How do I write a spec script that sells in Hollywood?

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Answered by: Skander, An Expert in the Scripts and More Category
There's a certain school of thought that suggests a well-executed commercial script will get you a sale, and a well-executed non-commercial script will get you an assignment. I wish the latter were true because it would provide incentive for beginning writers to do what I sincerely believe they all should: write a spec script that comes straight from their heart, with no regard whatsoever to its commercial prospects. I've disregarded my own advice on more specs than I care to admit and followed it only once -- on what turned out to be, to date, my only produced feature credit. There's a lesson there, I hope.

But back to the bad news: Even if you were to write the most ingeniously twisted NC-17 masterpiece of all time, there’s no guarantee that people will be lining up to offer you three-picture blind deals. In the five years that elapsed between Pretty Persuasion first making the rounds and its becoming a go picture, the script got me two agents, two managers, a lawyer, countless meetings and many ardent fans – but absolutely no work. It was only after the ol’ green light flashed ON that I started actually signing contracts.

I blame this reality in part on my own less-than-exemplary pitching skills but more on the stiffness of the competition. The unfortunate fact is most studios think like this: “If I can have the peace of mind of hiring a produced writer, why would I take a chance on an unproduced writer, even if said unproduced writer wrote a spec that blew me away?”

So, if you choose to pour your time and energy into writing an edgy, personal, potentially alienating, non-commercial spec instead of a clean bit of Syd Field-approved mainstream fun that has “$30 million opening weekend” written all over it, you are taking a risk – a big one. You will be forever judged by that first spec. If your script is just offensive, and not also entertaining or insightful, you will never chow down on that proverbial midday meal in this town again. Even if you find an independent producer passionate – and insane – enough to want to make your script, your path will be a long and thorny one littered with crushing disappointments.

Prepare for years of doors slamming shut, deals falling through, actors attaching and then unattaching themselves, and disheartening McJobs to make ends meet. Get ready to tear your hair out as you try to write more saleable specs, to steam with envy as your film school chum who wrote a broad, PG-13 comedy sells it to a studio for high-six figures. In fact, let’s face it: There is no earthly reason why an aspiring writer should write a spec script that's not commercial. It makes no sense.

But, I beg you to do it anyway.

Let me tell you something: I will never forget Sundance ’05. I will never forget the sound of an entire theater gasping at once. I will never forget the teary-eyed schoolteacher shaking my hand and saying, “Thank you for writing this movie.” Nor will I forget the incensed man demanding of one of our producers: “How could you make this movie? It is so offensive. It is so offensive.” There were more popular films at that festival, more lauded films, films that sold for more money – but there were none that prompted as many passionate arguments as the one I had written that summer, seven years ago, in my parents’ house, in my pajamas. All of a sudden, the wait seemed worth it.

So, if there’s one piece of advice above all others that I can impart to you, it’s this: Pay no attention to the spec sale trends, the box-office charts or your agent’s wish list. Write what’s in your heart. What your muse whispers in your ear. If it turns out non-commercial, stick with it. Your problems will be manifold, but your rewards could be infinite. And when the movie opens, I’ll be first in line.

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