Sunday, July 1, 2012

What Makes a Good Spec Screenplay?

By all accounts the spec market is back. The Black List blog estimates sales up 27% so far this year. Back in March the script White House Down by James Vanderbilt sold for a reported $3 million. Personally I know at least two writers who have sold feature specs this year. All of this is getting me excited to finish my own new spec!

It’s also caused me to think a lot about what makes a good spec script. Obviously it’s great when a script sells – you get a nice check, after all! But good specs have another purpose – they bring you to the attention of producers and development execs. If you’re a new writer, they can get your career off the ground. If you’re more established they remind people you’re out there and what you can do. So what are the elements of a successful spec?

1. Good Specs Look Professional. This means proper format, grammar and spelling. Presentation counts. You want the readers to see you as someone ready to deliver professional caliber work. This also means that the script follows typical screenplay conventions in terms of things like the amount of description, tonal consistency, length, etc.

If you are unsure about these things, the best solution is to read a bunch of recent screenplays. There are several good sites online that have screenplays (check out my recommended links list for a few). You need to be a little careful – sometimes what you find are transcripts or shooting scripts (which have scene numbers… selling scripts do not). But a good format book should keep you on the right path.

There are a million people out there who know this stuff so obviously creating a professional looking script alone is not enough to make you a pro, but if you don’t know format, grammar and spelling, you have almost no hope.

2. Good Specs Feel Like Movies. This is a tough thing to explain… you kind of know it when you see it. Some scripts are very well written but they don’t bring a movie to mind. There are a couple things I can suggest to help you make your script feel more filmic:

First, make sure it’s visual. Always think about what we’re seeing. Even if you’re doing a story about regular people where the conflicts are interpersonal, this is important. One of the biggest things I learned watching how director Andy Tennant developed Sweet Home Alabama was how he worked to make things more visual. That meant things like moving scenes to more interesting locations. I could and should have done that in the original screenplay.

Second, make sure your dialogue sounds like spoken language. The best way I’ve found to do this is to gather people together to do a reading of the script in my living room. Everybody takes a part and we read it out loud. I can easily hear when the dialogue doesn’t sound natural. Taking acting classes will also help you develop this skill.

And again, read a bunch of screenplays. After a while you’ll be able to hear when something sounds like a real movie script and when it doesn’t.

3. Good Specs are Marketable. This does not mean you have to write a big summer blockbuster, but if you write a type of film that nobody’s made in years, they probably won’t want to make yours.

Your story should have a clear hook. You should be writing in a popular genre. There should be strong, castable parts – ideally the lead role is a star vehicle. And you should be budget conscious - the script should be producible at a budget suitable to its genre. Action movies can have exploding buildings, romantic comedies shouldn’t.

4. Good Specs Have an Original Voice. Marketable is good, but just mimicking the latest blockbuster is not. Producers have plenty of competent, experienced writers they can go to that they’ve worked with before. You have to show them why they should give you a chance. And that means doing something they haven’t seen before.

Remember what I said about the dual purpose of a spec? I – like most writers I know – have a spec that gets me the majority of my meetings yet has never sold because it would be very risky to make. But it’s original and shows my unique voice (and is still in a marketable genre with strong, castable characters and so on.) Besides, people buy things they love, not things they like, so you need to get a strong reaction.

How do you develop your original voice? Write things you care about. That doesn’t mean autobiography or arty drama, necessarily. But if you’re writing sci-fi it better be because you LOVE sci-fi and you have an idea or character you think is REALLY, REALLY COOL! That will come through in your script, and that’s your voice.

As the saying goes, “writers write.” Over the last few years, working on specs has seemed like a bit of an exercise in futility. But it looks like that may be changing… so get to work!


Want to get my professional feedback on your script? I’ve just added that as a reward to my Kickstarter campaign for my short film, Microbe. If you contribute $250, I’ll do a professional evaluation of your script (some limitations apply). Normally I charge $695 for this service, so it’s a pretty big discount. If you leave a comment saying you were referred by this blog, then even if the Kickstarter campaign isn’t successful, I’ll still give you the evaluation for $250. But don’t wait… the campaign, and the offer, ends July 27th.

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