Writing an "Exceptional" Spec Screenplay

Writing an "Exceptional" Spec Screenplay

Writing an "Exceptional" Spec Screenplay

There is one foolproof method to getting your start in Hollywood as a professional screenwriter, and it works virtually every single time. It’s as simple as this: write one exceptional spec screenplay. That is literally all you have to do. Once that feat is accomplished, practically everything else you desire will begin to unfold. No longer will you have to send out endless query letters to unresponsive agents and managers. They will start coming to you.

I know it sounds too good to be true, but it’s not. I have seen it happen many, many times. Back in the heyday of the spec market in the 1980s-90s screenplays like Lethal Weapon by Shane Black, Die Hard by Jeb Stuart, and Basic Instinct by Joe Eszterhas sold for millions of dollars in frenzied studio auctions. One of the main job duties for young development executives is to identify and chase down new material, and a hot spec script is like a big juicy burrito that everyone wants a bite of.

Writing an Exceptional Spec Screenplay

People often think of the spec market as being focused primarily on big-budget action movies, but original screen comedies like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure by Ed Solomon and Groundhog Day by Danny Rubin (a deal I brokered as a young agent) were produced from spec scripts.

Classic character-oriented dramas like Thelma and Louise by Callie Khouri and Regarding Henry by J.J. Abrams were specs**,** as was the iconic rom-com Pretty Woman by J.F. Lawton. More recently, just as we were about to head into the strike, a previously unproduced screenwriter, Justin Piaskecki, sold his spec screenplay Stakehorse to Amazon Studios in a near seven-figure deal.

These seemingly “overnight” success stories don’t occur frequently, but they happen regularly enough to maintain my faith in the system. I honestly believe exceptional screenplay writing does not generally go unnoticed, at least, not for long. This is something that should be received by every aspiring screenwriter as really good news. The potential to create your own screenwriting success is literally at your fingertips or, to paraphrase from Field of Dreams, “If you write it, they will come.”

Writing an Exceptional Spec Screenplay

Overnight Success

Before you get over-excited with thoughts of Hollywood fame and fortune, let’s define some of our terms. First of all, there is no such thing as an “overnight” success story in the screenwriting business. I don’t care how accomplished you are at writing novels, stage plays, lyrical poetry, hard-hitting investigative journalism, or grocery lists, screenwriting is a complex craft. I am not questioning your intelligence, your work ethic, or your creative ingenuity. It takes a lot of work just to get passably good at it. It just does.

To put things in perspective, I would rank the difficulty of learning screenwriting at about the same level as learning to play a new musical instrument or becoming fluent in a foreign language. In other words, it is an obtainable goal for many, if not most, people, but it does require considerable time and effort. You have to put in the work and—sorry to be the bearer of bad news— not everybody is going to have what it takes to make it.

Writing an Exceptional Spec Screenplay

Getting the Right Stuff

A good place to start is to read tons and tons of screenplays. Virtually any screenplay you can think of is available for free from Mr. Google and his friends. Learn to read screenplays analytically, the way you would approach a work of literature for a college essay. Watch the movies they are made from and figure out how to reverse engineer what you see on the screen back to the page. Veteran screenwriters understand how movies work at a deeper level than amateur film buffs, and everyone—at every level of experience—can improve their aptitude for this.

Contests and screenplay festivals are great ways to receive feedback on your work and get an idea of how your current screenwriting skills stack up against the amateur competition. You will need to do your research to determine which competitions are best for your particular type of project or genre, but this is an excellent way to hone your skills and learn how to work under a deadline. If you are not consistently making it to the final rounds of almost every competition you enter, keep at it until you do. This part of the screenwriter’s journey takes time, but eventually, the movie you are writing on the page will gradually start to get closer and closer to the movie you have running in your imagination. Then, the hard part begins.

The point is there are no real shortcuts. If you expect to be able to succeed in any highly competitive industry, you first must develop your craft skills. This is the real world, not “America’s Got Talent.” We don’t have to announce a winner every week from the available field of contestants. While certainly not perfect, the screenwriting business is, generally speaking, a meritocracy that recognizes and rewards true talent. Unfortunately, this means that not every aspiring screenwriter is ultimately going to have the drive, work ethic, or creative talent to realize their ambitions. Remember, I said it was simple. I never claimed it would be easy.

Writing an Exceptional Spec Screenplay

What is an “Exceptional” Screenplay?

The fact that I casually slipped in the adjective “exceptional” a few times probably did not go unnoticed by you aspiring screenwriters. I admit that word gives my argument a lot of wiggle room. “Exceptional” is a tricky concept to nail down, and I may have to fall back on a version of Justice Potter Stewart’s infamous attempt to define obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

Before you get too frustrated by that response, I’ll tell you what “exceptional” does not mean. While I do have certain standards for core competency when I read a project, I never expect any unproduced screenplay to be perfect and ready to shoot. That would be a true anomaly. I don’t care if you are an Academy Award-winning screenwriter or a Pulitzer-winning journalist, the early drafts of every single project I have ever worked on have always been in need of extensive notes and rewrites before they finally and laboriously get hammered into their final shape.

Most movie buffs only see the finished product, not how the sausage was made. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes editorial work that goes on among screenwriters, producers, and executives that’s not pretty to watch. In fact, sometimes it’s downright painful (especially for the screenwriter), but that vigorous back-and-forth dialogue from differing perspectives is often what is needed to bring out a screenplay’s exceptional qualities.

Writing an Exceptional Spec Screenplay

Groundhog Day

Let me use a real-life example to illustrate. When I was a newly promoted junior agent, I did not yet have my own roster of screenwriting clients. Part of my job was to read from the huge “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts that had somehow made their way past the proverbial gatekeepers.

When I first came across an early draft of then-unknown screenwriter Danny Rubin’s script for Groundhog Day, it was far from a ready-to-shoot screenplay. The draft I read was maybe 97 pages long, not particularly well-formatted, and, to be generous, somewhat lacking in terms of professional polish.

It was clear to me, however—and, subsequently to director Harold Ramis —that there was somehow an exceptional movie lurking in these pages. Danny Rubin’s concept brought a different way of seeing familiar things into focus—his unique approach announced the material as having something different from the dozen or so other scripts I read that weekend. It was the cleverly twisted originality of the concept itself that was exceptional, not my ability to recognize it. On some level, the material spoke for itself and created its own success. That is what I mean by “exceptional.”

Out of the hundreds of projects I read year after year, there are always a small handful of screenplays that stand out from the pack and make me stop and take notice. These screenplays are not necessarily perfect and ready to shoot, but they do something that’s different, something that shows me this writer has a unique way of expressing how they see the world. When I pick up a script, I would like nothing more than to read, think, or feel, something different that I have seen before. That would qualify as exceptional. That’s not so much to ask.

Writing an Exceptional Spec Screenplay

Getting Your Foot in the Door

As tough as it may be to break into the business as a newbie screenwriter, it’s just as hard to maintain a successful career as an agent, manager, producer, or studio executive. These people did not get there without being able to recognize talent when they see it, even when that talent is still relatively raw and undeveloped.

In the entire 100+ year history of the movie business, no executive ever got a promotion for passing on a project. They need to find new material to justify their existence. Making movies is how they get rich and famous and remain forever young. They want to find you, and you’re not exactly hiding. So, all that is missing from this potentially beautiful relationship is an exceptional piece of material.

I wish I had Bitcoin for every time I hear an aspiring screenwriter complain about how difficult it is to get past the gatekeepers. “How can I get discovered when I can’t even get agents, managers—or the head of Netflix intergalactic headquarters—to read my rom-com or my horror movie, my blockbuster action movie, or my heartfelt family drama?” I have news for most of you. Lack of access may not be your biggest problem.

Writing an Exceptional Spec Screenplay

How certain are you that, if you actually did get your screenplay read by the producer or studio executive of your dreams, they would actually be interested? Do you really want to hear from somebody whose only likely response is either “yes” or “no,” when statistically speaking, it is “no” well over 90% of the time?

If it were my screenplay, I would have made sure I had considered things from every angle imaginable. I would have brainstormed the concept with friends and trusted colleagues and sent them early drafts for notes and feedback.

As much as you love your screenplay and want to share it with the world, it may not be quite there yet. Good feedback is sometimes painful to hear, especially when it means your project is not as far along as you hoped. I promise you this—if and when it does get there—people will start to notice. Your screenplay will get passed up the ladder by people doing their jobs, and the gatekeepers will cease to become an issue.

Writing an Exceptional Spec Screenplay

Screenwriting is a Collaborative Art

Being asked to rewrite your screenplay and receiving story notes is not a sign of failure. Quite the opposite. It means people are actively engaged with your creative process to contribute ideas that bring out the exceptional qualities of the project. You’re a writer, you should be able to tell the difference when somebody knows what they’re talking about.

At the professional level, screenwriting is a collaborative art form. Professional writers working on assignments have producers and studio executives providing them with thoughtful feedback, story notes, and suggestions at every step of the way.

Think for a second how invaluable that kind of open collaborative interaction with other like-minded creative professionals in a writer’s room setting would be, and how much of a difference that kind of creative input could mean. You should want to seek out people who will look at your screenplay as a work-in-progress, not as a finished product where there is only a pass/fail grade.

Writing an Exceptional Spec Screenplay

How to Use Script Services

In my opinion, there is a smart way and a not-so-smart way to invest in professional Script Services. If you haven’t tried the Script Services here on Stage 32 yet, this may be an area where a modest strategic investment in your success pays off in major dividends. Be discerning when you select professionals to work with. Read their bios, and identify what projects they have worked on. Get a sense of their taste and sensibility, and seek out like-minded souls. To the degree that you can, learn to recognize good advice and disregard the rest.

Screenwriting is a craft that uses a different conceptual language than other kinds of writing, and it takes time to become fluent. Find someone who speaks that language and makes sense, even when they are telling you something you think you don’t want to hear. I would argue that is money well spent. Writing a successful spec screenplay is not easy, but it is not impossible. It can be done. Sometimes, the exceptional is hiding in plain sight and just needs the right person to point it out.

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About the Author

Michael Schulman

Michael Schulman

Story Analyst

Michael began his career at the William Morris Agency as an agent trainee and assistant to the world wide head-of-talent where he worked with top actors including Richard Gere, Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, Denzel Washington, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Nicole Kidman. After a move to ICM, and upon promotion...

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