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 And The Huntsman
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
That’s My Boy
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
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.
The Guilt Trip
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
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?