The Life & Death of the Spec Market

When you hear someone mention a “spec script” they are referring to a screenplay that was written for free outside of the studio system. The term “spec” means “speculative”. Its purpose is for a writer to create a screenplay based on speculation that the idea is cool enough to be a movie (and be profitable).

Selling a spec script used to be quite common back in the ’90s, and it wasn’t a pie in the sky dream for it to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars to millions.

In fact, back when the spec market was booming, most screenwriters dreamed of writing a commercial hit that would spark a bidding war and turn them into a multi-millionaire overnight. In some cases, this wasn’t too far fetched either. Shane Black was pretty much the name that’d always come up when these scenarios were discussed.

But like everything in life — things change.

There’s a Vanity Fair issue from 2013 that sums up the decline of the spec market quite nicely by saying:

“In 1995, 173 specs were sold. In 2010 the number was 55, roughly where it had stood for at least half a decade. What killed the spec market? To a great extent the same force that has upended so much of the industry: technology.”



The Highest Spec Sales & Writer Fees

Here are some of the most expensive screenplays that were sold on spec or just as a writer’s fee during that period:

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)
Written by: Will Ferrell and Adam McKay
Spec script sold for $4 million

Panic Room (2002)
Written by David Koep
Spec script sold for $4 million

Déjà Vu (2006)
Written by: Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii
Spec script sold for $5 million

Basic Instinct (1992)
Written by: Joe Eszterhas
According to legend, he wrote this screenplay in 13 days
Spec script sold for $3 million

The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996)
Written by: Shane Black
Spec script sold for $4 million

Mozart and the Whale (2006)
Written by Ronald Bass
Spec Script sold for $2.75 million

Evan Almighty (2007)
Written by: Tom Shadyac
The writer’s fee was $2.5 million

Medicine Man (1992)
Written by: Tom Schulman
Spec Script sold for $3 million

The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Written by: Shane Black
Spec script sold for $1.75 million

A Knight’s Tale (2001)
Written by: Brian Helgeland
Adaptation based on “The Canterbury Tales”
The writer’s fee was $2.5 million

Jurassic Park (1993)
Written by: Michael Crichton
The writer’s fee was $1.5 million, plus a cut of the gross profit

EuroTrip (2004)
Written by: Alec Berc, David Mandel and Jeff Schaffer
The writer’s fee was $4 million

Can You Get Rich From Screenwriting?

These days, most up and coming screenwriters understand that the purpose of spec scripts are mostly to attract representation from an agent, manager, or producer to work with them. Anything beyond that is a bonus.

Screenwriting (like most things in Hollywood) should never be looked at as a get-rich-quick lottery hustle, but in case you’re wondering about the possibilities of making a lucrative payday — it’s definitely possible. Writing and selling a spec script with it ending up in some ferocious bidding war between Hollywood studios isn’t the only way to make a pretty penny as a screenwriter. Studios are known to pay top writers very well who have a solid reputation in doing rewrites and polishes.

For instance, the runaway production that happened while Warren Beaty’s “Town and Country” was filming; ended up allowing writer Buck Henry to buy a multi-million dollar home based on the weekly rates he was being paid.

With that being said, it’s a well known fact that the average screenwriter typically makes their living from doing rewrites and polishes. How much money you generate from that once you’re in the door depends on you and a bunch of other factors.

If you’re in it for the money, then you’d be better off gambling in Vegas or playing the stock market.

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