Is the Spec Script Set to Rise Again?

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Margaret Heidenry of Vanity Fair has written a beautiful piece for this month’s issue on the rise of the spec script during the glory days of the ’90s and early 2000s as well as the spec’s decline in recent years. The article is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the industry we work in (or are trying to work in) today.

Heidenry begins:

Monday mornings in Hollywood used to mean something. Back in the 1990s—before the weekend box office was entirely dominated by sequels, prequels, movies based on board games, and other pre-sold “franchises”—Monday mornings were when original screenplays hit the auction block, and here’s how it used to happen: A lit (literary) agent called a series of studio executives and barked, “We’re going out with a hot spec.” Within the hour, a phalanx of messengers descended on the agency’s front desk, took copies of the script, and dashed off to the major studios—Columbia, Paramount, MGM, Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, Fox—and to mini-majors such as Miramax and New Line Cinema.

Some hundred hours later, by sunset on Friday, the efforts of a year or three of a writer’s life might be deemed worthless by a tsunami of “passes” from studio mouthpieces. Just as often, though, during the spec boom years, which lasted roughly from 1990 to 2008 with various peaks and valleys, came the six magic words: “We’d like to make an offer.” Not only were spec sales the industry’s own version of a Hollywood ending, they also broke in a passel of Oscar winners: Alan Ball, who sold American Beauty to DreamWorks for $250,000 in 1998; Callie Khouri, who sold Thelma & Louise to Ridley Scott’s production company for $500,000 in 1990; Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who were movie extras before they sold Good Will Hunting to Castle Rock Entertainment for $675,000 in 1994.

“When I came into the business, in 1996, the spec market was this mythical thing,” recalls writer-director John Hamburg (Meet the Parents; I Love You, Man). “Everybody had a shot at becoming a millionaire overnight.” Indeed, competition for material grew so fervent that Harvey Weinstein, Miramax’s hard-charging co-founder, offered to buy screenwriter Troy Duffy his favorite bar in exchange for Duffy’s 1997 spec, The Boondock Saints—on top of a six-figure purchase price.

But the glory days couldn’t last forever:

In 2002, there were 114 spec sales. By 2005 the number had slid to 58.

High-profile bombs weren’t the only reason the spec market cooled off. By the mid-90s, multi-national conglomerates—among them, News Corporation, Sony, Viacom, and later General Electric—had acquired every major studio but Disney. “When corporations were coming into play in terms of owning studios … brands, like Batman, became an important icon for the individual studios,” Canton says. Seven Batman movies later, development slates beholden to a worldwide marketing strategy have put the squeeze on originality.

Another factor has been the collapse of home-video sales. Silver explains: “Those mid-range movies were really affected. If we just did O.K. theatrically, we could always make our profits in the VHS/DVD world.” Case in point: Eszterhas’s $2 million spec Showgirls, which saw limp box office in 1995, but went on to gross close to $100 million in VHS sales and rentals. “The collapse of that business? Can’t blame anything on that but the Internet and the economy,” says Silver. And as Hollywood’s cash flow slowed—home-video revenue fell by more than $3 billion from 2007 to 2011—development funds used to buy specs began to dry up.

Something else happened: a sea change in how Hollywood itself works. One day, no one knows exactly when, agents stopped messengering scripts around town. Instead, IsHak says, “you just e-mail-blast it.” Producer Luke Ryan, of Disruption Entertainment, based on the Paramount lot, adds, “Now when an agent’s pitching me a spec, it lands in my in-box before we get off the phone.” Gone is the tense anticipation as a messenger makes his or her way across town, followed by the crisp tactile thrills of glossy agency-embossed envelopes, cover letters, and brads. Today a script is digital static, a title next to a virtual paper clip, closer in form to spam than to Billy Wilder’s copy of Sunset Boulevard.

Fortunately, there’s still hope:

Though separated by more than six decades, Sunset Boulevard and The Artistshare the theme of silent-screen stars trying to stay relevant, much like Hollywood itself in 2013. With domestic movie-theater admissions down almost 20 percent this past decade, the business finds itself on the precipice, with the iPhone and Xbox leaning against it. But Hollywood relies on the cliché of dreamers hitting rock bottom only to soar again.

In that vein, the spec market is showing signs of picking up, with 119 sales in 2011, up from 55 in 2010. Last year the number dipped to 96, but the year was notable for two specs sharing “Die Hard in the White House” plots selling within weeks of each other. One, White House Down, sold for seven figures and was fast-tracked into production with Independence Day’s Roland Emmerich as director. It will be in theaters this summer, arriving just a few weeks after Iron Man 3.

“A good idea can come from anywhere,” says Langley, whose studio reportedly shelled out $5 million for the e-book phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey. Though not a spec script, the erotic trilogy that began as fan fiction and became a worldwide best-seller shares a similar up-from-nowhere spirit. New media, while whittling away audiences, have also unearthed fresh voices. The Academy Award–winning screenwriter Diablo Cody was discovered via her blog. Kelly Oxford, a housewife from Alberta, Canada, who amassed hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, recently sold her first screenplay, a spec. Another spec, The Disciple Program, was snapped up after a series of teasing tweets hyped it, reminding Hollywood of pre-tracking-board days.

“It was dead for so long,” says Paradigm talent agency’s Valarie Phillips of the spec market. “And then these past six months—with those two White House specs, with Fifty Shades of Grey—all of a sudden, the magic’s back.”

At least that’s what the dreamers are saying in Hollywood …

I highly suggest reading the full article at Vanity Fair. It’s a course in screenwriting history in and of itself.

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