As I write this, the feature film business in the U.S. (and to a lesser extent worldwide) is in a horrible slump. Every weekend this year domestic box office has been lower than the comparable weekend last year. Overall box office is off about 20% so far in 2011.
Now we’re only talking about a roughly four month slump and it’s always dangerous to read too much into short periods of time when it comes to the movie business. Demand for moviegoing fluctuates greatly depending on the quality of the actual movies. 2005 was a notorious slump year that had people predicting the end of in-theater viewing, yet by 2007 box office had rebounded to a record high, broken again in 2009.
There are some worrisome signs, however. First, though total box office was down in 2005, some of the individual weekends still beat the comparable weekend of 2004. Again, it depended on the films. But this time it’s been months without even a single up weekend, an astounding streak.
Also, though box office has been trending up for years and hit records in ’07 and ’09, attendance has been gradually dropping for a good decade. The box office growth has come primarily from ticket price increases. The theatrical business has been making more and more money off of fewer and fewer customers. 3D accelerated this impact last year with its $3-$5 surcharges. But the 3D wave is already showing signs of collapse in the U.S., a big contributor to the current slump. (Don't expect 3D to go away soon, though. Internationally it's still driving big attendance gains.)
One other fact of the business is fewer films have been released in the last couple years than were released back in ’09. The studios have been focusing on increasing profitability on a small number of “sure bets” (ignoring that in the film business there is no such thing). That’s part of the reason for the trend toward franchise event films with established underlying material.
What does this mean for screenwriters? Well, things have been pretty abysmal the last few years. The number of jobs shrunk along with the number of films. Original stories became even harder to sell – the spec and pitch markets basically vanished.
But the March 25th edition of the Hollywood Reporter ran an article on the tentative rebirth of the spec script market, pointing to several recent sales. Perhaps the declining box office and general exhaustion of quality existing properties is causing a shift in thinking that will open up opportunities for writers. Let’s hope!
The article also mentioned a disturbing trend I, and other screenwriters I know, have been experiencing: producers asking writers to write the producer’s ideas on spec. Studios seem to be less interested in screenplay development these days. They are forgoing pitches, emphasizing projects developed by a producer with stars and director already in place. In a sense, they’ve outsourced their development. But they’ve also cut back on development deals for producers so only the biggest names can afford to hire writers at a normal rate. And so we get “spec for hire.”
The downside of agreeing to this as a writer, beyond the obvious months of work without any income, is that if the producer loses interest in the idea or doesn’t like the result of your draft, or if a similar movie comes out in the interim and does badly, he might cancel the project. You’re left with a script you can’t shop since you don’t own the underlying idea. A spec is always a risky business proposition, but relying on one producer’s opinion makes it even riskier.
And of course one of the normal appeals of writing on spec is creative control. But how much creative control will you really have when you’re only chance to get paid is to please the producer?
The original pitch is still dead. And right now the writer driven spec is largely going to be considered a writing sample, as it has been for the last two years. Unless that spec has a wildly marketable concept as well as excellent execution. In that case let the bidding war commence.
Take from this what you will. I’m getting ready to embark on my first new spec in over a year, but my main focus right now is putting together an independent feature I will direct and working on creative content for an upcoming Facebook game. As the saying goes, “writers write.” Doesn’t matter what the market does, I’m still going to be typing away at the ol’ keyboard. If you’re a writer, you’ll be doing the same.
By the way, my sister, YA novelist Chris Eboch, has a writing blog where she’s been discussing what novelists can learn from screenwriters. Screenwriters can also learn a lot from novelists, so you might want to check it out.