When I first decided I wanted to become a filmmaker more than 30 years ago, the Hollywood spec market was not the same as it is today. Back then, a starry-eyed screenwriter could write a big action flick and pray it got picked up and made into the next big summer blockbuster.
In today’s spec script market, that is no longer the case. In fact, it hasn’t been the case for many years. It’s not that a big budget script written on spec will never sell, simply that it probably won’t. Optimistically, chances are pretty slim.
What follows is not so much a warning to avoid writing big budget spec scripts. But rather, a quick rundown to provide you with a basic understanding of why that big budget script you wrote on spec probably won’t find a buyer and what you can do about it.
The Problem with Big Budget Spec Scripts
In the world of film and spec screenplays, nobody wants to take on an expensive movie project that isn’t based on an existing IP (intellectual property). An example of a movie based on an existing IP is the incredibly popular Avengers film series, set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Yes, the outcome is lucrative, but they are also insanely expensive to make. If we assume the tried-and-true formula that the cost to market one of these films is equivalent to the cost of making the movie, then Avengers: Infinity War looks something like this:
And that’s before the studio breaks even.
MCU movies have a higher guarantee of making their money back because they have decades of movies, comics, games, merchandise and an adoring fandom to tap into.
By comparison, your script has none of these things. Now you may be starting to see the other side of the coin.
Your Script as Viewed by Executives
When we look at spec scripts from the perspective of producers and studio executives (“execs”), here’s what they see:
- A risky financial liability
- A story that isn’t marketable enough (aka, not appealing to a broad enough audience to make its money back)
- A potential flop that could tank their career
Keep in mind that these studio folks are responsible to investors and their organization to make money. A financial loss can result in getting fired and/or loss of reputation that could take years to rebuild, if ever. Historically, two or three box office failures in a row can bankrupt a movie studio completely. In many cases, it only takes only one high-budget gamble to put the studio out of business.
Therefore, when a producer or exec looks at your script that isn’t based on an existing IP, they are thinking that there is no guarantee that:
- Audiences will go to see the movie
- The movie will be any good
- It will be able to make its money back, even if #1 and #2 are true (many cult classics were box office failures, while many forgettable films were financially successful at the time)
To execs, licensed material based on an existing IP means security and a higher-than-normal possibility of a return on investment.
This may sound like a way to weed out newcomers to film. While it certainly has that effect, it really just comes down to the bottom line. A financial success means they get to keep making movies, gain prestige, and possibly even a get a promotion—professional aspirations anyone can understand, even if they despise the system. (Don’t hate the player; hate the game. Right?)
Why People Write Big Budget Scripts on Spec
Truth be told, writing big budget movies that inundate the screen with jaw-dropping spectacle never before absorbed by human eyes is a large part of why many screenwriters go into the biz. Writing a novel just doesn’t seem to have the same effect on the senses. In my experience of writing fiction, poetry, plays and games, nothing compares to the exhilaration of writing a chest-thumping action sequence for the big screen.
But if writing a big budget script on spec is such a foolhardy endeavor, why do it at all?
If you haven’t embarked on this insane journey already, my professional suggestion is a strong and firm don’t. Practically speaking, it’s a waste of everybody’s time, especially yours.
Being a stubborn writer myself, I ignored my own advice and wrote one anyway. Actually, not one—but two.
The Good News About Your Big Budget Script
If you have shared the big budget spec script journey with me, then fear not. There is a path forward. Sure, you will be fighting an uphill battle to get your script out there, but your screenplay doesn’t have to go to waste. You still have options.
Here’s the good news:
- Writing a big budget script is a priceless learning experience that will help you grow as a screenwriter.
- You’ve proven to the world (and yourself) that you can complete a challenging feature length script.
- You can still use your script (or selections from it) as a writing sample, building up your portfolio.
- Your creative story can be adapted into a novel, comic or game, where it’s chances of success are higher.
- Have you considered using your script as the basis for a short film?
- It’s fun as hell.
See? All is not lost. You haven’t written yourself into a corner.
But next time, maybe leave the big budget spec idea at home. (Unless you’re stubborn, like me.)
Need help with your next idea? Reach out!
4 thoughts on “Why Big Budget Spec Scripts Don’t Sell”
thank you for this article
I have to say I completely agree with you, for the reasons stated, I don’t think anyone would doubt what you’re saying. I have 6 specs I’m working to polish, I just kind of went on a writing spree and I personally have found it’s better to put a script aside and edit it later, after taking some space, because you have a fresh perspective on what works, what doesn’t work, what’s great, what really sucks, and you can go into the editing process like you’re a third party rather than, “This is my script, it’s amazing.”
Of those 6, 2 of them could be made for as low as $500K and certainly for under $5M, just depending how you cast, how you make them, etc. Another 3 could be made between $2M and $20M, but I am confident having produced a feature myself that you could do them all for about the $5-8M range and have them turn out quite well. So that leaves the final one, which is the exception and violation of what you wrote above. I don’t think it could be made for anything less than $150M. I guess anything is possible, but a period action-adventure film set across two continents in four countries? Yeah, probably not going to happen for less than that. I will likely end up going the novel route IF the script gets great feedback from contests / readers, because it is that good of a story, it does have that wide of appeal, and it’s highly original. I spent years of research on the thing off and on, so the novel route is fairly easy because there was probably 15 times as much information I know as you’d ever include in a script (which is more of a bare bones affair). I think you miss an important point, though, which is who cares if a studio makes the thing into a film or not? It’s not a binary equation. If your script wins contests, lands you an agent, and studios can see you can really write audience pleasing, high budget stuff, you could certainly be hired to take a stab at an existing IP, you could get your other scripts some attention based on using the high budget script, and who knows, maybe one day after you build up some credentials as a writer, that thing comes back into play.
Let’s be honest your chance at success with ANY spec script are enormously low. I hope everyone writing understands that. I don’t write for money (I do corporate video work for that and have investments for that), I don’t write because it’s some ticket to fame, I write because these are stories I want to tell and I personally feel fulfilled having just gotten them onto the page. It’s like dying to come out, and when I finish a script of that story, I feel more at peace, like my idea has escaped. I’ve never written a script without learning an unbelievable amount, too, whether it’s about comic book stores because my protagonist owns one, or Nazi occult history, or the geography of Huntsville, Alabama, or even how travel agencies work because another protagonist does that for a living. It’s like I can have all of these amazing experiences of learning what other people do, how other people live, just through writing, and that’s never a waste of time to me. The work is the reward.
Well said. The best stories come out of passion and in writing that way, “the work is the reward.” Thank you!
I’m rewriting a script now that would be in the $5-20M budget range. My main character’s back story is that his father died in a California forest fire. I wasn’t really planning on writing that scene, just having the character retell it, but I decided it would be very useful for building empathy immediately so wrote it out. I reckon you could make that scene for around $10m as it involves a Malibu mansion burning to the ground! I think I’ll go back and rewrite it now as a weekend cabin in the woods, however, cos that could be done for 50k maybe?