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Winning Spec Scripts

By Richard Walter

Our Reader Allen Ventura from Springfield, IL writes: I am a professional writer who has recently turned his hand to screenwriting. Can you give me the insider's view of "spec scripts?" Is this a sound way to proceed or are there better ways to get my scripts noticed?

Richard Walter responds: Writing spec scripts is not only the most traditional journey to make your screenwriting career happen, it's also in your best financial interest. Virtually all the writers I know who make huge bucks "selling their daydreams for dollars" started out by writing spec scripts. Their craft and talent seduced the readers, and one submission led to another.

It's not at all unusual for writers to write several - even 12 or 15 - spex before they're "discovered." But what happens if/when you craft that spec, send it out, and in the marketplace you hear nothing but the "sounds of silence?" What now? When a spec script does not sell, it is not the end but only the beginning.

Some of the things that might happen as a result of your efforts are - in declining order of likelihood - the following:

Extremely unlikely: You'll $ell the script outright for 6 figures, and they make the movie/don't make the movie.

More likely: You get money from that elusive development deal, where you write material (scripts) and they (the buyers) help you "develop" the screenplay and produce it/ get it financed/ make it, if they choose to.

A bit more likely still: They (a buyer or producer) hire you, the writer, to develop an idea of something they have in-house.

Even a little more likely: Based on your spec, its story/characters/craft, you are hired to do a rewrite on another writer's script that's already been optioned, or controlled by them, but their draft is just not "there" yet. They need a stronger voice, so perhaps you're hired to do a "character polish."

Likelihood increases: The producers will ask your permission to "show the script around" and try to get financing from a studio - with or without asking you for a short (or one year) "option." Your best strategy here is to stay with the project as long as possible, and be a team player, not a crybaby.

The greatest likelihood: You get representation. Perhaps you'll find a manager who's your real champion, an advocate who wants to make it happen for you. They/he/she will submit your work, and also bring in an agent and/or attorney when appropriate. In turn, that agent may try to establish "your quote" (price). Imagine someone who's your true advocate and creates relationships for you that in turn create more relationships, an actual "investor" in your career who gets not a nickel 'til you do!

From my perch, writers who flare brightly often burn out fast. A career with longevity is the best career. Not selling your spec isn't failing. It's succeeding.

Meet the Author: Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA’s legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, is available July 2010. His previous published works include the novels Escape from Film School and Barry and the Persuasions and screenwriting books The Whole Picture: Strategies for Screenwriting Success in the New Hollywood and Screenwriting: The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing.

He has written numerous feature assignments for the major stu...