The Return of the Spec Script Buyer

David Plunkert

Original material is hot again as money flows after a long strike hangover.

It’s a sign of just how far the spec market has fallen that even a glimmer of activity has sparked hope among screenwriters of a resurgence, as nearly all the major studios are suddenly spending money on original material.

“It’s all on a case-by-case basis, and it depends on the material and on the size,” says Gersh lit agent Greg Pedicin, who repped the recent sale of Chris Bullett’s The Nameless to Valhalla Motion Pictures. “But I haven’t seen this in more than four years, since before the writers strike.”

The damaging hangover from the WGA’s 2007-08 work stoppage has been heavy and widespread, but there has been a surge of acquisitions during the past few weeks. In addition to Bullett’s action thriller, Universal bought the raunchy comedy Dirty Grandpa by John Phillips, Warner Bros. grabbed the action thriller Line of Sight by F. Scott Frazier, Disney picked up the teen comedy Something Cliqued by Karen Bloch Morse, Sony purchased The Slackfi Project by Howard Overman and the sci-fi spec Agent OX by Daniel Kunka, Montecito bought Jeff Lowell’s Monsters of the Midway, and Fox is buying thriller The Last Witness by Stefan Jaworski.

Observers are wondering if this is simply part of the annual cycle that sees studios, flush with refreshed budgets, spending cash early in the year, as opposed to any kind of permanent revival. A majority of the deals thus far have been relatively low-cost investments in rookie scribes rather than big-ticket screenwriters. But many consider the mini-trend a sign: With so many writers scrambling for the few available jobs, specs have again become just as viable an option to find success.

“I don’t think it’s an anomaly; I think it’s a tectonic shift,” says Up in the Air co-writer Sheldon Turner, who notes that even well-established writers with six- or seven-figure quotes are looking to specs these days. “It’s fueled by the drastic change in the business. There are so many frustrated writers who aren’t working and who want to work, and they don’t know what to do with their energy and their free time.”

Producer Roy Lee, who has Shawn Christensen’s spec-originated Abduction set for release by Lionsgate in September, has a similar take on the situation. “A lot of reps are advising their clients that are less and less active in the open writing-assignment gigs, ‘Instead of trying to fight for one of the slots amongst 20-30 other writers, you’re better off taking some shot at working with a producer to write a spec,’ ” Lee says.

Because the dearth of development work at studios has led to smaller deals for those who get jobs, collaborating at ground level with a strong producer allows a writer to have more control and the hope of assembling a complete package that might attract a studio. (Because of the barren landscape, agents are more willing to send a spec to a director or actor client even without an offer from a studio.)

“I have noticed in the last year or two that if we have an idea and we go to a writer, they would be willing to write it on spec,” says Stuber Productions exec Pam Abdy, speaking from the Hungary set of Universal’s 47 Ronin. “Even a lot more agents are saying, ‘My clients would be willing to write an idea on spec.’ ”

At best, recent sales have created a sense of optimism that there is more willingness on the part of studios to invest in emerging writers.

“For this new generation of voices, spec sales are the start of their careers,” says Anonymous Content manager Bard Dorros, whose client Max Werner’s first screenplay sale, the Halloween comedy Fun Size, is being made by Paramount. “When specs weren’t selling, it was tougher to launch talented writers.”

Reps acknowledge that they still need to be cautious and targeted and that it’s shrewd to get in with producers early and develop a screenplay before pitching one of the studios, which have become less interested in developing anything from scratch. The appetite for prebranded tentpole fare isn’t going away anytime soon, but the new spec activity has some industry corners hoping it’s a sign that the majors are loosening up.

Everyone is waiting to see if the movement continues. Specs including the Peter Pan tweak Neverland by John Swetnam and missing-person thriller Transatlantic by Anthony Jaswinski are floating through the burbling market.

“I don’t know that we’re out of the woods — or if the woods have just transformed into weeds — but the good news is that people are not acting day to day out of fear as much as they did maybe six months ago,” says producer Mark Gordon, whose Source Code, a spec written by Ben Ripley, had its world premiere at South by Southwest. “The studio heads were so frozen because they didn’t quite know what to do. The DVD market was going to hell; they were figuring out what was going to replace it; the costs were going up. They were able to rely on their older development and the things that they had in their trunks, but now it’s caught up with them, and they need to start buying things.”