Who the heck has a spec?


At the end of the first full post-strike week, development deals and script sales have been slower than many in the film world anticipated.

But is it the calm before the storm or the calm before more calm?

Writers who had three months to work unfettered, the thinking went, would have spent part of that time polishing their old ideas and starting new ones — pure spec scripts were allowed under WGA rules — and agents would in turn be looking to capitalize on studios' hunger for post-strike projects.

But a significant number of writers, it turns out, were not working on specs during the strike. And agents and studio execs who were expecting a feverish return to work have found that, while meetings are back in gear, deals and scripts have been thin on the ground.

Pronouncements of quiet have a way of yielding to a flurry, however, and there were reports late Thursday that at least one high-profile writer, William Monahan, would be turning in a spec shortly. The scribe behind "The Departed" and "Kingdom of Heaven" has a number of projects in development or production, including the Ridley Scott-helmed terrorism thriller "Body of Lies."

It's also possible that in a number of cases writers did pen scripts but that agents are holding them back — either because they don't want to create the perception that their clients worked during the strike, or they want to assess the financial health of the post-strike market for scripts without turning their clients into guinea pigs. "No one wants to be the first," said one agent. "It may all start to happen after the Oscars, when we've celebrated writers, to get this going again."

Still, the prevailing feeling among agents and studio execs this week was one of surprise.

"I've been shocked by how quiet it's been," said one high-profile agent, echoing the thought of many who were interviewed. "I knew we wouldn't see every A-list writer with a script, but I thought there'd be a lot more than this."

The timing of the strike might have a lot to do with the comparatively small output. Writers note that the early, stressful days of the strike segued into the holidays, meaning that it would have been January before full-time writing was possible for many.

The open-endedness of the strike also might have played a role; one studio exec who works closely with writers remarked dryly that "writers need deadlines."

If the spec market remains slow, it will be a contrast to the 1988 strike, which created a boom in spec scripts. That, in part, was what fueled the idea that it would happen again in 2008.

But as those with memories of that strike pointed out, writers 20 years ago were expected to picket only once a week instead of the five-day-a-week schedule of this strike, leaving a lot less time for spec script activity. They also had far more ways to exercise their strike muscles this time around, from writers' blogs to media campaigns — leaving less time for spec writing.

And the 1988 work stoppage lasted five months, not three.

Prominent writers are not likely to be working on spec scripts now, as they return to work on scripts that had been started before the strike. Production rewrites are the first priority for studios and writers, as such strike-impacted projects as "Justice League" and "Edwin A. Salt" get back on track. Those projects are especially urgent as the threat of a SAG strike looms; any project not in production by early April likely won't go in until after a SAG contract is signed.

The dearth of spec scripts could have consequences that go beyond specific films.

One effect: a breach between producers and writers might remain open, at least for a little while longer. If there was an abundance of scripts, that breach could have been healed after the strike.

Writers maintain that they if they didn't work it was because they had larger political goals on their mind. One studio exec offered an admiring line: "Those guys actually didn't write during the strike," the exec said, recognizing the time and attention they spent on the cause.

But some studio execs have been less generous, quietly telling reporters stories of writers who weren't picketing as much as they said they would.

It would take a writer like Monahan to unlock the doors on these scripts and finally set the game in motion.

In the meantime, less prominent writers also are expected to be turning their specs in the coming weeks. That could lead to some big projects getting bought, if only for indirect reasons.

"I'm still expecting that there will be some diamonds in the rough," one exec said. "But that's only because there will be a lot more rough."