Spec Scripts, The Good “No,” and Scream

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by Fiona Wheeler

Kevin Williamson got a “No, but…” on the spec he sent out before Scream. It got enough interest that they asked to see everything he wrote from then on. He was smart and gave them a next script that was “the same but different.”

The Types of No

There are very few yeses in film making, there are a lot of nos.

  • There’s the never hearing back… not a good no.
  • There are the polite nos, which may mean you’re a small blip on their radar or they want to maintain the relationship with the person who recommended you (but not you).
  • Then there’s the invitation to meet or hop on the phone, where you’re given a “no” in person.

rejection

An in-person rejection sounds terrible, but it’s not. It means they’re interested in you for the long-game.

So What’s the Point?

Mostly, paid screenwriting is about re-writing or adapting someone else’s idea for screen. Only a tiny percent of specs are ever bought. A good spec that’s not optioned, sold, or made can still do the rounds as a writing sample. Producers and agents live or die by their relationships. It’s in their interests to promote a new writer that they like but can’t currently find a project for. So, behaving well and making a good impression at a meeting where your spec, your pride and joy, is being rejected can open up real and lasting opportunities for you.

What Happened to Kevin?

Laurence Rosenthal, who was working as a development exec back in the 90s,  remembers his office being rushed two hot new specs. One was Kevin Williamson’s Killing Miss Tingle. Both had to be read right away and given a yes or no. Everyone read. Everyone, but Rosenthal, loved the other one. Tingle wasn’t quite what they were looking for, but Rosenthal met with Williamson anyway.

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In every Hollywood memoir I’ve ever read, the script for these meetings is always the same. The studio execs say they loved it, it spoke to them, they’d kill and move mountains if they could add this to their current slate. I guess it’s a dance. A test.

Based on the snarky online chatter I sometimes glimpse, a lot of up-and-coming screenwriters hearing execs say great things, would go right ahead and said “If my work’s so great, why aren’t you buying it?”

Wrong response. Maybe they‘ll check on you again in two years and see if you’ve matured.

Part of being a professional screenwriter is being great at writing. The other, some would say more crucial part is knowing the pecking order and who to respect.

[Read the Scream TV show pilot script.]

Williamson was relaxed and professional during his meeting, both in what he said and how he presented. He thanked them for their interest. When asked if he had any other scripts, he didn’t desperately list off a dozen different things. He just mentioned that he had a project or two he was currently working on, and that he’d have a script ready in two months.

Williamson completed Scream. Rosenthal and his bosses read it. They bought it. The Scream franchise, as well as Williamson’s screenwriting career, was born.

(His spec Killing Miss Tingle also later sold. The film was released as Teaching Miss Tingle in 1999.)

How He Made It Work For Him

As I said, he was professional in the interview. He looked the part. He didn’t blab on about twenty bad screenplays he’d written but never sold. He didn’t try and pitch a whole new spec right there. He didn’t carelessly rush Scream and get it to them quicker.

What not to do...

He listened to what they liked, mentioned that he was working on something in the same genre, and he went away leaving them very interested and wanting more.

Other Screenwriters

14979Robin Swicord’s first spec to get noticed by the industry was Stockcars for Christ, which is about exactly what the title suggests: A famous driver shouldn’t be driving, loses control, several lives are lost and he has to find his way to redemption.

Having your protagonist kill a bunch of innocent bystanders probably isn’t the best way to ensure your script gets made, but the themes and overall quality garnered interest because sometimes a script just grabs at your heart and won’t let go.

Stockcars was passed around the industry as a writing sample. Swicord parlayed the interest into a career including screen adaptations for Benjamin Button (story by 2008), Jane Austen Book Club (2007), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Matilda (co-wrote 1996) and Little Women (1994).

What About You?

These days it’s much harder to get the attention of anyone. Reading budgets at studios and production companies are smaller than ever and there are tens of thousands of would-be screenwriters all churning out spec after spec.

Some decide film school, an internship, or screenwriting competitions are the answer. Whatever path you follow, at some point it will come down to you and your writing.

The most useful spec you can write is one that grabs its reader by the heart because it’s interesting, passionate, and authentic. It has unique details and insights. The most powerful spec you can write is one that you bring your life experience to.

So put down the list of box office hits and trends from the last decade, go live your life, and write honestly about the emotional battles you’ve faced and overcome.

Anyone can desperately try to get attention with tricks and gimmicks, but they have nothing on the raw power of subtle, unexpected, flawed, fatal, and real human emotions.

~

Fiona Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, she’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories she tells.

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