @ 5:12PM

      Yes they do seem to.

      • Why aren’t at least 50 percent of the romance vampire novels male? Sexism? Oh wait, it’s only sexist when women are disproportionately low, when it’s men, there is a rational explanation. Also, women are proportionately represented in film once you account for IQ, education, hours of experience put in, pregnancy status, etc. in fact, I’m sure women are over represented once things things are factored in. Also, if one wishes to refute any argument I’ve made, feel free to do so without resorting to ad hominems, appeals to emotion, or morality exhibitionism (ie, if I stated anything you disagree with, explain what, and why in a rational manner).

  • Does this data take into account independent films? I’m wondering if women are going that route more. Or the crowdfunding route.

    • It wouldn’t be surprising if more women were going the crowd sourcing form. That one lady got 100′s of thousands of dollars to make a couple of YouTube videos about how women are independant and dont need charity.

  • This graph needs a lot more information to be accurate. What we really need to find out is how many writers of each sex there is so we can calculate a percentage.

    There could be 900 male writers submitting spec scripts and only 100 female writers submitting spec scripts so take 127 into 900 and 12 into 100 and your percentages come out to 14% of male and 12% of female spec scripts sold in 2012. Even though far more male scripts were sold it’s really only because there are far more males submitting their scripts.

    • Justin Gladden on 06.24.13 @ 3:18PM

      I agree. And it’s the same concept I tell my students when they ask why there aren’t a lot of black films, or films that show African Americans in a positive or powerful light. I tell them it’s that way because they haven’t gone out and made those films that do.

    • The infographic doesn’t need more info to be ACCURATE. The info provided is accurate. To prove or disprove sexism in spec script sales, the data on the infographic is INCOMPLETE. It does prove that the numbers of specs sold by women are way less than those sold by men and suggest further data should be culled. There’s an important difference because people take accuracy for good statistics. Statistics are neither good nor bad, assuming they are accurate. They are only complete or incomplete for providing proof for particular hypotheses. I’m sure this is what you meant and I don’t mean to split hairs but it’s an important demarcation because the accuracy of stats is often judged on whether or not they prove or disprove or, as in the case of the infographic, have yet to prove or disprove a hypothesis. It is better to say that, assuming stats are accurate (as they probably are in the infographic), they are sufficient or insufficient to prove or disprove a specific hypothesis. Those who analyze the data are wrong if the numbers are accurate.

      • Ah! You said exactly what I was thinking. Perfect, thanks for clarifying for other readers :)

  • By the way, for the most part you don’t pitch a “spec”. You can pitch an idea (if you’re an established writer) or write a short synopsis/pitch for your spec with the goal of having it read (if you’re not in the loop) but the spec itself is more or less a completed product. I’ll also add that specs are the norm for getting into the TV biz. If you want to write a sitcom, you need to have a sitcom or (comedy) feature to show to a perspective employer. If you want to write a one hour drama, then you need to have that available on demand as well. A good spec is the TV writer resume up and until s/he gets industry wide recognition for his actual work.

  • As has been said, the data is woefully incomplete – and inciteful, really, as it (deliberately?) ignores the percentage question many have already asked here. Without knowing the total number of female screenwriters trying to sell their scripts, it’s ridiculous to say that scripts written by females don’t sell as well as those written by males. I’m not saying that’s what Renee’s article implies, but it is what the infographic implies.

    With that said, however, there is clearly an issue no matter what the missing numbers would tell us. Either there are plenty of female writers who can’t sell their scripts, or there are not many female writers at all. Either way, it’s an issue that calls for scrutiny as there should be JUST AS MANY women writing scripts as males, if not more.

  • The movie business is a business to make money making movies. Typically your largest audience is the 16-24 year old male. The odds are a male oriented movie will have a better chance of recouping it’s money better than a female oriented movie. There is no reason a female can’t write a commercial script for the male oriented movie goer. Possibly they just write more for the female oriented audience which is not as large and therefore the scripts are not optioned as often. There are some great female oriented movies which do well at the box office but not as often.

    But in the end it all boils down to the story whether it’s a female or male writer. If you’re a female writer change your name to a male writer if you’re really concerned. Producers really don’t care who wrote it as long as it’s good. In my opinion the above article is just a waste of time.

  • vinceGortho on 06.24.13 @ 7:57PM

    How about an article on white-washing. Seems hollywood hates Asians more than women.

    • When the Indian film industry remakes American movies with an Asian cast (without licensing the underlying ip) do you have a name for that also? The phrase “white-washing” would be seen as racist if applied to any other race.

      Yes, Hollywood is full of hate. That’s why white characters such as Nick Fury, Perry White, Felix Lieter, Miss Moneypenny, etc. are portrayed by black actors on film.

      And if you think Hollywood hates Asians, watch some Hong Kong action films and notice how the villian is often a sterotypical white character.

    • And Pygmies. Why are there so few well known New Guinea, Pygmy, and Aboriginee screenplay writers? Why aren’t feminists up in arms about that lack?

  • Also, why are the vast majority of this website’s users male? Who is causing this lack of female representation with sexism?

  • I’m really glad to see an article like this. When I was in film school at NYU, there were nine men for every woman in the program. The men talked over the women in class, ignored them when they worked on group projects, purposefully excluded them when forming crews and talked about them (with other men) like the women didn’t understand either the art or technology of filmmaking. Later, I went to work at a small ad agency editing commercials, and the owners of the place would only hire women as models or secretaries. The rampant misogyny in filmmaking communities in the US is one of the reasons I pursued a video career in theatre and fine art.

  • Anthony Marino on 06.25.13 @ 6:36PM

    Christ, what a lopsided discussion. Haha…JK

  • This is an interesting comment: “Typically your largest audience is the 16-24 year old male.”
    If more men are making movies than women, and they’re making action cop sci-fi fantasies, then yes, that will probably appeal to that demographic. But that doesn’t mean people outside of that demographic won’t see movies, they just want to see movies that are meant for them (whether they are women, seniors, older men, etc.).

    This goes back to the idea that people hire other people who are like them. In a male dominated industry like film, the men at the top are going to be hiring more men because that’s who they relate to. I can see this applying to scripts too. They might see a guy’s name on the title page and automatically predispose themselves to liking it more because it’s by a guy. And vice versa.

    I’d like to see a study of blind script readings where you didn’t know if the author was male or female. They’ve done this with resumes, and both men and women end up favoring the male candidates over the women. This is where independent distribution and crowdsourcing models can make a huge difference. But it wouldn’t hurt for all the men out there to go out of their way to get women on their crews, to give a woman writer a chance, or to seek out more projects that appeal to women.

    We like movies too and we’d gladly see some non-rom com films that appeal to us too.

    I’ve been working on a documentary about gender pay disparities, and this correlates with my findings regardless of industry: men are favored over women by the decision makers, men mentor other men and give them a leg up, women just aren’t given the same opportunities as men.