If you’re a scriptwriter, then your main tools of trade (besides a firm grasp of English grammar–I hope) can be boiled down to having a rather overactive imagination, capable of producing scripts that think “outside the box”. If this applies to you, then congratulations. You’ve got the trickiest part down.
But these scripts of yours, what are they?
And by that I don’t mean you should ponder their existential nature, but rather determine the nature of their financial standing.
Are you getting paid by a financial body (corporation, company or producer) to write an adapted work? Are you writing scripts to produce by your lonesome? Or are you writing your script just to showcase your skills as an in-house TV writer?
Worthy as all these ventures are, you should know the difference between the two types of scripts: Speculative scripts and commissioned scripts.
When you first start out as a screenwriter, it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be commissioned to write a script straight away, not without someone within the industry being familiar with your work.
You’ll need to have some sort of track record that sings your praises. Has one of your scripts had the rights bought? Has it been optioned? Successfully sold?
And this is where speculative scripts come in.
In business, speculative is defined as high risk of loss, and is applicable in this case because screenwriters are not paid to create speculative scripts. You write them “speculatively” in a whirlwind of crippling uncertainty with the faint hope of it being picked up by those producers/agencies who haven’t even solicited it in the first place.
So why write them, if no one wants them?
Just because no one wants it now, doesn’t mean they won’t when they read your script.
Unlikely, you snort.
Well, yes. But you won’t know if you don’t try, will you?
So there’s conjecture and a lot of guesswork involved, if you have a killer idea, you should write it with or without a secure sale in place.
You might need a writing sample for a job application–one that showcases your comedy style and pacing for example, so that you’re commissioned for TV shows.
If you’re not sure who to speculatively send your script to (it’s basically the writer’s version of cold-calling), you should start by compiling a list of producers in London. There are several bodies in London (such as the BBC) which have a few pockets of window a year in which they accept unsolicited scripts.
It’s a rocky boat, though. Basically, there’s no safety in speculation. But nor is there success in waiting for a £25 k to come knocking (spoiler alert, it won’t).
So if you’re in this for the long haul, you’re going to need at the very least a portfolio of speculative scripts, excerpts or not. You don’t go into other jobs without being able to showcase some sort of relevant skills, so this is the main purpose of a spec.
In the case of commissioned scripts, this usually applies to seasoned writers, to those screenwriters whose work is already well known in the industry, and are paid to write the screenplay of a piece of work whose rights has been secured by a producer.
With commissioned scripts, you could be asked to adapt novels or other works with award-winning potential and that are already well-known in popular culture, such as The Silence of the Lambs, or Schindler’s List. Franchises like Spiderman for example, are owned by corporations who have a team of writers with their own in-house style.
If you are just starting out, you should definitely develop a library of material–at least two or three finished scripts. Professional portfolios usually contain a variety of spec features and some TV samples (spec pilots), mostly to showcase style, pacing and timing–the three things most companies look at in a writer (although ideas don’t exactly take a backseat in the decision-making, remember that ideas can be thrown about in a writer’s room).
Besides, there are perks to the speculative. You’ve got the added bonus of writing when, what and how you want, even if the risks involved of getting noticed are higher. If it’s awesome, the story will speak for itself.
The other positive spin is that speculative pieces can help you get noticed as a scriptwriter, if your script is circulating in the right circles.
Just look at Matt Weiner. He wrote Mad Men as a writing sample in 2000. It didn’t get optioned, but thanks to his spec pilot, he was hired to write for the Sopranos. It was only seven years later that he’d proven his worth and Mad Men was made.
Little Miss Sunshine was sold by Michael Arndt in 2000 for the grand total of $250,000. His script was speculative and was sent to the Endeavour Talent Agency, where it was picked up by producers. This was his ticket, as after his first speculative success, Michael Arndt was then commissioned to write Toy Story 3, the Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Juno started out as a screenwriting sample Diablo Cody came up with to show studios (at the time she was trying to get funding to adapt her book onto the screen) but Juno was liked so much it became a film itself. Which just goes to show, don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.
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Elena Alston is a script editor and content writer living in London. Recently graduated with an MA in creative writing at Brunel University, she specialises in screenplay editing and fantasy fiction, but also writes horror, sci-fi and satire.