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February 17, 2022

Spec Script: What You Should Know

If you're just beginning to write a screenplay, then the chances are you will be writing a spec script unless you are well connected. A spec script is a complete script that focuses on the story and not on camera angles or technical details.

Here's how you can make sure your spec script is watertight.

What is a spec script?

Spec scripts are short for speculative screenplays. This is a script you've written on your own time, intending to persuade a studio to buy it. It's different from a commissioned script where a production company has hired you to write a script in advance.

This is a privilege usually only afforded to people who've already been commissioned in the past or who have some special connection to the film industry. A big-name actor - for example - who wants to turn their hand at screenwriting would probably be able to negotiate a commission and an upfront fee, especially with the help of their agent since they are already established in the industry.

It can feel frustrating to have to work on something without guaranteeing it will be accepted and with no upfront payment, but this hardship often makes writers tougher and more thirsty for success. Think of it as your induction or your job application for the job of a screenwriter.

Remember, a spec script is not supposed to be the finished screenplay. Technical supervisors, directors, and set designers will add in any extra details needed to make it a shooting script after a production company has decided whether to give you the green light.

Examples of famous spec scripts

You might feel despair at the prospect of writing a spec script and wonder how many get made compared to commissioned ones. Quite a few films get made from this process, many of them successful.

The actor Matt Damon wrote the screenplay for Good Will Hunting as part of an assignment for a scriptwriting course at Harvard University. He finished it on spec and then sold it to Castle Rock Entertainment for $675,000 with an additional $100,000 if the film got made.

Matt Damon and Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting.
Good Will Hunting is an example of a spec script from a relatively unknown writer that did very well

Another great example is American Beauty, written by Alan Ball, an unknown writer trying to make it in the industry. He wrote it in the early 1990s as a theater piece but adapted it and updated it in 1997. Producers sold it to Dreamwork Studios for $250,000, and American Beauty went on to make $350,000,000 and received many awards.

How can you make your spec script stand out?

If you want your spec script to stand out, you need to make it as watertight as possible. It must grip producers and agents from the very start, the characters must be believable, and there must be a clear, satisfying ending.

But a spec script must do more than this; it must be viable as a commercial prospect. A great script must have all the components of a great story.

However, if the story is too original, not original enough, or doesn't quite fit with a production company's output, it most likely receives a pass during the script coverage phase.  

Remember that there are more options for getting your script made than when the spec scripts for American Beauty and Good Will Hunting were written. Streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+ have bigger budgets and are more open to niche shows and films.

Meanwhile, it's never been easier to gather the resources, team, and equipment for your independent film or TV series without the need for a green light from a production company.

A spec script can lead to a writing assignment

If you write a great spec script and producers are impressed by your writing but what you wrote isn't what they are looking for or doesn't fit for their studio, all is not lost.

Sometimes the studio can offer you a writing assignment. They already have an idea of the sort of film or series they want to create; perhaps they've already scheduled it in, and they want you to write it.

You might even get work writing a sequel to an already popular film or show that the producers know is more likely to garner viewers.

The BBC Writers Workshop program has a window for different types of scripts each year and encourages aspiring writers to enter their scripts. However, the scheme's purpose is not to produce scripts that are sent in but to hunt for new talent.

The BBC is keen to point out that they rarely produce a spec script, but they offer talented writers who impress them mentorship, funds, and even a chance to join the writers' rooms on some of their already established shows.

It's essential to see your spec script as a stepping stone to entering the TV and film world to temper your expectations while producing the best script you can.

Spec scripts are the main way screenwriters enter the film industry

Spec scripts are the main form of entry into the TV and film industry. At the same time, you may find that your spec script never gets made and ends up being a showcase for your writing skills.  

While this can seem infuriating, remember nothing you write ever goes to waste, and you could return to your first spec script idea at a later date once you are more established.

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Spec Script: What You Should Know
Harry Verity

Harry is a professional writer. His first novel The Talk Show was published in the U.S and the U.K by Bloodhound Books in 2021 and he is currently working on adapting it for screen. He's also written for Media Magazine - a UK magazine for students of A-level Film, Media and Television Studies. In addition, he was a senior ghostwriter at Story Terrace from 2015- 2021, the private memoir firm.

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