As I’ve said before, one of your jobs as a screenwriter is to keep an eye on the market. You have to know which specs are selling, and which specs-turned-films are doing well. This doesn’t mean you should chase trends (“Another vampire movie got purchased! Maybe I should write a vampire movie now!”). Just that you should use the data to your advantage. There are some production companies, for example, who are looking for the next big trend. So by confirming no one’s purchased a jet-fighter spec in awhile, you can feel safe that YOUR jet-fighter spec is going to feel fresh and new. The point is, use the information out there to make better decisions.
What I thought I’d do today is highlight all specs-turned-films in the top 50 of the 2013 box office. That means no book adaptations, comic adaptations, video game adaptations, sequels, or original screenplays that were developed in house at studios. Some of these are tough calls because while they may be original scripts, they’re not necessarily specs (“Mama,” for example, was based on the writer-director’s own short film). I’ll use my best judgment for those films on the fence. Afterwards, I’ll highlight the major spec sales over the past month. I say “major” because I don’t want to include the tiny sales or the options. While I’m not devaluing those deals, I don’t think we’re interested in them. So, let’s take a look at the market!
(the number in front of the film indicates its ranking at the box office this year)
8 – Gravity
$220 million domestic
$428 million worldwide
Notes: I’m not sure I’d call this a spec. More a writer-director project, even though there was a second writer on the project. Still, it’s original material, which means it will influence the market.
11 – The Heat
$159 million domestic
$229 million worldwide
Notes: Comedies are the spec world’s best friend!
12 – We’re The Millers
$149 million domestic
$264 million worldwide
Notes: Surprised this did a little better worldwide than The Heat. Maybe the family angle made it a little more relatable?
14 – The Conjuring
$137 million domestic
$179 million worldwide
Notes: I’m pretty sure this was a spec but they obviously had to buy some rights to the real-life participants of this film. So it’s not a traditional spec sale.
15 – Identity Thief
$134 million domestic
$173 million worldwide
Notes: Man, this script was not good. But, a nice twist on the traditional ‘wacky’ and ‘straight-laced’ pairing by making one a woman. Reminded me that it’s a great idea to update old material (in this case, Midnight Run) by changing the sex of one of the principles.
19 – Now You See Me
$117 million domestic
$351 million worldwide
Notes: The magic film was one of the bigger surprises of the year. And the film tore it up worldwide. I remember when I reviewed it as a spec way back in the day!
24 – Pacific Rim
$102 million domestic
$407 million worldwide
Notes: You see how well action/sci-fi travels internationally? Wowzers. The biggest jump from domestic to worldwide yet. I remember this being a big spec sale.
25 – This is the End
Genre: Supernatural Comedy
$101 million domestic
$124 million worldwide
Notes: This is a spec sale, but a really unique one, with tons of actor attachments drawn into the story. Still, they had to work for it, creating a short film first to get people interested.
26 – Olympus Has Fallen
$98 million domestic
$161 million worldwide
Notes: Interesting how this action flick didn’t travel. Might have something to do with the “rah rah save America” message. I’m guessing this didn’t play in China.
27 – 42
$95 million domestic
no worldwide release??
Notes: This was a writer-director project with the purchasing of rights for Jackie Robinson’s story, so this isn’t your typical sale. Also, it goes to show that baseball movies don’t travel, probably because no one else in the world understands the f*cking rules.
edit: Sorry, boxofficemojo.com seems to just not be carrying the worldwide gross for some reason. Not sure why. Baseball’s rules are still confusing though!
28 – Elysium
$92 million domestic
$284 million worldwide
Notes: This is a writer-director project, so not a typical spec. Lots of people came down on this film, but it’s important to note that while it made $25 million less domestic than Blomkamp’s first film, District 9, it made $75 million more worldwide.
31 – Oblivion
$89 million domestic
$286 million worldwide
Notes: Liked the script better than the film. Either way, it was nice to see a simple sci-fi concept with a clever interwoven mystery do well on the spec market.
36 – White House Down
$73 million domestic
$205 million worldwide
Notes: HUGE spec sale. 3 milllllion dollars. Solid script. This would’ve done better if it were released before Olympus and had more inspired casting.
45 – The Purge
$64 million domestic
$87 million worldwide
Notes: This script is part of the new horror trend. Micro-budget ideas that have big hooks.
47 – Prisoners
$60 million domestic
$108 million worldwide
Notes: Million dollar spec sale. The only drama spec sale on this list! And it sold four years ago.
RECENT MAJOR SPEC SALES
Premise: The origin story (set back in the early 1900s) of Britain’s intelligence agency, MI6.
Notes: Another HUGE spec sale. 1.2 million I think it went for. 4-studio bidding war (the dream!). Nobody seems to know who this writer is. Some speculate he/she is using an alias.
Premise: An unconventional exorcist who can tap into the subconscious of the possessed meets his match when a 9-year old boy is possessed by a demon from his past.
Notes: A new twist on exorcisms, mixing the supernatural with the technological. This was reviewed in my newsletter recently. If you’re not on it, what the heck is your problem!
Premise: Pitched as “Training Day” meets “Das Boot.” A traumatized sailor must confront the fear that cut short his promising navy career when he’s forced to pilot a homemade drug submarine.
Notes: In my book, I note how there hasn’t been a submarine movie in awhile (they come out once every five years or so) so it’d be a good idea to capitalize on that. Someone listened!
Premise: In a Bladerunner-esque Manhattan, Nick Bannister is a futuristic “archaeologist” who helps clients relive and often get lost in their happiest memories. But when one of his client’s memories holds clues that implicate a wealthy and powerful family in drug trafficking and murder, Nick finds himself on the run to unravel a series of mysterious crimes which continually lead back to the very woman he loves.
Notes: Huge sale. Like 1.5 or 2 million dollars? A footnote on this sale is that the writer, Lisa Joy, is screenwriter Jonathon Nolan’s wife (brother of Christopher Nolan).
Premise: In a post-apocalyptic world, a man with the ability to speak the language of the undead interrogates zombies with the hopes of finding Patient Zero and a cure for his infected wife.
Notes: This just recently sold for mid-six figures. The writer, Mike Le, came on the site awhile back to talk about pitching. It appears his writing did the pitching this time around.
Okay, so what can we learn from all this? Well, the most obvious answer is, check the genres. Look which genres are selling and doing well at the box office. It’s comedy, horror, sci-fi, action, and thrillers. If you want to sell a script (and I know I’m beating a dead horse here), those are the genres you want to write in. If you’re saying, “But what about dramas?? What about Captain Phillips and The Butler?” Well, you just answered your own question. All dramas are being written in-house and they’re either adapted from a book or from a real-life story.
I was actually surprised to see a full FIFTEEN spec sale scripts in the Box Office Top 50. The spec script is never going to compete with IP but that’s an encouraging number. It’s also important to note the worldwide grosses of all these films as this is the studio’s new obsession. In Pacific Rim’s case, the film made three times more overseas than it did here. Action and sci-fi tend to travel well. Comedy and horror don’t. Which is okay, because comedy and horror are a lot cheaper to make. But if you can come up with a big juicy fresh action film idea that’s well-written? My friends, you are going to cash in. So what do you think? Did you guys conclude anything from this list? Or do you subscribe to the “Fuck it, write what you’re passionate about” approach?