I remember when I first got into this screenwriting game, I used to see the films that finished at the top of the box office each year (Pirates of The Caribbean, The Lord Of The Rings, Shrek) and think, “That’s the kind of material Hollywood likes to buy, so that’s the kind of material we should try to write.” But that’s not how the spec market works. All of those movies are written in-house. In other words, studios don’t buy the script from a writer. They decide to make the project then go hire writers to write it. Disney wants to make Wreck-It Ralph. Okay, let’s go find a screenwriter to write Wreck-It Ralph.

On top of general in-house projects, you have book adaptations. Summit/Lionsgate buys The Hunger Games, then they look for a writer. Then you have sequels and prequels (Skyfall, Taken 2, The Hobbit), which also require hiring writers. You got writer-directors, who write and direct their own stuff (Ted, Django Unchained). You have your superhero properties, your article adaptations, your TV show adaptations, your foreign movie remakes. These are the movies that will dominate the box office.

Surprisingly, movies that were produced from screenplay spec sales don’t do well when matched up with the big boys. Why? Plain and simple, Joe Schmoe can’t compete with a ride that’s been popular for 40 years (Pirates Of The Carribean), a super hero who’s been around for 70 years (Batman), a book that’s been popular for 80 years (The Hobbit). No matter how much marketing the studios put into a project that originated as a spec, it’s never going to make as much money as those pre-established properties.

But fear not. Don’t start writing your own “Changing Gears” article just yet. You see, certain spec scripts DO take a chunk out of the box office, and it’s why I’m writing today’s article. We’re going to look at the top 10 spec-screenplays-turned-movies in the 2012 box office, and see if they can’t help us figure out what kind of screenplays we should be writing to get our own scripts sold.

snow white hunt

1
Snow White And The Huntsman
Genre: Action-Adventure
Original writer: Evan Daugherty
Box Office Rank: 15
Box Office Gross: 155 million
About: This was a big splashy 7 figure spec sale so you knew the studio was going all in on it. You can sorta say it’s an adaptation (Snow White), but it was actually sold on spec. A big reason this sold was that edgy fairy-tale and real-life mash-ups (Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) were all the rage at the time. Hollywood went all in on them (for better or worse). Once they got Kristin Stewart in the lead here, they promoted the hell out of this thing, and it hit. Hence, it’s the highest spec sale turned movie of the year.

safe-house-movie-poster-01

2
Safe House
Genre: Action-Thriller
Original writer: David Guggenheim
Box Office Rank: 21
Box Office Gross: 126 million
About: I can’t remember a time when a script moved so fast from sale to production. If there’s a dream scenario for screenwriters, this has to be it. This thing didn’t hit a single director snag, a single lead actor change, a single anything. The script was vanilla but there was clearly something about it I couldn’t see because it turned into a good flick.

flight-poster

3
Flight
Genre: Drama
Original Writer: John Gatins
Box Office Rank: 30
Box Office Gross: 93 million
About: Something really popped out at me here. Denzel Washington is one of the few big actors who likes spec scripts. He was in Book Of Eli (spec), Safe House above (spec) and Flight. Interesting. Don’t know if that’s a coincidence or not. Of all the spec scripts on this list, this is easily the most unconventional. Drama specs are hard sells. However, it should be noted that writer John Gatins was a director who had just finished his first film, “Dreamer, Inspired by a True Story” when he brought this to the studio.

Chronicle-poster2

4
Chronicle
Genre: Sci-fi/Supernatural/Found-Footage
Original Writer: Max Landis
Box Office Rank: 46
Box Office Gross: 65 million
About: I’ve “chronicled” this script already on the site. My guess it that it sold on concept. The horror found-footage craze was reaching its breaking point. Then this writer comes along and says, “Dude, let’s take the found-footage angle into another genre.” The script itself wasn’t amazing, but it was a neat idea. It’s another reminder that concept drives the spec world. — Writers will point out that Max Landis has a famous daddy and that’s why he sold this script. Uhhh, there are lots of people trying to write screenplays who are related to much bigger celebrities than John Landis and their scripts are going nowhere. So show some respect!

hope-springs-poster

5
Hope Springs
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Original Writer: Vanessa Taylor
Box Office Rank: 47
Box Office Gross: 63 million
About: I remember reading this one a LONG time ago when it was simply known as the “Untitled Vanessa Taylor Project” and really liking it. I think it started in my original Top 25. But it was something I looked at and thought, “This will never get made.” It centered around two “old” people and there was a lot of talking involved. But they found a way to put it together and it did really well for this kind of project. Big ups to the oldies!

this_means_war

6
This Means War
Genre: Comedy/Action
Original Writer: Marcus Gautesen
Box Office Rank: 56
Box Office Gross: 55 million
About: While there aren’t many good things to say about This Means War the movie, it’s interesting to note that this script sold all the way back in 1998! So it stuck around. A lot like Safe House, it’s a two-hander, with two parts for big actors to play. Some people tell me this trend is hot right now. And with two specs in the top ten using the formula (Safe House as well), I guess that makes sense.

Print

7
That’s My Boy
Genre: Comedy
Original Writer: David Caspe
Box Office Rank: 85
Box Office Gross: 37 million
About: I remember this one when it was called “I Hate You, Dad.” The script didn’t do much for me at the time, but it really came alive onscreen. Sandler and Samberg nailed the characters. Easily the best Adam Sandler movie in forever and I think it’s because for once he made something that wasn’t written by one of his in-house hacks. It should also be noted that the writer, David Caspe, created the show “Happy Endings,” which likely contributed to the script getting around, landing on the Black List, and ultimately picked up.

Trouble-with-the-Curve-Poster

8
Trouble With The Curve
Genre: Drama
Original Writer: Randy Brown
Box Office Rank: 86
Box Office Gross: 36 million
About: This probably has the best story in the top ten as Randy Brown wrote this script a decade ago. Then it just disappeared. Nobody remembered it. Cut to 2011, Clint reads it, wants to do it, and the next thing you know Brown’s being paid a million bucks! It’s also rare you see a spec sale centering around sports that isn’t based on a true story. So this one had all sorts of unorthodox things going for it.

Guilt Trip Poster

9
The Guilt Trip
Genre: Comedy
Original Writer: Dan Fogelman
Box Office Rank: 93
Box Office Gross: 32 million
About: Remember when Dan Fogelman was hot hot hot? He couldn’t press “enter” on his laptop without making 2 million bucks. There was Crazy Stupid Love. There was Imagine. There was Nathan Decker. There was Last Vegas. Then there was this. I always felt like “The Guilt Trip” (previously titled “My Mother’s Curse”) was the red-headed stepchild of his screenplays, but regardless, Dan Fogelman had a hell of a run and if there’s anyone you want to base your own screenwriting plan off of, it’s probably this guy.

man-on-a-ledge

10
Man On A Ledge
Genre: Thriller
Original Writer: Pablo Fenjves
Box Office Rank 109
Box Office Gross: 19 million
About: You know, I’m not sure I can say anything good about this screenplay (the version I read had revisions by Chris Gorak). It was just such a bizarre choice for a story and about as strangely executed as you can imagine. The wooden acting Sam Worthington would later display in the film didn’t help at all, but it was a big spec sale at the time. The writer, Pablo, has actually been a very successful ghost writer in the book world for a long time. But unless the original was just 180 degrees different from the final product, I don’t know what Summit was thinking when they bought this.

Okay, so what does this all mean? Well, when I’m giving people advice on what kind of spec to write, I advise them to make the concept catchy in some way (have a hook!). And if it isn’t, then it at least has to be marketable somehow. For example, “The Guilt Trip” isn’t exactly a catchy concept. But it’s easy to market. Anyway, after the concept, I tell them to pay attention to genre. Because certain genres do better in the spec world. With our top 10 here, I see we have four comedies (one of those romantic), two thrillers, two dramas, one sci-fi, and one supernatural. There are some sub-genres there that make it a little more complicated, but generally speaking, that’s our breakdown.

You’ll notice that the dominant genre here is comedy and that’s usually the case when it comes to the spec market. Comedies are one of the few genres where the playing field is even. Funny is funny, regardless of whether it comes from a book or comes from you, the unknown screenwriter. So this isn’t surprising. Thrillers also do really well in the spec market, so that’s no surprise. What surprised me was that we have two drama specs here. I guess I forget that drama specs DO sell. But my experience has been that a drama script has to be written five times as well as a comedy or a thriller to sell, because it’s a naturally slow genre and you have to be a really good writer to make slow stories work.

Since thriller and action are mostly interchangeable, it should be noted that we have three action specs here (Safe House, Snow White, This Means War). Everybody I talk to is looking for action specs because you don’t need a hot action book to be able to market an action film. The problem I keep hearing from producers is that action writers are (ironically) lazy. They make too many cliché choices ripped off from movies we’ve already seen and so all the action specs they read suck. Come up with something a little unique, put the same amount of effort into the characters that you would a drama, and you could be hitting paydirt.

The eye-opening thing for me is that the number 10 box office spec script was the overall 109th ranked box office movie. Think about that. That means for every 10 wide-release movies, only one of those is a spec. That might freak you out. And it should a little. It’s proof-positive that the playing field is a hell of a lot harder than you think it is. Which is why you can’t dump material on the market that’s 60% ready and expect it to sell. There are too many writers, most of whom are already established, competing for those 10 slots. So don’t haphazardly come up with a goofy idea, write it up in 14 days and start sending it out to your contacts. Think like a businessman. Think about what you’re going to need to bring to the table to steal one of these slots. Is your concept cool? Do you have something that’s easy to market? Do you have roles that A-list actors will die to play? Sure, you can play the idealistic card and say to yourself, “I’m just going to write what moves me,” and hope for the best. But the only people I see who succeed with that strategy are geniuses. The rest of us have to be a little more methodical in our approach.

I’m not sure this breakdown tells us anything definitive (except that there are no period pieces), but I wanted to strip away all the noise so you could see exactly how spec scripts were doing at the box office. What do you guys think? Did you spot any trends?

  • AJMockler

    Fascinating article Carson, and also a little scary. Though 10 spec slots are better than none!

    Your comments on the ever-hotness of great action specs did make me think how cool it would be to have one of your regular articles focusing purely on how to write great action specs, and the balance of character and spectacle, which scripts nail it and why, and what not to do. Perhaps you could even bring in a few guest scribes to add some of their own action-writing mojo? Or should I just buy the book? ;-)

  • http://twitter.com/kinnygraham Graham

    Nice article again Carson.

    If Scriptshadow keeps doing stuff like this, and maybe does a little more Amateur coverage then I think you will still have plenty to offer the aspiring screenwriter.

    Oh and a side question: any ETA on the Scriptshadow book arriving in print/dead tree ?

  • Post

    Although here in Germany the market is also very competitive (and Specs are not really that known), the bigger and (sometimes) clever producers are looking for other language screenplays, mainly english.

    I know of at least a dozen projects, that were based on screenplays no one wanted in Hollywood.

    I tried to work with an american writer whose pitch I read on scriptshadow a long time ago (that’s how I found the site) and although it didn’t work out in the end I could totally imagine, tweeking an US script for a German audience.

    Scripts here are so bad, you guys can’t even imagine.

    I wish I would find a cool US-indie comedy that could work here in Germany.

    • FD

      Hey Post,
      Couldn’t agree with you more on German film. Dialogue here is abysmal, even among the established writers, and most of the stories you see on the posters you can just ignore because you can tell right from the get go that they are going to suck. Really sad.
      If you’re in film here, do something about it! I’d be happy to send you a script that I wrote to be shot here in Munich, but I’m afraid I’m just a hack and probably can’t solve the problem. Christopf Maria Herbst liked it according to his agent, but he’s too busy to be risking his time on pie-in-the-sky projects.

      • Bella_Lugossi

        I’m Dutch and dialog here is also the worst.

        That may be because most people watch a lot of english language stuff and that always sounds much better, cooler. But the writing is also very much to blame.

        A typical dutch drama production is cringe-worthy, especially because of the dialog. It’s considered good drama when people act as if they are on stage in 1909 – trying to reach even the people OUTSIDE the theater.

        The tone is almost always off. The actors hardly ever sound like “normal people”. It’s exposition-heavy and over the top. People always sound like they are nervous and/or angry for some unknown reason.

        Maybe Dutch actors are just not any good, and I guess the language doesn’t help much either, but at least Sir Rutger H. Hauer is back in our small country, so I may just bump into him “by accident” and read my screenplay out loud. Some “mental state” right there. I might get smacked and never wash my face again. Worth it.

        I speak German and live close to the border, but it’s tough for me to judge German dialog. I do like German football commentary. Very energetic. ;]

    • David

      Hey Post,

      I’m a Germany-based American writer. Can you tell me what kinds of genres/stories German producers are looking for? Is it mainly stories set in Germany/other parts of Europe or US stories?

      Are there particular German production companies that are worth getting in contact with?

      Thanks.

      David

      • Malibo Jackk

        Anything SS plays well in Germany.

  • ripleyy

    What about Sci-Fi specs? Do they usually sell well on the market?

    Interesting read, definitely something to keep in mind when you write.

  • FD

    What a great article.

  • Kay Bryen

    This got me thinking, which is never a good thing.

    JK Rowling and her publishers own the Harry Potter characters, rights and exercise significant control on the entire franchise’s films. But had she simply written a Harry Potter script instead of a novel, she would’ve enjoyed exactly zero of those three things. It’s by no means certain that a single Harry Potter film would even have been made, had the studios not been seduced by the books’ bestseller status. Even then, Joanne would most likely never have been involved beyond the 1st script, never mind the 4th, let alone the 5th, and to say nothing at all about the 6th.

    So boys and girls, here’s my question: what’s your take on developing our scripts into graphic novels? Wouldn’t it give you greater leverage in Hollywood? Yes it’s a more torturous roundabout way, and the graphic novel has no guarantee of becoming a hit. But neither does a script. At the very least, it reassures the producer that your story is visual and cinematic. I can’t think of a single producer who, given the choice, would rather crack open a 120 page monstrosity when he could easily browse the general feel of a story literally within a minute. Plus if you get rejected, you can always self-publish your graphic novel, whereas with a script the best you can do is to “self-print” it :-(

    • FD

      Sounds like you’re essentially describing a storyboard. Rossio has a great article on how he used to take his storyboards with him to pitches and the producers loved them. It’s a great idea, but you need someone to draw the pictures! I never progressed beyond stick figures.

      • Kay Bryen

        Storyboards aren’t quite what I meant, but are a step in the right direction — as are concept art, trailers, shorts etc. Here’s my point: if producers don’t like your script, it’s pretty much stillborn. But if they don’t like your graphic novel — well, guess what, you’ve got a graphic novel on the market. And if readers love it, so will Hollywood.

        • FD

          So get out there and start drawing!

    • Malibo Jackk

      Talked to a woman who knows graphic novels.
      Her take was that graphic novels would not sell unless –
      you released them as serialized, affordable comics first.

      There is, of course, another approach.
      You won’t need a graphic novel
      if your concept is irresistible.

    • ArabyChic

      Graphic Novels are really another art form. It’s just as hard – if not harder – than self-publishing a book and hoping THAT becomes a bestseller so you can then write the screenplay. Except in a graphic novel, you have to find a very talented artist who fits the tone of the piece, and pay them a good amount of money (unless you found the one talented artist who is doing it because he/she loves the work) then you need a letterer, a colorist, etc. There’s a lot of work that goes into a graphic novel before it even gets out there, without gaurentee that anyone will even buy it.

      So, I’d say, either write a book and hope it becomes a best seller, or just do what you know hot to do and write a screenplay that sells. :)

    • Kay Bryen

      Some great responses here, thanks a trill!

      Also can I quickly clarify that I’m not implying a graphic novel is any less of a Sisyphean ordeal than a script. But I just feel if you’re going to slave away for years on something, at least give it a parachute. Ok, say hell freezes over and your script *does* sell… you’ll only get most of the money once it starts shooting — a by no means assured or even probable outcome. So what will you eat for the years that your script is simmering in development Hades? Not even In-n-Out Burger will accept payment in hugs, you know.

      • Malibo Jackk

        I could actually go for a SS that teaches and reviews graphic novels.
        Those amateur graphic novels that prove good enough
        could then be turned into scripts.
        Those scripts that are good enough could then…
        Sisyphean???

        (need to look up the meaning of Sisyphean)

    • blue439

      They’re both difficult, but it’s probably more difficult to write the next Harry Potter than it is to write a good commercial screenplay. JK Rowling would probably have been fine if the Harry Potter books were never made into films. In other words, she didn’t write the books just to get into screenwriting/producing movies. You, on the other hand, seem to be coming at it from 180 degrees opposite — the movie side. Probably best just to write a good screenplay.

      • Kay Bryen

        Absolutely. Let’s not get it twisted: any novel should work on its own, whether or not it’s later adapted. But whereas you feel we shouldn’t write a novel with a movie in mind, I think that’s precisely what every writer does — whether they’re aware of it or not. I mean for you to convey any action or dialogue in your novel, you must first picture it in your mind’s cinema as if it’s actually playing out; then translate the sounds and visuals into words. The major difference is some stories are inherently more cinematic than others (for example they’re not overly dependent on internal monologues).

        When our cave-dweller ancestors were narrating stories around the fire, they would role play the voices and mimic the actions of the different characters, injecting tension and conflict, and theatrically bringing a story to life. So in a way stories have always been movies — even before movies.

    • Brainiac138

      Go to any comic convention and you will see a whole row of writers who originally started their comic book as a film script. It is really common, however, these books usually don’t do well enough to have studios come knocking on their doors, and the biggest publishers develop most of their stuff in-house.

      Also, I once knew a comic writer, a very well-known comic writer, who wrote a spec script and had every door shut in his face. He wrote it as a graphic novel and it became a huge hit. The studios did come knocking on his door to adapt it into a film and he handed them his original script, which was ultimately not used in any fashion, and the studio hired their own writers. So his story was eventually realized on screen, but he wasn’t able to write the script.

      • Kay Bryen

        Really eye-opening Brainiac, thanks. Particularly the part where major publishers ensure maximum control and minimum risk by developing their stuff in-house, much like studios.

  • nawazm10

    Seems like most of these specs have characters that actors actually want to play. Maybe that’s one reason to why they sold.

  • Citizen M

    Pirates, Batman, The Hobbit, Snow White — they all have something Terry Rossio calls Mental Real Estate. I.e. something, a character, a situation, that the public is familiar with. And your script should have some mental real estate to gain traction.

    If it’s called Jelva, Alien Queen of the Varvak* there’s nothing to mentally hang on to. It could be any genre: romance, horror, political. Any character: good, evil, powerful, powerless.

    Give us something concrete we can relate to, whether a character or a situation, and put a fresh, imaginative twist on it.

    *Maybe even Poe Serling won’t get this. It’s the book the Nick Frost character has written in the movie “Paul”. The one with the green three-breasted woman on the cover.

    • Poe_Serling

      Hey Martin-

      Oh, I totally agree with the whole ‘mental real estate’ thing; in fact, it was a recent ”what I learned’ moment for myself when I was reading the script Fascination 127.

      If not for the Jim Morrison angle, there’s a good chance I might’ve passed on cracking open a project about a heist plot in Paris.

      And the film Paul…

      You know I’ve seen that one – twice in fact. I thought it was a fun ride from start to finish. And yeah, it was filled with references to other pics such Close Encounters, Blade, and so forth…

      But, I must say, you’ve piqued my curiosity concerning the green three-breasted woman on the cover of Nick Frost’s book. My take? I thought it was in-joke about the three-breasted woman from the Total Recall movies.

      Hey, if I’m wrong… don’t leave me hanging here in cinematic suspense. ;-)

      • Citizen M

        Maybe she was inspired by the Total Recall tri-mam, but she looks a heck of a lot more dangerous.

        Subtitle spoken by Adam Shadowchild the SF author they meet at Comic Con.

        • Poe_Serling

          Just tracked this down. Here’s a lenghty blurb from Frost and Pegg regarding the fake book:

          What can you tell us about [the character] Clive’s book [played by Nick Frost]?

          Frost: Jelva Alien Queen of the Varvak it was just a really bad title wasn’t it?

          Pegg: The idea was that Clive had written a very good first novel when he was 16. And ever since then he’s been trying to complete this tome. This impenetrable science fiction sludge that was Jelva. It takes Paul to help him let that go.

          Frost: You know when you see a woman with three breasts riding a blue rhino with a laser whip, you’re probably slightly off base.

          Pegg: We had a joke in the script originally where people said “Oh like in Total Recall” and Clive was like, “No.” He didn’t like the idea that someone else had, had the idea.

          Frost: Or he would say, “Hadn’t seen it!”

          Pegg: But it was just the typical absurd boy fantasy scifi thing, a green woman with an extra breast. But four would be weird. Graeme’s like, “that’s just sick!”

          *** On closer inspection of the book cover, the alien queen is sort of cross between the Total Recall girl and the sexy dancing green alien woman from the original Star Trek show.

          • Citizen M

            I bow to your superior knowledge and/or powerful Google-fu.

          • Poe_Serling

            Thanks, Martin. That’s a huge compliment, especially coming from one of the most intelligent posters on this site – bar none. Now off to my Google-fu lesson. :-)

    • garrett_h

      Great article. I remember reading that back in the day and making it a part of my concept creation process. You’ve got to be able to hang your hat on something that the reader, then the studio, and finally the audience can all recognize and relate to.

      You listed popular intellectual properties, but let’s take the recent “Die Hard in the White House” spec sales. It was an election year. The Presidency has been a hot topic. Even Obama’s “family life” has been popular, with a couple of “White House sitcoms” in the works. The White House under siege holds some pretty good “mental real estate” right now, and that was a big reason for those selling.

      Even Flight, which is on the list above, had some. When I first read the logline, I didn’t know it was an addiction drama. I immediately thought about Captain Sully rescuing those people on the Hudson. That’s why I went to go see it. And while it took the whole “hero pilot” thing and went a different direction with it, the mental real estate got my butt into the theater for an awesome movie.

      This is definitely something we all need to keep in mind for our future specs.

  • http://www.howdoiblog.com/ Scots Chris

    Wow, that’s some bad movies. Not sure I’m so inspired about the spec market on the basis of that trash!

    Now, totally off topic, I have a weird Gmail question – I can’t find the last email from Carson anywhere in my Gmail but it’s not been deleted or marked as spam, nor labelled or moved. WTF? Is this even possible?

  • http://www.facebook.com/kevin.lenihan1 Kevin Lenihan

    Some wondered after yesterday’s article if this site was going to dedicate itself to amateur scripts. But what it should do is focus on bringing more spec scripts to light, whatever the status of the writer. That helps us all.

    The site has enough of a following now where it can take a relatively unknown pro spec and give it the push it needs. Of course, I guess the big issue is that most decent pro specs will have been optioned and most option holders won’t want their script sent out. But if the perception was that this could actually help bring that project to production, maybe that would change somewhat.

    • garrett_h

      It seems to me that the perception amongst pro writers is that they’d rather not have their work reviewed, period. And I can’t blame them. If it gets a bad review on ScriptShadow, the project is dead. So then Carson would be stuck only reviewing specs from pros he thought were great. And I dunno how that would go.

      Also, one pro with a couple pretty good SS reviews told me he hated being reviewed here, despite the praise. So it’s a slippery slope. I don’t think Carson wants to go down that road again.

      • http://www.facebook.com/kevin.lenihan1 Kevin Lenihan

        Yeah, you are right. I was trying to be optimistic, but I realized even as I was writing it I was whistling at the windmill.

  • ChadStuart

    One of those specs, “Flight”, just got nominated for an Oscar.

  • http://www.facebook.com/charles.ryan.509 Charles Ryan

    The first four were solid to good movies, the rest the were box office bombs or simply panned. Do you think in 2013 (as far as sales) the spec market will shrink because there were only a few well grossing specs? Or would it take two down years for the business to react?

  • ThomasBrownen

    Yikes — only one in ten is a spec sale? I knew the numbers were slim, but I didn’t realize they were that slim. Good to know, though. Competition keeps the pressure up, and that hopefully makes for a better product.

    • Citizen M

      Don’t forget a lot of specs sold are never made into movies. So for every spec movie there are two or three specs gathering dust on a shelf somewhere, but the writer got paid.

      • AJMockler

        Is that the genuine stat. 1 in 3 or 1 in 4 purchased spec scripts do get made? That’s actually much better odds than I thought it was!

        • Citizen M

          I don’t know the exact figure. In the past they purchased many more scripts and shelved them, maybe 1 in 10 got made. But that was in the heyday of spec script sales.

  • http://twitter.com/captnchris CaptnChris

    What about spec scripts that sell to smaller prod companies? Some of those films go straight to video or are more independent. Or is that not what were talking about and what’s wrong with that route?

    • ChadStuart

      Nothing, if you get paid for it. These scripts represent the spec sales that were released theatrically and how well they played. But there were plenty of spec sales in the last few years that haven’t, or might never, get made. But that writer still got a foot in the door and might be doing assignmnet work.

  • max

    Welcome to 21st century, where screenplays like CowboyvsAliens and Chronicle are taken seriously.

    Think about it… would Chinatown or Taxi Driver ever make it in the market today?

    I doubt it.

    Sad story bro. lol

  • JakeBarnes12

    Great article, Carson!

    What I’m hearing is it’s all about a strong concept, the kind of idea that can be expressed in a killer logline.

    Seems to me that means coming up with an intriguing dilemma. That’s something that struck me during the last logline party — most were poor ideas, and the couple that had promise were poorly executed. I remember Michael Arndt being interviewed about his time as script reader at HBO; he said the problem wasn’t bad scripts, it was the thousands of scripts that were okay to good– decent idea, decent execution.

    Looks like what we need is greatness, and given the money involved, it’s not really surprising. Just heard an interview with Alexander Payne about “Sideways” — a Japanese company wanted the rights to remake the script (movie apparently is awful) and sent him a check for $75,000. Way he was talking, it was chump change.

    Here’s to a year of honing our skills to try to reach those levels (both artistically and financially!)

  • garrett_h

    Another great article, C! Thanks!

    And for the folks in the comments that seem a little discouraged, just remember that the 1 out of 10 rule goes for just about every project, spec or not.

    I don’t have the hard numbers in front of me, but there are TONS of projects set up each year. Some get delayed, some get canned, some get put into turnaround, whatever. Point is, a lot of those “inside job” projects never see the light of day (and rightfully so for some of them, I’m sure).

    Making a movie is hard. Plain and simple.

    But remember, if you can land that elusive spec sale and get your foot in the door, the opportunities open up. It may not be one of your specs that makes it to the screen. But it could be one of your assignments or pitches that gets developed in-house. Then you’d be in the 9 out of 10 category.

    I don’t know of any writer that has made a living solely off spec (Eszterhas, maybe?) so remember that this isn’t the end all, be all.

  • http://twitter.com/LisaAldin Lisa Aldin

    What about SINISTER? Is that not considered a spec? I don’t think that was based on any other previous material.

    • Poe_Serling

      Excellent ? about Sinister.

      I’m not sure that was a spec or not… I know it was written by the film’s director Scott ‘Exorcism of Emily Rose’ Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill – Massawyrm of Aint It Cool Fame.

  • NajlaAnn

    I still need to watch Flight which is on my definite watch list. Some I’ve already seen [hubby's choice, not mine], others I’m skipping [the comedies].

  • blogwalker

    A great concept for a story works in many ways like one massive dose of dramatic irony. As a reader, you’re cruising through the material eagerly awaiting the arrival of the concept you’re so familiar with (see Citizen’s Mental Real Estate comment). Then once you finally arrive at the concept – and don’t be afraid to draw it out if it’s really good – it’s up to the writer to make interesting choices and create a great story out of the premise.

    Take Jurassic Park as an example. The ENTIRE TIME we are waiting for the dinosaurs to 1) show up in the first place and 2) have everything go wrong so they can attack our heroes. When you’re watching the movie you know the shit’s gonna go down at some point and that’s what makes it so entertaining. I can still remember watching the power go out on those Ford Explorers and thinking… oh man…

    I guess my point is use a strong concept to your advantage. Once you’ve created it you have a lot of play as to when you want to drop it into your story. And don’t forget to use it as a tool to keep readers reading.

    • Poe_Serling

      Steven Spielberg’s 3D makeover of Jurassic Park will have a one-week-only IMAX run beginning April 5, 2013.

      It will be interesting to see how much it makes on its 3D run.

  • garrett_h

    No, Carson is just about right. I looked at the list myself around November/December and it’s mostly book adaptations, remakes, sequels, or in-house projects. He may have missed one or two, but for the most part the list appears accurate.

    I think there are some more spec scripts in the 150 – 300 range, however. But I don’t think he wanted to chronicle all of them (for example, something that only made $5 million on a limited release) just the most successful of the bunch.

  • the monster

    So what lessons may we extrapolate from the nomination of both the script and movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild”?

    A heartfelt film about a young girl living on an island in Louisiana, with an abusive but ultimately loving father and wild imagination.

    It’s not a logline that would do anything on the Twit pitch search. It’s not a story with traditional storytelling tropes. It’s a dreamlike experience, sometimes making huge daring leaps which the audience isn’t quite used to.

    We’re used to having narratives spoonfed to us, or having pointless spectacle bombard our senses. But this was beautiful, poignant moving narrative, a story which is emotionally engaging, heartbreaking and triumphant.

    I propose in this new phase of Script Shadow, scripts daring to be different earn consideration too. ( and not just the gruesome ones )

    • ChadStuart

      But that wasn’t a script that was put on the market and sold to a producer. It was an independent movie that was made and then sold to a distributor. Scriptshadow seems to cater to writers looking to break in to the Hollywood system.

      • the monster

        How the movie got made is irrelevant.
        The hypothetical stands, If the “Beasts” script were submitted to this site, with its logline, would it have garnered attention.
        And if not, isn’t that a flaw in this vetting system. And since Carson has access to potential “Beasts” wouldn’t it behoove him to expand the scope of his thinking, beyond what the industry looks for.
        That’s the thing about an audience. They don’t always know what they want. The business gives them Big Macs. because they’re familiar with Big Macs. But if you give them a Beast of the Southern wild sandwich slathered in white wine and carmelized onions, they may just gobble it up.
        “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was initially a stage play, adapted to a film and independently financed, not a spec sale. This is true.
        But what if things has been different and the writer hadn’t gone that route. What if they found Script Shadow and submitted it, with its surreal passages and its unconventional structure. Would Carson’s rigid requirements allow such a script exposure?
        Maybe this site could do something different. But if you keep trying to push it as a conventional means into the Hollywood system, you’re a fool. To date the only script from here that’s come close is currently stalled.
        Time to think of a better way or fold the tent and go home.

        • blue439

          I enjoyed Beasts of the Southern Wild, but the thing about that (and most independent/art movies) is that it’s an execution-dependent film. In other words, it’s not the content so much as how it’s executed. When I think of Beasts I think of surreal visuals and a magical world that still touches on real-life places/events not it’s narrative, which is slight, or it’s characters, which are very broadly drawn. It’s really kind of a kid’s movie done in a very sophisticated way. The same script directed in a more straightforward way would probably be terrible.

          • the monster

            It would take someone with vision to read that script and be able to picture the finished product admittedly.
            And the industry doesn’t really hire visionaries to vet scripts. It hires bouncers basically who look at a script outside the club door, and if they’re not wearing an Ironman suit, or something with a franchise logo, it doesn’t get it.
            Script shadow has the potential to expose those ostensible nerds, the freak scripts, the outcast, the ” Beasts of the Southern Wild” scripts.
            You’re making my point. Because it hasn’t been done before by a website, doesn’t mean it can’t be done by a website. You want to just read scripts where you don’t have to think, where it fills in everything for you, that’s fine.
            I can’t remember the name, but there was a script on here, where a fox gets its throat slit. It was a surreal story but memorable and well written, and would be as you say execution dependent. That doesn’t mean a message board with so many astute readers and writers is incapable of seeing its potential.

          • JakeBarnes12

            Scriptshadow’s focus has been on breaking into the Hollywood studio system with mainstream scripts.

            You don’t want to do that, you’re interested in writing experimental or art-house or independent production scripts, that’s great, but you’re probably in the wrong place.

          • the monster

            I am in the place I want to be, Mr. Barnes.

            My old stomping grounds, looking for pretentiousness and people who think Script Shadow will actually be a viable avenue for mainstream scripts to break in.

            The business doesn’t care about this site, other than it pissing them off for exposing the work of writers before they’re realized onscreen and ruining their surprised, They don’t want their cadre of go to guys, their precious harems embarrassed.

            Name a mainstream movie currently being filmed this site broke? Not the stalled ones with question marks by their title on IMDB.

            What’s wrong with experimental btw, or art house. You want to tell Harvey Weinstein “The Artist” wasn’t worth making? What would you categorize “American Beauty” as?
            Oh, they’re commercial mainstream after the fact?
            A good story is a good story. Relegating it to the realm of indie or mainstream is shortchanging the public’s right to judge for themselves whether or not a film should show in their multiplex.
            Mainstream these days means mental real estate attachment, It means public knowledge of pre-existing characters and or story. No one here really has the rights to those kinds of things. So if that’s the focus, by all means concentrate on that.
            Or write something original, and hope people connect with it without affixing a label to it and handcuffing your options.

          • the monster

            Let me ask this, and not facetiously.

            How mainstream is “Fatties” a story which entails a scene in which a morbidly obese lesbian screws a guy with his amputated arm.

            I think someone may have lost sight of the goal, if that’s the focus of this site.
            I don’t care if a movie is surreal and indie like “Beasts” or if it’s mainstream like “Skyfall” as long as its good craft. This site should not discriminate, and so far hasn’t. Carson’s entertained all kinds of psychosis here.
            Well, all except mine.

          • JakeBarnes12

            You’re banned here, grendl.

            End of discusssion.

          • tom8883

            You’re right. Carson doesn’t discriminate. See my post directly above.

          • tom8883

            What it comes down to in the most general of terms is clarity. Carson is a hawk for clarity. And rightly so. But an indie script can still be clear. Drive is an excellent script that can certainly be classified as mainstream. But the resulting movie had an art-house feel to it. Art-house, and yet Carson loved Drive. Why? Because it was a great story with suspense, theme and characters spouting all kinds of subtext in their relationships. This is an important lesson. Drive offers a clear story but it is hardly a spoon-fed narrative with all the blanks filled in for the audience. It engages its audience, as all effective stories should. That Carson liked Drive is proof that at his core he cares more about how to write a great story than anything. Otherwise he would have come down on its art-house tone. He’s not against indie, it’s just that indie often lacks clarity. But again, it’s wrong to make the inference that indie = muddled story.

          • JakeBarnes12

            Drive’s art-house the way Kenny G is jazz.

            This site focuses overwhelmingly on scripts produced within and for the Hollywood studio system and on how to write for that system.

            What movies like Drive, Killing Them Softly, etc. show is that much more is possible within the Hollywood studio system than platitudes about lack of creativity in Hollywood suggest.

          • Malibo Jackk

            Sorry to be late. Just noticed your last paragraph.
            The director will tell you that the studio did not want to make Drive.
            They wanted a Fast & Furious franchise. Drive was made with indie financing.

            Not sure Killing Them Softly is a good example either.
            (Am assuming it required the biggest star in Hollywood and his production company to get the film made.)

          • JakeBarnes12

            Think you’ll find today most scripts require a big star attached to get a movie made, MJ.

            Returning to the larger point, we’re not going to be discussing scripts by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Abbas Kiarostami, or Leos Carax on this site any time soon.

            The focus is on working within the mainstream, however you define that.

          • tom8883

            Yes, you’re right, Carson is interested in the Hollywood system. And you’re right when you say that much more is possible in the Hollywood studio system. That’s why Carson believes he can change that system so that it churns out more quality. He would like to find a way to do that through specs. Turn that 1 in 10 stat around. He would like to eventually become a prodco that makes $ doing in-house projects the way the studios do but with a focus on money. And the best part is that he will open the doors and involve anyone who can create quality. For the mainstream, yes. Not sure comparing Drive to Kenny G is apt. I didn’t say Drive was art-house.The point I was making is that the tone, the feel, the atmosphere of Drive felt art-house.

          • JakeBarnes12

            And I’m saying the people who think that aren’t really familiar with art-house cinema, in the same way that people who think Kenny G is jazz aren’t really familiar with that art form.

            See how I’m not comparing the film Drive to the artist Kenny G, but rather what I think are people’s mistaken classifications?

          • tom8883

            Subtle.

        • ChadStuart

          I would think that if the script for “Beasts” was sent through normal Hollywood channels, it would be similarly ignored. Is that right? No. I wish Hollywood was set up to find brilliant works of art. But it’s a business, so they look for the moneymakers. That’s just the way the world is set up, I’m afraid.

    • garrett_h

      Grendl, is that you?

      • the monster

        What answer won’t get me banned?

      • Poe_Serling

        If so, we might just get a peek at his elusive lake monster script as it resurfaces on the suddenly tranquil waters of SS.

        Like I mentioned many, many months ago, I’m still waiting for the definitive lake monster flick to rear its head on the big screen.

        And the small screen? That beast was already tamed in the ’86 movie Return to Mayberry. Here legendary lawman Barney Fife and his posse (Goober and Gomer) solve the mystery of the Myer’s Lake monster.

    • CyclopsRobot

      As was The Impossible. Seriously good film, easier to sum up in a logline, but definitely not standard go to attractive fare. It was phenomenal.

    • tom8883

      I thought the writing on Beats of the Southern Wild was impressive–especially the dialogue–at least for the first third. It didn’t translate as well to film for me. Maybe it wasn’t raw enough. That cute little girl was just too precious in comparison to how I had imagined it. *I agree with you about the daring to be different. And it’s possible to do it in a way that still sells . . . .

  • Poe_Serling

    Argo is on my must-see list before the Oscar show.

    • crazedwritr

      you must do it. Even though I knew how the story ended, I was on the edge of my seat through the whole third act. That’s some good writing and acting, right there!

    • CyclopsRobot

      Definitely check it out. I found it to be one of the two Best Films of the year. It was phenomenal, and I am saying that as someone who hasn’t been a fan of Ben Affleck (the actor), but has been more and more impressed with Ben Affleck (the director). He really nailed this one, even better, much better than The Town, which I also really liked. Whew, run on sentences.

      • Poe_Serling

        Yeah, Ben’s building quite a nice resume in the director’s chair: Argo, The Town, and Gone Baby Gone… it will be interesting to see what he picks next to direct.

  • ripleyy

    Thanks, that’s really useful

  • jger15

    Wow still suffering from the gear-change hangover, but kick-ass article Carson!

    Would love to get a tiered breakdown of how many specs sold post 2000; of those that went into production; and then of those those that were given wide release with box office figures.

    Probably not possible — but any thoughts?

  • RayFinkleLacesOut

    No I think you’re misunderstanding or I am. This isn’t Carson’s list these are the top 10 grossing spec films in order of appearance on the top box office.

  • MelanieWyvern

    Doesn’t Snow White and the Huntsman qualify as a period piece?

    • Avishai

      Not really- it’s a very nonspecific time period, and mostly just fantasy.

      • MelanieWyvern

        Well, I guess it all depends on how you define period piece.

        I define it as any period that isn’t the present and isn’t the future. Yes, I realize that Star Wars claimed to be “A long time ago,” but it was in every sense, the future.

        I classify fantasy (e.g., LOTR) as period pieces. Snow White and the Huntsman was vaguely medieval, as all of the revisionist fairy tale films have been. Thus, I define it as a period piece.

  • David

    Afraid I’m in Mainz (near Frankfurt) for relationship reasons.

    Not exactly the center of artistic production. :)

  • garrett_h

    That’s a pretty good way to think about it. And being a baseball fan, it totally makes sense to me. Even the most successful screenwriters have a closet full of scripts that never got made, or even sold. I haven’t made or sold anything, but I’m pretty sure the challenge is what makes it so rewarding when you finally do succeed. At least, that’s how it was for me when I played baseball lol.

  • http://twitter.com/KennyNOL Will Vega

    Thank god I have two comedies (one ready to go), a high concept SCI-FI thriller that follows the spirit of Chronicle (take the sub-genre and do something different with it), and two action (one I plan to direct myself as a Robert Rodriguez-styled low budget).

    I’m also finding myself writing Drama now to get the hang of it. I find that genre the hardest to write, personally speaking, but if I keep at it I might be able to tackle that too.

  • ff

    Great article. Point being-keep writing original stuff!!!!

  • blue439

    I don’t know if Denzel likes specs so much as he abhors franchise-type films — he’s never been in one. He’ll do a run-of-the-mill thriller before he does a comic book movie.

  • Citizen M

    Four Weddings and a Funeral
    Notting Hill
    Bridget Jones’s Diary
    Love Actually
    War Horse

    Are these shit films? Is Richard Curtis a shit writer?

    Richard Curtis quote: “Never, ever in any of our films have we thought ‘we’ll do this for the American market’, Sometimes we’d change a song or a name or the word ‘arse’ but on the whole we try to make movies for home and then just hope they’ll work in the US.”

  • MWire

    “With our top 10 here, I see we have four comedies (one of those
    romantic), two thrillers, two dramas, one sci-fi, and one supernatural.”

    I’m golden. The script I’m working on now is a supernatural comedy.

    Who do I talk to about where to send the check?

  • GreggOC

    I would really like to see Silver Linings take this. It’s hilarious, it touching, and for a romantic comedy, it’s not afraid to get dark. Silver Linings is my faveorite rom com since (500) Days. I loved Argo as well and would be fine with that winning as well.

  • Age_C

    Very inspiring article, nice stuff, C.

  • scouter119

    good read. though the adam sandler’s worst film, was a bomb. and it receive a ton of razzies

  • JakeBarnes12

    You’ve nailed it, Avishai.

    Fantasy can attract hordes of geeks so is an easier sell.

    It’s an important distinction to keep in mind.

  • JaredW

    Looking at this list, another thing to keep in mind is that the majority of these are smaller-scale, mid-budget films, thus they aren’t necessarily going to do huge box office. Those that do big box office are usually the summer blockbusters, with some blockbusters sprinkled in November/December, and as you mentioned, they’re not specs. It seems the big specs that could become summer blockbusters aren’t getting made (stuff like Expulsion or Invertigo), and it’s the mid-size specs (Chronicle, Safe House) are the ones that end up getting produced. Right now it looks like the market is looking for more of these mid-size specs, which will ultimately end up with mid-size box office, IMO.

  • CyclopsRobot

    I thought Horror was THE go to break through kind of Spec script. Aren’t a lot of the ones that were written this year from Newbies? Why aren’t there any on this list? We are always told the horror movies are easiest for the Studios to buy, because they are pretty sure to make good bank on their buck. So, maybe others have asked this question…Why no horror scripts on this list, and is it a bad bet now? I doubt they are all being written in house. Any thoughts?

    • Michael

      You are right, Cy, horror films are cheap to produce and probably have the highest percentage for reaching profitability. This makes the films easy to sell and as safe an investment as one can find in this business. Many small to medium production companies adopt this business model.

      Not a lot of spec horror films make a huge profit and that’s why there aren’t many on the list, but when they hit the returns are substantial. Sinister, for example, cost $3 million to produce and did over $80 million at the box office. I’m not sure why Sinister is not on Carson’s list. I believe it was a spec script by a first time writer. It ranked 68th. That would put it in 7th place ahead of That’s My Boy.

      Regardless, horror films will always be a good bet and a solid “break through” choice. That will make Poe happy.

      • Poe_Serling

        Hey Michael-

        You’re 100% right. I do appreciate the fact the horror pipeline is always churning out new product.

        In an early thread about Sinister….

        The script was written by the film’s director Scott ‘Exorcism of Emily Rose’ Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill – Massawyrm of Aint It Cool Fame.

        I couldn’t find anything on the net saying it sold as a spec… with Derrickson’s track record, I wouldn’t be surprised that he and Cargill just went to the producers (one of them being Jason Blum) with the script.

        Producer Blum of Paranormal Activity fame has about 8-10 horror pics currently in post, filming, or preproduction. Some of the upcoming pics: Area 51, Mockingbird, Insidious 2, The Amityville Horror: The Lost Tapes, Dark Skies, etc.

        • Michael

          Cargill approached Scott with the concept and hammered out the first rough draft and Scott developed it with him and got it produced. I think because Scott is attached to it, it’s easy for people to overlook Cargill. How much credit for the overall content and final draft goes to which writer is anyone’s guess. The one thing I do know is having someone like Scott backing your script is like hitting the lottery, Cargill couldn’t have found a more talented director. Congrats to both Cargill and Scott.

          • Poe_Serling

            Thanks for the extra details.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Frank Scott, the go-to-guy for rewrites, has said that 90% of the time — he doesn’t know why the studios are making the scripts he sees. (Check out his BAFTA speech. He also talks about the problems of getting paid.)

    The easiest route to a sale is a great concept. Snow White, Safe House, Chronicle and to some extent Man On A Ledge have this. Flight has a great script and true story going for it. Not sure why the rest were made.
    What scares me is when you hear studios turn down something that’s a sure thing. Drive, for example. A heist movie with — car chases, romance, Ryan Gosling and a great cast. (The movie was financed with 15 million foreign.)

    Here’s the thing:
    The poster for That’s My Boy shouts — stay away. And yet people went. Half the audience hated Prometheus. Another half loved The Master. Make up your mind people.

    And For God Sakes, when a sequel comes out — the lemmings race to the theater.

  • tom8883

    The first third of Beasts of the Southern Wild script was great, especially the way the characters came through. Better than the movie for me, although I haven’t actually had a chance to watch the entire thing yet.

    • Poe_Serling

      Yeah, I see that Beasts just popped up in the Redbox machines all over the place…. so there’s no excuse for me not to see it. ;-)

  • tom8883

    Since it’s a business, you have to think of it as a numbers game. Personally, I think screenwriters should think of themselves as producers. Generate as many concepts as you can and enjoy the process. Those who enjoy the process in Hollywood whether they be actors, writers, agents or producers will have the most success over a long period of time. So generate as many concepts as you can and develop them according to the wind and as your intelligence, intuition and education permit. Some concepts will fail even if they’re great; some will get through even if they’re not so hot. There are too many variables involved. Just the politics variable alone will forever leave anyone thinking they can master the system a fool.

  • tom8883

    Paul Haggis is Canadian. From the same town as Ryan Gosling. London, Ontario, Canada.

  • shewrites

    Very enlightening article, Carson. Thank you.
    It warmed my heart to read that the playing field is even for comedies since that’s what I write.

  • NYANGL23

    Great Article Carson .Gives some writers hope.

  • J.R. Kinnard

    Interesting list, to be sure.

    I think your point about comedy being a level playing field is spot on. In fact, I have always suspected this. For that very reason, of the handful of projects that I’ve been juggling over the last few years, it is the comedy that I plan on using to ‘break in.’

    I think our natural instinct as writers is to push the project to which we feel the most emotionally attached, but that project is usually not the best foot to lead with. It’s usually challenging and intensely personal. This may or may not translate to the Hollywood reader.

    I forget who the expert was, but someone asked them what to do when they had finished their script. His advice was “Start writing the next script. And then another. And then another.”

    That was an important lesson, I think. If you are going to fight a battle, be sure to choose your best army for the fight.

  • Ken

    Attack the Block
    Dredd
    Les Miserables
    The Woman in Black
    Seven Psychopaths
    Pirates – in an Adventure with Scientists!
    Grabbers
    On the Road
    Shame
    Kill List
    127 Hours
    Never Let Me Go
    Tyrannosaur
    The Iron Lady
    Berbian Sound Studio
    Ill Manors
    Four Lions
    The Sweeney
    Sightseers
    The Dissappered
    Inbred

    I’m not saying all these British films are all classics, Logan29, but some are fun, some are well-shot, some do interesting things with their genres and some of them win oscars.

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