Thursday, July 9, 2009

Meet the Reader: How Not to Spec

Between contests and my usual work load, I have been reading a lot of spec scripts lately. In doing so, I noticed a number of things coming up over and over again that motivated me to formulate a little list of things that you probably shouldn’t do when writing a spec.

1. Don’t write adaptations of material you don’t own the rights to. Adaptation rights can be very difficult and expensive to acquire -- often far beyond the means of a humble spec-script writer. A number of people plow ahead anyway, seemingly in the hope that if a producer or studio takes a liking to their script, then the prodco will go to the trouble (and spend the money) to acquire the underlying rights. It won’t. It’s too much hassle. It’s much easier to simply pass on your script, which is what the prodco will do.

[Or you could adapt a work in the public domain. - Ed.]

2. Don’t write sequels to popular films. You may have a great idea for a follow-up to a popular film -- don’t waste a moment of your life writing it down. I think spec script writers that do are almost irrationally optimistic -- thinking that if they can get their script to the producers that control the rights to the parent film, then the producers will see how brilliant it is and decide right then and there to make it the next entry in the series. This will not happen. Sequels are big business and they’re developed in-house by a handpicked stable of highly-experienced, highly-paid writers. Outside scripts stand no chance whatsoever. This is simply a fact. Accept it.

3. Don’t write sequels to your own scripts. Sequels are only made if the first film is a terrific success. Since a spec script by definition has not been made and thus can not have become a terrific success, there is no way to tell if a sequel is warranted. So if you write a follow-up to your own unproduced work, people are either going to think that you’re arrogant or na├»ve. Either way, they’re not going to take you seriously.

4. By the same token, do not write trilogies or 16-part epics (that last one’s not a joke, I once had to wade through a 16-part sci-fi/fantasy extravaganza. It was a painful, painful experience.

5. Don’t put your production company name on the cover of the script, especially if you don’t really have a production company (they’re actually legal entities, not just a name that your arbitrarily slap onto a cover page -- e.g. Joe Blow Entertainment). This is usually done to make it seem as if the writer is a serious player and not just another aspirant (“Hey, this guy must be for real -- he’s got his own production company!”), but if you’re writing a spec, it usually means you are an aspirant. Trying to make people think you are more than you are isn’t going to fool anyone and you’ll just make yourself look less so by trying.

The bottom line here -- when writing a spec, craft a good, original story and then let it speak for itself. If you’ve done your job well, then trust me -- it will speak volumes.

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Ray Morton is a writer and script consultant. His books Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Making of Steven Spielberg's Classic Film and King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson are available in stores and online. He analyzes screenplays for production companies, producers, and individual writers. Morton is available for consultation and can be reached at ray@raymorton.com.

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