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Schmucks with Underwoods
February 11, 2013 1:17 PM   Subscribe

Vanity fair on the rise and fall and possible rise again of the spec script.
posted by Artw (44 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
The article says that technology ruined the spec script, and that may be true, but it's kind of missing the point by saying that the next big screenwriters will be found via blogs and self-published novels.

The next big screenwriters are already making movies. Movie-making is now so inexpensive that anyone can do it, and distribution is as close as an upload to Vimeo or YouTube. No, the money hasn't caught up with it, but it will.

The big-studio paradigm is going to go away, and it'll be a few years before something fills in for it. Already, most big-studio movies are just going for spectacle and familiar stories than anything else, while the folks taking chances on new ideas are doing stuff online and using self-distribution tools.

The spec script market probably won't ever go back to what it was, because studios can't afford well-intentioned, smaller movies distributed under the umbrella of a few big tentpole pictures. But that's okay, because smaller, well-intentioned movies are getting made and seen by more people than ever before.
posted by xingcat at 1:26 PM on February 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


“schmucks with Underwoods,” a reference to the screenwriter’s typewriter of choice.
It was jarring to realize that probably half the population doesn't know what an Underwood is.
I mean was.
posted by MtDewd at 1:37 PM on February 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


My follow-up questions would be:

1) How does the number of working screenwriters compare to the spec script heyday?
2) Are screenwriters still able to use their spec scripts to get work? That is, even if the scripts themselves aren't selling, are they working as writing samples to get them hired to work on existing properties?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 1:39 PM on February 11, 2013


All I hear from agents in Hollywood and London is that the film biz is dead. All the action is in TV these days, partly because TV now handles stuff that used to be done in the movies, and because it's generally better. TV now takes risks, and it's also much more of a writer's medium. The director is often treated like a hired gun, whereas if you're the writer, you're the 'creator'.

People still want to make movies, but getting them through the studios is like trying to piss a kidney stone. The business is routing around all that with independent money and European finance etc but even so, when you go into a movie prodco, you mostly smell flop sweat, whereas the big TV companies are absolutely humming.
posted by unSane at 1:39 PM on February 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


DirtyOldTown, the amount of work in movies has shrunk enormously because the studios make far less, far bigger movies than previously, and generally will only hire so-called A list talent to write it.
posted by unSane at 1:40 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


(...and it needs to be based on a toy.)
posted by Artw at 1:42 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


A throwaway line from the article:
Thomas Edison’s first customers were so awed at seeing a moving image that they were sold on the medium just by watching a five-second film of a man sneezing.
"Haha. Old-timey people were so easily impressed.", I thought to myself. Then, I remembered that I've watched that YouTube video of the baby panda sneezing, like, a zillion times.
posted by mhum at 1:43 PM on February 11, 2013 [23 favorites]


It annoys me that a lot of the successes they tout as the "comeback of the spec" aren't really specs.

Someone buying the rights to Fifty Shades Of Grey isn't a spec sale. Studios buy novel rights all the time, and then they farm out the screenplay writing on assignment, to experienced writers. That's the opposite of a spec sale.
posted by Sara C. at 1:44 PM on February 11, 2013 [8 favorites]


All of the spec sales I've heard about recently have come with a big name actor or director, or both, attached, as well as a big producer. That's the only way you can do it these days, if you want to have a payday anyway.
posted by unSane at 1:46 PM on February 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


That too. Wasn't The Social Network on the Black List a few years ago? It's nice that Aaron Sorkin can sell on spec, but it's not quite the recipe for how to make it in Hollywood that it was in the early 90's.
posted by Sara C. at 1:47 PM on February 11, 2013


(...and it needs to be based on a toy.)
And/or a comic book.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:57 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Over here in on the TV side of the fence, this morning I had a conversation with another television writer who has a sideline in the feature world. He recounted a conversation with his features agent in which the agent said that feature writing was better treated as a hobby these days. It's not a viable career option anymore for almost anyone.

Most of my writer friends who are still trying at features are only interested in trying for movies in the four-million-dollars-and-less range. Because you still have a shot of a movie like that being made. IF you attach a name actor and/or a name director to it.
posted by Bookhouse at 1:59 PM on February 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Then, I remembered that I've watched that YouTube video of the baby panda sneezing, like, a zillion times.

Coming Summer 2014: Ah-Choo Panda
posted by perhapses at 2:03 PM on February 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


I work in both. But I haven't worked on a US feature since the end of 2010. Last year I worked on three European features and an international TV miniseries. This year so far it's looking like a TV show and possibly a couple of European movies.

There are a few little bright spots out there. For example, Blueprint in the UK who made MARIGOLD HOTEL and SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS have a bit of heat under them and can get stuff made (at the right price).
posted by unSane at 2:04 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Aside from producers of cheap reality shows and factories that make celebrity fragrances, who *is* making money on the writing side these days?
posted by The Whelk at 2:05 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Coming Summer 2014: Ah-Choo Panda

I'd pay to watch two hours of that sooner than I'd pay to watch 90% of the product out of the major studios these days.
posted by blucevalo at 2:06 PM on February 11, 2013


perhapses:
Coming Summer 2014: Ah-Choo Panda
With the lucrative rebirth of 3D, I expect your idea will be developed in short order as Coming Ah-Choo!
posted by whittaker at 2:07 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Whelk:
Aside from producers of cheap reality shows and factories that make celebrity fragrances, who *is* making money on the writing side these days?
TV Writers. Do you have any idea how good the residual cheques are?
posted by whittaker at 2:09 PM on February 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


There is money to be made in writing international TV series that play on (say) HBO and Sky Atlantic. TV always has time to fill, and they need controversial high profile stuff to sell cable subscriptions.
posted by unSane at 2:09 PM on February 11, 2013


I think the film business is suffering because their distribution model is suffering. it isn't that people don't want to see films, they just have so many other avenues available to them that they don't want to go pay to see them in theaters. for romantic comedies and dramas, a lot of the public is content to wait till they can see it via Redbox/Netflix because those movies don't lose much in translation to a home viewing. but a film like The Dark Knight Rises can still do a $160M open.

but with TV, you're either running a show that's popular and can sell ads, or is being run on a pay-cable station. so the money is coming from somewhere other than finicky weekend opening numbers.

..but the year was notable for two specs sharing “Die Hard in the White House” plots selling within weeks of each other. White House Down, sold for seven figures and was fast-tracked into production with Independence Day’s Roland Emmerich as director. It will be in theaters this summer, arriving just a few weeks after Iron Man 3.

HURL
posted by ninjew at 2:13 PM on February 11, 2013


I thought that the Die Hard in/on a _________ equation was universally recognized as a shorthand for the worst, most cynical kind of hackery. People still buy that shit?
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:16 PM on February 11, 2013


That's pretty much ALL they buy now.
posted by unSane at 2:17 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hey, I thought "Executive Decision" was pretty good.
posted by hellojed at 2:17 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have to admit the more I hear about TV these days the more I winded what the hell I'm doing trying to write comics. On the other hand I hate LA.
posted by Artw at 2:18 PM on February 11, 2013


( quietly works on TV pitch for a show about a brilliant but troubled lady lawyer in the 70s who is recently widowed after a car accident that also gives her the power to read minds and figure out her boss is working with terrorists. There are musical numbers).
posted by The Whelk at 2:18 PM on February 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


There was a recent NPR piece on reality shows in which a youngster in the biz meets someone who says he is a "Reality TV Writer." The naif says, "Oh, so you write like the narration or the linking stuff?" "No," the writer says, "I make up what's going to happen and tell the people how they are going to react and what they are going to say."

Ouch. I mean, you sort of know this is what happens, but it is still jarring to hear it flat out. What a miserable job that must be.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 2:20 PM on February 11, 2013


was universally recognized as a shorthand for the worst, most cynical kind of hackery. People still buy that shit?

RECOGNIZING and BUYING are not mutually exclusive. Even the fertilizer salesman can smell what he's got in the sample case.
posted by spicynuts at 2:31 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah-Choo Panda (treatment follows, spec script delivered this afternoon, awaiting offers)

Based on a viral Youtube video, Ah-Choo Panda is Kung-fu Panda meets AI meets The Day After Tomorrow meets Ted.

Everyone is so excited to meet the new baby panda at the zoo, but it was born with an allergy to bamboo so it sneezes all day. A young boy visiting the panda exhibit drops his bag of Doritos into the panda den. He leaps up onto the railing and before his mother can grab him, he slides down some bamboo to retrieve his bag of Doritos.

The boy fetches his Doritos and as he turns to climb back up the bamboo, he is confronted face to face by the baby panda, who promptly sneezes, sending a wad of phlegm smack onto the boy's cheek. He offers the panda a Dorito and, lo and behold, the baby panda stops sneezing!!!

The boy and the baby panda hug but their fun is soon darkened by the looming shadow of the panda's mother.

[Cut to scientists in fancy weather lab.]

Meanwhile, scientists are monitoring the quickening developments of an out of control climate. A huge wave is headed toward the coastal city where famous zoo and panda exhibit are located! Simultaneously, the climate has shifted and is rapidly turning into another ice age right in front of our eyes!

Just as the momma panda is about to rip the boy apart, the tidal wave hits the zoo and the ice age freezes everything instantly!

10,000 years later.

Aliens dig through hundreds of feet of ice, right to the spot where the boy is, still frozen and clinging to his bag of Doritos. They magically bring him back to life and he tells them he wants to spend one last moment with the baby panda. The aliens use the panda's phlegm from the boy's face to bring baby panda back to life, and he promptly sneezes! How funny! But the aliens also magically created the ability for the baby panda to talk! Imagine the things the boy and the baby panda will be able to talk about!

But all good things must come to an end. After the boy and the baby panda finish talking and eating Doritos, the baby panda must leave because he could only be alive long enough to extend the end of the movie. After a fifteen minute goodbye scene which seems to fill an eternity, the baby panda goes back into his den, BUT NOT BEFORE SNEEZING ONE LAST TIME! This allows the audience, which had been crying its eyes out and wondering when the movie would finally end, a refreshing bit of laughter before the lights come back on.
posted by perhapses at 2:40 PM on February 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Aside from producers of cheap reality shows and factories that make celebrity fragrances, who *is* making money on the writing side these days?

A network creator/showrunner who gets a show into heavy syndication makes as much money as any writer in any discipline outside of JK Rowlings/50 Shades-level authors. See: Larry David or Seth McFarlane.
posted by Bookhouse at 2:49 PM on February 11, 2013


Aside from producers of cheap reality shows and factories that make celebrity fragrances, who *is* making money on the writing side these days?

People writing comments on Metafilter? That's how it works here, right?
posted by Area Man at 2:56 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


This article has a couple of factual inaccuracies, but the one I can't stand the most is that it crafts this narrative that the spec business was killed by the strike because studios were able to pause and reflect on what they needed and how to accomplish that without spending as much money as they were previously. While the work stoppage certainly did usher in a new era of austerity in development, the spec market was already floundering long before the strike. Also, the notion that the studios are ever reflective is ... fucking hilarious.

All of the spec sales I've heard about recently have come with a big name actor or director, or both, attached, as well as a big producer.

But that's nothing new -- packages have been de rigeur for selling specs for years, mostly pushed by agencies because their packaging departments will clear ten times the fee that they would if they just sold the spec naked. Although we might disagree about what qualifies as "big name director" -- John Swetnam just sold SPINBACK to Lionsgate/Summit with Scott Speer attached to direct, whose only claim to fame is directing a STEP UP sequel.

But of the 8 spec sales I know of in 2013, only one, SPINBACK, had an attachment.

1) How does the number of working screenwriters compare to the spec script heyday?

This is a situation where the numbers really do show a strong correlation between the strike and a decline in employment. For the last ten years leading up to the strike, WGA employment numbers in feature films hovered around the 2000 mark. Every year after the strike, employment has been declining rapidly. FY2011, the latest number, shows just 1,562 writers employed in WGA features, down 8% from the previous year.

2) Are screenwriters still able to use their spec scripts to get work?

Yes. It's very difficult and it takes an extreme amount of hustle, but strong spec scripts can lead to paying assignment work or selling a pitch. Getting that first paycheck is tough, though, and the best way to do that is to sell your spec.

Wasn't The Social Network on the Black List a few years ago?

The Social Network was an assignment, not a spec -- remember, the Black List doesn't list the best specs but rather it lists the best scripts associated with that year. As long as the movie hasn't come out, the script can be on the Black List (although the rule has changed as of the latest list -- a movie now can't have gone into production in order for the script to be considered for the Black List).


There's another aspect to all this, and that is how we determine what qualifies as a spec sale. A lot of what are termed 'sales' are actually options for far less money than is announced. "High six figure sale" is actually probably a low or mid five figure option, to be actually purchased for mid six figures on the first day of production.

Scott Myers's blog does a great job keeping track of all the spec "sales" in town. He recently did a roundtable with six of the hottest writers in town right now -- including the aforementioned John Swetnam -- which is worth a read if you're interested in digging deeper.

(Full disclosure -- I've contributed to Scott's blog in the past and am also personal friends with more than a few writers mentioned above.)
posted by incessant at 2:59 PM on February 11, 2013 [9 favorites]


People writing comments on Metafilter? That's how it works here, right

...I have actually gotten writing jobs via Metafilter so what do I know maybe that's how it works now.
posted by The Whelk at 3:01 PM on February 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Getting hired to tickle someone's feet with a quill doesn't count as a "writing job" man and that was a private assignment I'm offended you would discuss here in the public square.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:22 PM on February 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


Hmm -- I'm sorry but it appears as though my links to Scott Myers's blog are kicking back to 403 pages. I tried redoing the list, but again it isn't working. It must be a hiccup on their side, because the links are fine. My apologies.

The blog is at gointothestory.blcklst.com

The spec sales are at gointothestory.blcklst.com/category/spec-script-sale

The roundtable can be found at gointothestory.blcklst.com/category/gits-q-and-a

Copy-and-pasting those links will get you where you want to go.
posted by incessant at 3:26 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


unSane: "DirtyOldTown, the amount of work in movies has shrunk enormously because the studios make far less, far bigger movies than previously, and generally will only hire so-called A list talent to write it."

Someone did a good job convincing me that the burgeoning indie movie scene of the early 00's was squelched for distribution issues. The cost savings of indie-ness were cut on the distribution side, both as A list actors demanded to be cast in indies, and the associated costs in mainstreaming advertising of said films.*

So just spitballing : at this point what we're seeing (for big-tent Hollywood type projects) are declining numbers of films created; with the limiting factors being huge investments in FX and a harder limit on branded actors needed for global film launches. This may actually be good for the industry, given that the pool of true A-list actors needed to sell huge projects appears to be diminishing, and replacements don't seem to be sticking*.

This has to result in pushing down wages for actors. So when do A/B list actors start taking *much* smaller pay-days for roles, and when do studios start investing in new distribution models for smaller films?

* I'm basing this entire back-of-the-envelope filmonomics theorizing on the basic inputs and outputs that I gleamed from that conversation...
** JT: I saw you in "In Time." 'Fetch' ain't happening, son... .
posted by stratastar at 6:01 PM on February 11, 2013


DirtyOldTown, I'm sure that there are reality shows that work like how you've described, but in my experience it's a bit more subtle than that. The producers know what they want to get out of their subjects and give them pointed prompts, and then will stage certain "dramatic moments" over and over again (while improvised) in order to get the best takes.

But without "writers."
posted by Navelgazer at 6:03 PM on February 11, 2013


John Swetnam just sold SPINBACK to Lionsgate/Summit with Scott Speer attached to direct, whose only claim to fame is directing a STEP UP sequel.

Googling "Spinback spec" led me to the ever-dependable Deadline, where someone claiming to be John Swetnam threw it down in the comments.

I am a huge dance fan and have enjoyed all four Step Up movies, but this premise: "soldier returns from Afghanistan. When his brother, a prominent DJ on the EDM circuit, is murdered, he must infiltrate that world in order to figure out the killer" makes me laugh so hard. I just can't.

Inexplicably looking forward to the martial arts movie Swetnam is writing, though.
posted by fatehunter at 6:37 PM on February 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


Whether or not one should respond to trolls in the Deadline comments section is pretty much the primary philosophical question of our time. Swetnam answered in the affirmative, and I'm glad he did.

I bet that martial arts script is gonna be bananas.
posted by incessant at 6:56 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm fancasting Swetnam's martial arts movie with Iko Uwais and Scott Adkins.
posted by fatehunter at 7:12 PM on February 11, 2013


I thought the new thing was optioning reddit comments.
posted by empath at 8:19 PM on February 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


On the other hand I hate LA.
that's too easy Artw. write something better. LA is the epicenter.
and I thought sneezing was the new thing.
posted by TMezz at 8:54 PM on February 11, 2013


..but the year was notable for two specs sharing “Die Hard in the White House” plots selling within weeks of each other

According to rumor (I can't even find confirmation of the rumor now), there was a sequel to Air Force One in the works that would have had Harrison Ford wielding a grenade launcher while defending the White House itself, but 9/11 made it impossible and it never got greenlighted.
posted by dhartung at 12:48 AM on February 12, 2013


I thought the new thing was optioning reddit comments.

Buy me a drink and I'll tell you all about that one.
posted by incessant at 1:12 AM on February 12, 2013


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       .=])' (;  ([
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       '=]): .)  ([
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          ~~----~~

posted by empath at 1:53 AM on February 12, 2013 [6 favorites]


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