I began hearing this as soon as I joined the screenwriter’s forum. Successful authors, former Hollywood insiders and books on screenwriting all seemed to agree: it was nearly impossible to sell a spec script.
But what did that mean? Really?
Wikipedia, source of all knowledge (these days) defines a spec script this way:
A spec script, also known as a speculative screenplay, is a non-commissioned unsolicited screenplay… usually written by a screenwriter who hopes to have the script optioned and eventually purchased by a producer, production company, or studio.
Is that what all these people and books were talking about? Yes. Yes, it was.
Even worse, those few successfully optioned spec scripts, which actually become successful movies, don’t make you truly rich. And isn’t that what we authors dream about? To write a script that is made into a wildly successful movie from which we earn millions and retire for life?
Well, that may be the screenwriter’s fantasy but it sure isn’t reality. Even the most successful spec scripts rarely earn the original author more than $500,000. This may seem like a lot but once you factor out costs of promoting and marketing your script, agent and manager and lawyer fees and taxes on such a windfall, while it’s still a nice chunk of change it’s not the imagined fortune.
The number of California lottery players who won $500,000 or more in 2014 was about 70 and half of those won more than a million. Often much more than a million. One lucky player won more than $425 million. Your not going to reach that pay scale for a original screen play.
And how many spec scripts were picked up by Hollywood in 2014? A hard number to nail down. Lots of scripts get “optioned” which doesn’t mean they are made into a movie. It’s just a fee paid to own the script for a short period of time, such as one year, while the studio works on getting it produced or - more likely - thinks about it. Most optioned scripts never get made so all the writer receives is the option fee which may be as little as a few thousand dollars.
One estimate of the number of high earning spec scripts sold in a single year was 3. Lately, trade publications report a surge with the numbers running to over 100 in a single year, but these probably include simple “optioning.”
Here’s another way of thinking about it. The odds of selling a spec script are believed to be 1 in 5,000. The odds of winning the California lottery are 1 in 13 million. So selling a spec screenplay actually does have better odds than winning the California lottery, but is it worth the price? Consider, it takes 30 seconds to buy a lottery ticket and could take a year or more to produce a screenplay.
Even if you decide to “go for it,” you will need to invest a huge amount of time and effort into the process: researching studios, production companies, agents and actors; scouring the trade magazines to spot trends; creating your “pitch” and shopping it around, etc. These are all going to take time and effort away from writing.
Suppose you hit the mother load, such as being invited to pitch your script to a studio executive or a producer. Even if they like what you are trying to sell, you know what they most likely will want? To see other things you have written or for you to rewrite the screenplay in a different way or to just go away and never return.
Even then, if they pick up your script, where’s the “beef?” How do you profit financially from having run this gauntlet? By being offered a job rewriting the spec script into a shooting script, or by being offered a low-level gig as a scriptwriter for the studio.
Fact is, Hollywood doesn’t care about spec scripts, what they really are looking for is writers. And should your spec script be good enough that you are hired as a staff writer, you are not going to be a millionaire and you are not going to be allowed to write what you want to write. You will write what they tell you to write. And the job security sucks.
The more I learned about all this, the more depressing it seemed. Hey, I’m old. I don’t want a job as a low-level grunt playing script doctor to an arrogant studio boss for crap wages. I’ve just got this nice comedy I wrote and would like to see it as a movie. After all, I lived this story and I want to share.
What do I do now?