What is a Spec Script (and How to Write One)
Have you heard anyone say "I wrote it as a spec script" and not understood what they meant? We look to debunk speccing myths and talk about screenwriting in Hollywood.
If you're breaking into Hollywood you're going to do a lot of work on spec. It sucks. Trust me. I think I have broken in three times now. But before we get into why it sucks we need to answer another question.
But what does work "on spec" mean?
Today we're going to go over one of the most common terms in the film industry, "spec," and talk about when it makes sense for your career. We'll also go over when you should never spec a script, and how people speccing as an opportunity to break in.
Let's get into it!
What is a spec script?
A spec screenplay is short for "speculative screenplay" and it is one the writer does for free outside of the studio system. It's "speculative".
You write the spec based on the speculation that the idea is good enough to sell in the open market. The purpose is to showcase the budding screenwriter's acumen at telling a story through action, structure, and dialogue.
It's a chance to demonstrate that the writer is capable and that the idea has legs.
Spec screenplays are the lifeblood of Hollywood. Largely because you can't beat that price! They're free!
While spec sales are generally down, only 40 sold in 2018, they're a great way to get an agent or a manager to notice your voice. And since no one has to pay for them, they've become the most common way to break in.
Wait. I thought they were free!
They are at first. They're specs because the writer writes them for free, but the producer or studio can't produce them until they pay. There was a time when a lot of spec scripts went for very high numbers.
Writing a hot spec script gets you a ton of general meetings that can lead to paid assignments later.
Spec Script v Shooting Script
Generally speaking, specs usually are scripts naked of "attachments"(stars, directors, etc.) that just serve to deliver a story.
Shooting scripts have camera moves, scenes numbered, and the finished version a script that the crew uses to make the movie.
How does a spec script become a shooting script?
Well, first you need to attach producers to your spec, then talent, and sell it. Shooting scripts only are created if the movie is prepping or going into production.
Where can I find spec scripts online?
What is a TV spec script?
In television, a spec has a different meaning. A spec TV script is a sample episode for a current TV series that proves you can write in the voice of the show and adapt the characters on it. TV specs are not so much of a thing anymore, some showrunners love them but others are looking for great original voices that can contribute at any level.
If you're going to spec a TV show make sure the episode you write stands out. Some famous TV spec scripts that have landed the writers work are a Friends episode where they all get AIDS and a Seinfeld episode about 9/11. As you can imagine, these were stunt scripts that were passed around as "must reads."
Generally, I'd advise new writers trying to break in to create their own work.
Spec script examples
Spec scripts and huge sales are rare now. The LA Times even wrote them an obituary earlier this year. Every year things like the Black List and Hit List celebrate the biggest specs that hit the market. But most of those don't sell. Back in the 1990s, there was a glut of specs that made a ton of money.
People like Joe Eszterhas and Shane Black were selling screenplays for millions of dollars.
Basic Instinct sold for three million dollars.
The Long Kiss Goodnight says it sold for four million dollars.
What's going on in recent years?
Well, Hollywood is making more and more stuff that's based on I.P. so we have fewer specs selling. Original ideas have a hit and miss reputation at the box office, and the more expensive they get the smaller the chance they have to sell.
Think about it. What is "good" is very hard to quantify, right? It boils down to a matter of opinion and the opinion may be wrong. Hollywood as a business needs to invest money wisely, it's run by major conglomerates. They want to minimize risk.
But before you get too jaded over that, think about it from your perspective. If the multiplex is showing both Joe's Spy Adventure and The New James Bond what are you more comfortable paying to see?
You know what you will get with James Bond. Joe's Spy Adventure could be awful. You have no clue what it will be.
This is a silly example, but you get the idea. IP is sort of like a movie star but even more reliable. What star is bigger than a franchise like Star Wars?
Now that Netflix and Amazon have waded into the conversation, there are, however, more and more chances for specs to make a mark.
Netflix has been known to acquire movies and pay a premium for them. They paid three million dollars to the writer of Bright, who is a piece of shit and I refuse to print his name, but it happened.
[Editors note: we condone and second this character assessment and the choice not to print his name.]
I have already covered the screenwriting sale strategies in the above link, so you should click to learn more there. Most spec scripts sell now because they come with a package. Packages are important because they create value where the intellectual property might not be present. You need an A-list director or actor, or producer to get people excited about the project.
What's next? Read the Juno spec script!
The Juno screenplay PDF was passed around Hollywood after the Academy Awards. Everyone was talking about the unique voice, tone, and screenwriter. So what else can you learn from Diablo Cody's screenplay?
Click the link to learn more!