What is a Spec Script?
May 9, 2023
If you're a new screenwriter you might be wondering what a spec script is. Well, it's spelled S-P-E-C, it's pronounced "speck" and it stands for "speculation."
There. We good?
JUST JOSHING! You should have seen your faces!
If you're reading an article titled "What is a Spec Script?" I'm gonna go ahead and safely assume that you'd like a smidge more information.
*CRACKS KNUCKLES FOR NO OBVIOUS REASON.*
Let's do this.
Who's Speculating Here? Actually, You Are
Writing a "spec script" means that you (where "you" = "screenwriter") have written it "on speculation" — in other words, nobody has hired, commissioned, solicited or paid you to write it, and you're doing it on your own. You're the one doing the speculating here — speculating that someone will like it enough to buy it from you.
In the financial world, speculation means that you're investing in something with the hope that it will generate profit or income later, knowing that it won't immediately. That's essentially what a screenwriter is doing when they write a script that nobody has requested from them — they're investing in themselves.
The thing about investing — it's not gambling, but it's not not gambling, either. There's risk involved in either activity. In the world of investing, the risk is that the asset does not rise in value and you lose your money. In spec scripts, the risk is that nobody will buy your screenplay and you've wasted your time.
Personally, I don't see it that way, however.
Spec scripts are how a screenwriter learns their craft. Nobody's first script is a home run. (Well, I know one writer whose first script sold and then got made and the movie turned out great, but they had obviously 100% forged some sort of pact with a demon, so they don't count.)
Most of us non-demon-contracting humans have to write several scripts before we start nailing structure, tone, character, pace and the dozen other qualities that distinguish a good script from a just-okay one. I've never met anyone that was willing to pay someone to do that. In essence, writing spec scripts is how a screenwriter learns to write for the screen. Specs are an important, necessary and unavoidable part of the screenwriter's creative journey. So in that way, it isn't really gambling at all. Although it certainly is investing in yourself.
Read More: How to Write a Winning Spec Script
(For the record: my first spec was garbage. I have hopefully destroyed all records of its existence. Second one was okay. Third spec was well-crafted but lacked a certain spark. Fourth sold. Fifth got optioned. There have also been awards and some pretty decent prize money along the way. So I think my zero-to-hero learning curve was pretty clearly "three spec scripts.")
How did all this get started? Well, young 'uns, let's pile into the way-back machine…
The First Spec Script
As far as Hollywood historians have been able to tell, the first spec script is attributed to Preston Sturges for The Power and the Glory in 1933, for which he was paid $17,500 and granted a percentage of gross profits.
Studios didn't react well to the deal, accustomed to movies being written by teams of writers, and when Sturges tried to sell his next spec script, The Great McGinty, he found no takers — until he eventually sold it for (checks notes) ten bucks. Why? Because the deal also included that he would direct the film, thus launching a legendary filmmaking career.
The spec script gradually became a more standard although fairly rare part of the industry, and some spec sales made headlines, like William Goldman's sale of his script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for $400,000 in 1967 (you know, back when $400,000 was a lot of money).
But the spec script became a whole other animal in the 1990s. CUE GRUNGE MUSIC!
The Spec Boom of the 1990s
The golden era of the spec script was the 1990s when studios and networks hungry for original content outbid each other for the hottest scripts each month. Alternately referred to as either the "Spec Boom" or the "Spec Gold Rush," the decade made a multimillionaire of recent UCLA graduate Shane Black ($1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout, followed by a then-record-busting $4 million for The Long Kiss Goodnight).
The thirst for new cinematic ideas was so strong that the story around town (perhaps apocryphal but I tend to think it's true) was that several millionaires were minted during those halcyon days that subsequently never got a single movie made.
Of course, no gold rush ever lasts, and this one didn't, either. The fever broke when too many of the high-priced scripts didn't result in box office success, and the business turned its attention to the increasing appeal of quality television shows that could run for years, or movies based on "existing IP", or "intellectual property", which is source material the audience is already familiar with, like a classic TV show, a prize-winning play, acclaimed best-selling novel, beloved comic book and even (checks notes again) a board game, video game, or theme park ride).
Specs still sell today at a rate of a few per month but the paydays are nowhere near the heights they once were for any but the A-list, firmly-established screenwriter — who is far more likely to be working on an assignment than an original work with no guaranteed payday. And a "sale" is more likely than not an "option," a small amount up front giving a producer a limited time to try to package together a deal to get the movie made. Full payment to be made at a later date. It's just how the business works today.
Should that discourage you from writing a spec script? No way.
The Calling Card
Eventually, you're going to write something fantastic (I believe in you!) And when you do, you're going to want to use that spec as your "Calling Card Script," the one that your manager or agent sends out to prospective employers as a demonstration of what you can do.
This is maybe the most valuable purpose of a spec: to create fans of your writing in the entertainment business, get you meetings, maybe even place in a screenwriting contest. It's powerful proof you can do the job because you've already done it.
If it sells, fantastic! But if it moves you up the ladder to any degree, it did its job. You won Hollywood.
Now, go do it again. And again, and again. And eventually, a sale or an assignment will come, and you can wave at us all from the top rung of the ladder.
Even better? Write something you can make yourself as a low-budget independent film. Make one that's good enough, and Hollywood will come knocking on your door instead of the other way around. And even if they don't? You made a movie. You did it. Your dream came true.
The Spec Script Landscape Today
For sure, it's no longer the '90s. But Hollywood is still interested in specs: The Red List and The Black List are popular annual charts of the best-liked specs floating around town that are still available or in development but unmade.
Some managers and agents will scan the loglines of specs that win, place or show in contests to see if there's anything they like. I got my first manager when he read the synopses for the top 10 finalist scripts in a contest — I came in tenth out of ten and didn't win anything (that time!), but mine was the only script he requested because he responded to the story. Then we met, hit it off, and then I had a literary manager.
To sum up, honing your spec script game can definitely get you on the map. Remember, the long-term goal is a successful and creatively fulfilling career. One thing the entertainment industry always has a taste for is an undeniably excellent spec — good luck in writing yours!
Read More: You've Finished Your Screenplay. Now What?
Written by: Karl WilliamsKarl Williams is a screenwriting instructor at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. He has won the Comedy and Sci-Fi Awards at the Austin Film Festival and the Jack Nicholson Prize for Excellence in Screenwriting at UCLA, where he earned his MFA.