The Right Way To Write A Spec Screenplay

There’s a principle I’ve only realized in the last few months with the current spec screenplay that I’m writing: find a buyer first.

This principle isn’t for your first spec screenplay. Why? Because you’re not going to sell your first screenplay. At very least you should be working under that assumption. Sure, it’s happened before, but better to assume it won’t happen to you so that you can focus on writing, not on selling.
No, the point of your first screenplay is to write it, then learn from it as you quickly move on to your next screenplay.
This principle is also not for your second or third screenplay. These will – hopefully – be better than your first one. It’s likely that you’re still learning the craft, still figuring out how to write something good. Your ideas may be solid, but you are still gaining the experience to write something that can sell.
Now, here you are, four to six screenplays in. You’ve got a stack of other scripts sitting next to you on the desk. Some, even, that you’ve taken out into the industry to see if there is a market for .
But there isn’t, is there?
That’s how most people write screenplays on spec. They either:
a) survey the landscape and choose to write something that they think will sell, or
b) they write something they think is a good idea, regardless of the market, and then try and sell it.
I know this because I’ve done both. Many times.
Guess how many of those screenplays have turned into movies so far?
Yeah. Zero.
There’s a fair argument that the screenplays aren’t good, and most of them aren’t, yet. With a quick refresh on the script I could make them “good”, whatever that means.
Heck, the last script found a producer, a recognizable lead actor, and distribution – both domestic and foreign! So why didn’t it get made? We didn’t have the first buyer in place, the first investor who would come in to help get the movie funded completely and greenlit into production.
No money, no movie.
Then, this summer I had another idea for a movie. The screenplay was exciting. Everyone I pitched the idea to loved it and immediately saw the movie in their heads.
Everyone, including a friend who is an executive producer.
The same friend who was looking at the last screenplay, but wasn’t interested.
Here’s the crucial difference between this screenplay and the last one. On the last screenplay, The Swordsman, we wrote a script we thought would work in the marketplace. THEN we went out to find a buyer.
With this screenplay, we went out to the market with an idea. With a logline and a quick story synopsis, we found the (potential) buyer first.
Guess how much work that took? A text. A single text. Which then led to follow up texts, an in person pitch, a dinner where – by that point – our EP friend was already talking about “our” movie. This was all followed by a treatment, an outline, THEN a screenplay.
I finished the rough draft of that screenplay last week, a mere 6 weeks after I first had the idea for the screenplay.
Compare that with nearly THREE YEARS of writing and hustling on the last screenplay with close to nothing to show for it. Well, other than some great industry contacts and lots of experience gained from all the failing.
The principle is this: don’t write a screenplay on spec until you find the market for it.
The market could be an EP that wants to put the first money in to help you land cast and get development started. It could be a producer or studio or production company that wants to buy your screenplay. It could be a paid writing gig that you won after pitching a take on a film that is already greenlit but needs a screenplay first. (Yes, that happens a lot).
Think about all the time you can save by going to the market with your idea, rather than a fully fleshed out, 8th draft of your spec screenplay? How many more pitches could you do over the course of a year? How does that effect your chances of getting something made?
Now, this post is premature. We haven’t “sold” the screenplay yet. We don’t have a committed producing partner yet. What we do have are much better chances in the market because we found the potential buyer first. She is helping steer the ship, giving us feedback and direction as we go through each step of the process. If the script is good, then we’re in business.
Screenplays are still execution dependent – they have to be good to sell. But how much easier to write a spec screenplay “knowing” that there’s light at the end of that tunnel? For me, much, much easier.
That’s the right way to write a spec screenplay.

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