How Agencies Are Combatting TV's "Spec Script Fatigue"

Illustration by: Mattias Adolfsson

The 'Stranger Things' phenomenon sparks a deluge of material and backlash from execs and agents expected to read an average of 20 original scripts all weekend long.

William Morris Endeavor partner Ari Greenburg and his family were on a ski trip in Utah with his former assistant, now a development executive at HBO, when he caught a glimpse of her reading list: nearly two dozen original scripts that needed to be read before the weekend was through. Several likely had landed on her desk that Friday, and many of the producers and reps no doubt would be following up Monday looking to gin up a bidding war.

The crushing pile was a wake-up call for Greenburg, who urged his department to survey the marketplace to see if generating piles of specs — completed scripts that, if picked up, allow writers to sidestep a pitch and a bureaucratic development process — is the most effective way to do business. "The whole point of that analysis," he explains now, "is that we hear a lot about the ones that sell but we don't hear a lot about the ones that don't." And as the survey would reveal, most don't.

Sure, the approach often is pre­ferable for writers who favor more creative control, an accelerated timeline and the ability to approach execs with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. But both the quantity and the pace are becoming unsustainable, say multiple cable executives who tell tales of having to retain weekend baby-sitters just to get through their stack. "No script is getting our full attention or excitement because we just have to get through the pile," says one whose network averages 20 specs a weekend, a jump from the more manageable three or four not long ago.

That today's TV spec frenzy mirrors film's 1990s gold rush (when spec script sales regularly topped $1 million) is a byproduct of Peak TV, with some citing Netflix's impact in particular. Since the streaming giant doesn't adhere to a traditional development process, many of its highest-profile projects began as specs, including House of Cards, The Crown and Stranger Things, an original sci-fi thriller from no-name 30-year-old brothers. "Stranger Things was a passion project for us, and we weren't interested in spending years developing it with a network or producers," says co-creator Matt Duffer, who notes he wouldn't do it differently next time. Adds Ross Duffer, "We also knew we wanted to direct and showrun, and we felt we needed a strong spec script to have enough leverage to get that control."

Before Netflix disrupted the process, the prevailing wisdom was that specs should be reserved for top-tier talent (Big Little Lies' David E. Kelley) high-concept ideas that don't lend themselves to pitches (Brit Marling's The OA). Now every aspiring scribe in Hollywood seems to be harboring dreams of becoming the next Duffer — or at least getting staffed on the next Stranger Things. As a result, notes one top rep, "Every Tom, Dick and Harry writer has written a spec script, and it clutters the market for when a great one comes through."

Other factors include a prevailing sense that there is a buyer for everything (about 45 outlets are making scripted content, after all) and an uptick in the number of independent studios seeking cost-efficient ways to get into the series game. "What do all these companies hate the most? Pilot orders," says an agent. "It's a lot of money they're deficiting that they may not get back." Outfits like Sonar, Gaumont and Alcon are willing to pay writers upward of $150,000 to pen a script before calling on the agencies for help attaching a big-name director, producer or star to build a more appealing package. And bemoan the trend though they may, execs have only contributed to it by periodically shelling out big bucks when a package like True Detective comes along.

Going forward, the major agencies seem to be taking steps to curb what one rep calls "spec script fatigue." WME is experimenting with a Wednesday memo to buyers that highlights three to four of the top specs going out to networks that week. It includes summaries and stats on source material as well as a cover letter that spells out key themes, tone and plot points to take some of the burden off the reader. Reps at other agencies suggest they're encouraging clients to pitch when it makes sense. Says one, "I've said to clients, 'Let's rejigger this and turn it into a pitch,' because it's hard for younger or midlevel writers to stand out in a weekend read report."

The efforts to cut down on specs are sure to be welcomed by those bleary-eyed cable execs who relish a hands-on process the way certain showrunners do: "The more clickable sound bite is always, 'The network interfered with my show and effed it up,' but my experience has always been that they've improved it," says Damon Lindelof, noting that The Leftovers became a better show because of HBO's input as the idea moved through development. Execs' desire to be creative partners and not simply write checks is, in large part, why specs still are a tough sell at some of the most sought-after cable outlets. Per the WME analysis, HBO and FX have bought fewer than 10 specs in the past two years, with only a small percentage of those making it on TV. Says one agent, "The stuff that's actually getting on the air are the things that have a lot of fingerprints of these buyers on them."

This story first appeared in the May 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.