A spec script, also known as a speculative screenplay, is a non-commissioned unsolicited screenplay. It is usually written by a screenwriter who hopes to have the script optioned and eventually purchased by a producer, production company, or studio.
Spec scripts which have gone on to win Academy Awards include Thelma & Louise (sold by Callie Khouri to MGM for US$500,000 in 1990), Good Will Hunting (sold by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to Miramax Films for US$675,000 in 1994) and American Beauty (sold by Alan Ball to DreamWorks SKG for US$250,000 in 1998).
In 1933, Preston Sturges is believed to have sold the first spec script in Hollywood history. Fox bought The Power and the Glory for US$17,500 plus back-end revenue. The movie did poorly at the box office. However, in 2014 the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Originals were not smiled upon in those days, believe it or not. There was very little interest in originals in those days. [...] Studios, distributors wanted the assurance of someone else having thought a property worth publishing [...] In those days, if you went to a party in the Hollywood community and somebody would ask, "What are you working on, Ernie?" and you replied, "I'm doing an original now," the response would be "Oh." [...] Like they were a little embarrassed [...] If you were working on something that you were going to create all by yourself, they'd secretly think, "He's in bad shape. Working on an original." That definitely was the climate at one time in this town.
In the late 1960s, William Goldman sold his spec script Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Warner Bros. for US$400,000 in a studio bidding war. The script went on to win the Academy Award for Best Screenplay. This event precipitated a rise in screenwriters writing on spec.
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If the writer of a spec script has an agent, the agent will identify a number of prospective buyers who may range from small independent producers to executives working in the major studios, and attempt to build up 'heat' under the script. The script may be sent out simultaneously to all the prospective buyers in the hope of attracting a bidding war.
If the script sells, the writer may receive a payment of anything from a few tens of thousands of dollars to several million. If not, the script is sometimes dead in the water because it is now in the databases of the studios and development executives, and has been marked as having been 'passed' on.
If a spec script is not picked up, but the script is considered good, the screenwriter may be offered a writing assignment. Spec scripts are often written by unknown screenwriters looking to prove their storytelling ability and make a name for themselves in the film industry.
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