[The blog is on the road this week. Herewith: a re-run of one of the best-received posts, “Specking It.” Back next week!]
I moved from New York to Hollywood in the mid-eighties. This was the era of the “spec script”–a concept that has been of great use to me on many fronts beyond screenwriting. It might help you too.
An endangered species
Today the spec script is beyond endangered; it’s just about extinct. Tinseltown’s bread and butter for most the past decade has been the pre-branded, franchiseable blockbuster–Spiderman, Iron Man, Transformers. I can understand that. It costs so much in today’s environment to make, market and advertise a feature film (and a flop can be so catastrophic), it’s no wonder that the studios want to rein-in the downside as much as they can. But in those heady days of the ’80s, when spec writers were stars in their own right and Variety seemed full of stories of Joe Eszterhas and Shane Black pulling off yet another million-dollar score, the town was frothing with screenwriters working “high concepts” and hoping to “pop an original.” I know; I’ve still got a closetful.
What is a spec script anyway?
A spec script is a screenplay written entirely on speculation. Without a deal. Without an advance. The writer nuts up and goes for it. He bangs out the whole thing on the come. Like a developer builds a spec house. All or nothing. Sell it and make a killing or crash and burn.
There’s a halfway version of specking called pitching. In a pitch, you don’t actually write the script. You pitch it verbally to a financing source–a studio, a producer, or a director or actor’s development company–hoping to get enough of an advance to pay the rent till you write the damn thing. Pitching was and is an art form. Some guys can pitch like Sandy Koufax but can’t deliver the actual product; other writers are sensational on the page but freeze up in meetings.
The real specker doesn’t even do meetings. She just writes it. This is tremendously healthy and honorable. Here’s why:
The joys of specking
First, specking takes cojones. It requires balls and it builds balls. What the writer is doing (and this goes for any artist or entrepreneur who takes a flyer on anything) is betting on herself and her talent. The Muse loves that. Nothing is more wholesome for the writing soul or for the big writing muscles.
Second, specking teaches resourcefulness. Because you’re not partnered with any entity with the right to a say-so, you have to make all the creative decisions yourself. What’s the theme? What’s the inciting incident? How do we get out of Act Two? This is tremendously liberating and empowering.
Third, specking is fun. Few of us, unless we’re rich or marvelously resourceful, get to envision our own movie and then go out and shoot it. But specking a screenplay is the next best thing. Because when you’re writing that movie, you’re directing it and scoring it and casting it too. You get to make the exact movie that’s in your head–even if your head is the only place it ever gets screened.
Lastly, if you sell a speck, you get a payday. Maybe only a modest one–but a jackpot is a jackpot. You get to validate yourself within the purest form of meritocracy: what Stephen Colbert would call the verdict of the marketplace. But, satire aside, a score in the hardball world is tremendously heartening for us writers, artists and entrepreneurs who have toiled for years on a diet of rejection, isolation and disappointment. As Ruth Gordon, who was 72 at the time, said when she won her Oscar for Rosemary’s Baby: “This is very encouragin’.”
So hats off to spec writers and artists and to anybody who’s crazy enough and gutsy enough to put their money on themselves and roll the dice. You may be deluded. You may wind up in a pool of blood by the side of the road. But no one can take this away from you: you did one of the hardest and bravest things that any entity capable of consciousness can do. You leapt from the known to the unknown–deliberately, boldly, and in full cognizance of the risk. I salute you.