Ray Morton shares a list of some of the spec-script trends that are going full blast right now to inform you on whether you should jump on the movie trends wagon or stick with original ideas.
As all avid moviegoers know, the film business loves trends. If one slasher movie hits it big at the box office, you can be sure twenty-five more will follow in the ensuing decade. If a rom-com rakes it in, a whole bunch meet-cutes will soon be on the way. If an action flick featuring two mismatched buddy cops sells tickets, then it’s a safe bet many more Lethal Die Hard Weapons will soon be playing at a theater near you.
Obviously, for producers to jump on a trend they need screenplays in the same vein as the bandwagon they are attempting to emulate. Despite this, it’s not a great idea for aspiring spec script writers to chase trends.
The main reason for this is that by the time a film trend becomes noticeable to folks outside the industry, it’s already old news inside the business. Those working inside the industry are aware of movies coming down the pike long before the outside world is. If a film smells like it’s going to be a hit, producers and studios are already looking for similar material well ahead of its release. Which means that working writers have already either dug up old scripts that fit the bill or are hard at work on new ones that will. Even if a film turns out to be a surprise hit, working writers will be aware that producers are looking to follow up long before the general public does.
What all this means is that if you are an aspiring screenwriter looking to break in but not yet working in the industry, by the time you see the trend happening and start work on a spec to capitalize on it, there are already dozens, if not hundreds, or similar scripts already floating around the industry. And while people may be interested in the second or third or even the eleventh iteration of a concept or idea, no one is ever going to be interested in the 162nd.
I read a lot of specs and so I am in a decent position to track what trends aspiring spec script writers are following. Most trends last a few years and then peter out, although the imitation-Tarantino trend lasted for the better part of fifteen years (it’s only relatively recently that I no longer have to wade through piles of scripts about pop culture-referencing hit men and, believe me, that makes me one happy dude).
Here’s a list of some of the spec trends that are going full blast right now – and therefore are the sorts of scripts you really shouldn’t be writing.
Due primarily to the tremendous success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superheroes are the dominant trend in mainstream Hollywood films these days – there are some months where it seems every (or at least every other) movie that comes out features a costumed avenger of one sort or another.
Seeking to capitalize on the trend, many spec script writers have penned or are penning superhero scripts of their own. These scripts usually fall into one of three categories:
- Original superheroes: unable to afford the licensing fees for existing characters, many spec script writers have invented their own original four-color champions. The thing is, no producer or studio wants to make a movie about an original superhero. These days, MBA-trained studio execs are only interested in sure things – in properties that have already proven themselves to be successful in other iterations, with the hope being that if audiences liked a particular comic book, novel, toy, game, or TV show, then they will be eager to see that property transformed into a movie. Or, if they liked a previous movie, that they will be eager to see that movie sequelized or remade. Original properties and therefore original superheroes don’t have a proven commercial track record and therefore the production entities aren’t interested.
- Regular people becoming superheroes: the notion of a regular person living in the “real” world who suddenly gains powers similar to those of the extraordinary beings featured in comic books and then self-consciously patterns him/herself after those comic book heroes is a decent concept for a movie, which is why hundreds of writers this year alone have written their own versions of it – sometimes in straightforward fashion, sometimes as a comedy. Some of these scripts are good, many of them are not, but it doesn’t matter either way because the market is glutted with them and they feature original superheroes (see above).
- Asshole superheroes: Superheroes generally represent what is best in mankind, so it’s natural that many writers have wondered what if that ideal is turned on its head? The result has been a steady stream of specs about superheroes who are jerks – who are selfish, and slovenly, don’t care about saving others, and/or use their powers for evil rather than for good. The problem is that this ground has already been covered by a mainstream hit (Hancock) and some smaller-scale and indie films (Chronicle and Brightburn) and there’s not a massive clamoring before. Also – original superheroes (see above).
Dark and Gritty Versions of Classic Characters
The success of The Dark Knight, Man of Steel, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and Snow White and the Huntsman has led to a whole stream of scripts that offer a grimmer and more serious (no humor or fun allowed) take on classic characters. There are lots in development and tons more floating around – most so dark and gritty that they read like a parody of dark and gritty -- so if you can spare me from having to read yet another iteration of Claus, I would greatly appreciate it.
YA Fantasy Trilogies
In the aftermath of The Lord of the Rings, quite a few spec writers churned out their own three-part fantasy epics about wizards, elves, and magical quests across imaginary lands. Just about all of them were horrible – extremely derivative, often impenetrable in their lexicon and their mythology, and always very, very long (fantasy spec writers seem to be incapable of writing tight). And that was only the first parts (there is nothing more soul-crushing than to slog through 180 pages of bad imitation Tolkien only to find that the narrative has not been concluded and that you’re actually going to have to slog through two more of these things before you find out how the story ends. Thanks to this, I now skip ahead to the end of every fantasy spec and if I see the words “End of Part I,” I immediately deduct ten points).
The pseudo-LOTR trilogy trend has subsided (somewhat – I still get more three-parters submitted to me in one year than the Geneva Conventions should allow). In its place has arisen the Young Adult fantasy trilogy onslaught. Thanks to the box office success of the Twilight and Hunger Games series, speccers the world over are busy dreaming up all-new dystopian worlds for their teenage heroes to conquer over the course of three screenplays. However, the YA fantasy trend is already well under-way (as evidenced by the Maze Runner and Divergent series) and may have even peaked (given the lackluster box office response to the final Divergent installments and the resultant cancellation of the final chapter). There are a number of similar movies already in production and/or development and plenty of additional book series to choose from should the trend continue. So there really is no need for speccers to churn out any more. And – as with superheroes – the YA fantasy movie trend got started because the book series they were based on were best sellers. Their IP was prove, which is why the studios were interested in the first place. They’re not interested in original fantasy IP with no sales record.
Scatological R-rated Comedies
The R-rated comedy trend has been with us for a long while now. It waxes and wanes, but every time the trend seems to be petering out, a new raunchy yukker comes along to keep the movement going. And so, development folks continue to receive a steady stream of gross-out humor-filled specs. This may be one trend that spec script writers wouldn’t be completely wasting their time trying to follow, as a really good R-rated comedy script is still something producers are desperate for. The problem is that most of the writers who churn out these specs put too much emphasis on the R-rated and not enough on the comedy. Gross by itself is not funny – it still has to be placed in a humorous context. This is something the authors of 99% of these specs don’t seem to realize. I recently read a script that contained multiple fart, diarrhea, projectile vomit, blow job, ejaculation, and ingesting of foul substances scenes in the first twenty pages alone. There were moments when I wasn’t sure if I was reading a screenplay intended for a major picture or one meant for a porn flick or simply a list of Ebola symptoms. I’m not a prude, but geez guys, come on. So, while I did a lot of wincing while reading this piece, I never laughed once. Therefore, if you are going to pen a gross-out comedy, keep in mind that there are already hundreds of them out there and they’ve all mastered the art of repulsing their readers. If you want you work to stand out, you better make it funny or else don’t bother.
70s Rock Star Biopics
No one expected Bohemian Rhapsody to be the smash hit that it was. Even so, Rocketman was already in the works by the time BR opened and Stardust was greenlit not long after. There are lots more coming, so it’s already too late to get started on that behind-the-scenes expose of The Starland Vocal Band you’ve always dreamed of writing.
Rather than follow trends, it’s best for aspiring spec script writers to focus on creating something fresh and new. Don’t follow trends, start them.
Copyright © 2019 by Ray Morton
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