What Do I Need to Know About Writing Spec Scripts? Your Questions are Answered!

Susan Kouguell dives deep into questions about writing spec scripts, including steps for selling your screenplay, rewrite advice, and more!
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writing spec scripts

With over 25 years of teaching screenwriting at universities and script consulting, I often believe that I’ve probably heard and read it all.

I’ve heard (and lived it myself)—“My script almost got made, but…” Fill in the heartbreaking blanks.

Over the last decades I’ve read the most brilliant scripts that were in development hell and never made it to the silver screen. I labored over just about the worst scripts (you can define that for yourself—whether it’s lack of story, stilted dialogue, endless action paragraphs that offer equally endless back-story, cringe-worthy characters, and so on) and yes, I have seen these scripts end up on that silver screen. I’ve sat there in the dark movie theater, appalled, if not crying out of frustration, that these movies got made. Don’t get me wrong, I’m always sincerely happy for the writers who get their movies produced yet honestly dismayed by the fact that somehow they did get produced.

But I digress. Let’s stay positive here.

The following are the most common questions posed by my Su-City Pictures East, LLC clients, my students, and seminar attendees about spec scripts.

What exactly is a spec script?

A spec script is a screenplay that is written on speculation—meaning without payment or before a deal has been negotiated.

How likely is it that I will sell my spec script?

Selling a script is like winning the lottery. Someone has to win the lottery… and some writers do sell their spec scripts!

I know, you didn’t want to read that this all sounds like a huge gamble.

To keep sane and not discouraged against the staggering odds, it’s important to keep in mind three potential goals:

You want:

  1. to get your script sold;
  2. to get your script produced; and
  3. to have it serve as a writing sample for future work.

How many rewrites do I need to do before I finish my spec script?

This question has been posed to me probably on a daily basis by my clients and students, and it’s usually prefaced with, “I know you don’t know the answer but…”

Right. There is no definitive answer.

My response is always the same: It depends on your own gut instincts, along with the feedback you are getting from a script consultant, film industry executive, trusted friend or family member who will tell you the absolute truth.

You may be able to nail your script in a couple of drafts or it may take 30 drafts or more. The number of rewrites is not a reflection of your talent.

How much money can a beginning screenwriter expect to make by selling a spec script?

It depends on the market, the type of project it is, and who’s buying: a Hollywood studio, which could offer thousands of dollars or more, or an independent production company, which could pay you significantly less.

Read the WGA schedule of minimums to get an overall idea of how this works.

What are the steps to getting my spec script sold?

  1. Write a great script. (Yep! That one’s obvious (and I see your collective eye rolls) but take your time and don’t submit your script until it’s the best it can be.)
  2. Write a strong query letter that will entice an executive to request to read your script.
  3. Compose a strong synopsis that demonstrates why your script needs to be made and how it is unique.
  4. Prepare a powerful pitch that will inspire an executive to buy your idea and/or script.
  5. Target the production companies, studios, and talent (actors, directors, producers) that are a solid fit for your script.
  6. You’ve heard the joke: “What’s the best way to Carnegie Hall? … Practice. Practice. Practice.” What’s the best way to break into the film business? “Network. Network. Network.” Writing is solitary, but the film industry is all about connections. No matter where you live, find a way to make personal contacts with industry professionals. Attending script conferences, pitch festivals, and film festivals are ways to make connections.
  7. Find representation. Query agents, managers, and entertainment attorneys. Notable script competitions often offer opportunities to connect with representation.

Final advice

Patience is a virtue. It’s not just an old adage, it’s the mantra to chant daily.

Don’t submit your spec script to film industry folks unless it’s absolutely ready and not because you’re tired of it. It’s tough enough to get film industry folks to read your work, but once they reject it, it’s nearly impossible for them to reconsider. Your script is your calling card so put your best screenplay forward! 

More articles by Susan Kouguell

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