Monday, July 13, 2015

No one wants to read your spec for existing feature IP

I got a recent email that really touches on an issue I've addressed at least a few times before. My first impulse was to just link to those old posts, but as I reread the question, a couple other things jumped out at me. To be blunt, there was a lot of presumption on the part of the writer and I felt like it might be useful to go nearly line-by-line here and point out a few things.

I have written an exemplary screenplay on the iconic female DC Comics character, Wonder Woman that I'm determined to get in the hands of a DC Comics/Warner Brothers studio exec.

Let me stop you right there and direct you to this post about why you don't want to play with other people's toys.

As she finds herself in a screenwriting limbo over at her home studio, I found a way to prevail over some, if not all the obstacles her previous writer(s) faced.

Really? Screenwriting limbo? That's a weird way to describe a project that goes into production this fall, has a director and a lead actress attached and that has SIX writers working on the script.

We can debate the wisdom of putting six writers to work simultaneously, but the fact is, WB has people working on this already.

Also, how can you know you prevailed over "all the obstacles her previous writers faced?" Have you read the earlier scripts? Talked to the executives steering the project about what didn't work for them in earlier versions?

Do you have first-hand knowledge of what those "obstacles" were? Because if not, it sounds like you're talking out of school - and doing it in the course of pitching people who DO know what went on with those earlier scripts.

I have the completed screenplay ready, but it’s nearly impossible to get it seen by the right people. I talked to Warner Brothers and they want a WGA signatory agent. I talked to several listed agents, and they want industry referrals.

This is not unusual in the slightest even when it comes to original screenplays. Writing a franchise script is one of the most difficult and sought-after assignments in the industry. It's a gig you earn your way to, like clawing up to the major leagues from the minor leagues. Unless you are crazy talented, if you show up on the first day of spring training at Yankee Stadium and say, "I'd like to pitch," you're gonna be laughed out of the joint.

How the hell do they expect to get fresh, innovative perspectives when they keep recycling the same clueless writers?

This was the statement that pushed me to write this post in the way I did. I really, really loathe when people who don't know what they're talking about toss around insults like "they keep recycling the same clueless writers!" I had a whole rant I was ready to write but then I remembered that writer/director Eric Heisserer did a much better job of lifting the veil on the studio writing development process. Go ahead and read it here. I'll wait.

All done? Good. Eric's post underlines that whatever you think you know about a film's development process, there's a lot that goes on unsaid. Critique a finished film all you like, but critique the product, not the engineers. A writer might have been rewritten by someone who went uncredited. Or a director might have pulled rank and forced the scripting of a scene the writer argued against. Or the studio might have forced the director to cut 20 minutes of scenes they felt were too boring.

There's also an arrogance to assuming that only someone from outside the industry can provide "fresh, innovative perspectives." Honestly, what does that even mean in relation to a character who's existed for nearly 75 years? There seems to be an assumption that once writers work on a few films, they all start to write the same. That's a patently false notion to begin with.

Honestly, real innovation is more likely to come from writers who've worked in the system because they've seen how the machine works, and seen how it doesn't work. It's hard to innovate when you're coming from a place of ignorance. Guys who've been in Eric's shoes understand why some projects turned out bad. This means they're better equipped to advise on how to avoid the pitfalls.

All of this is ignoring that with a franchise like the WB/DC shared universe, the desire is probably going to be less for someone who marches to their own drum and more for someone whose vision of Wonder Woman is compatible with what's already been established in next year's Batman v. Superman and the already-scripted Justice League film.

They don't hire first-timers for that kind of thing. They hire professionals who they know can deliver pages, writers with the skill and experience to execute studio notes in a way that works.

My genuine advice to you is to write an original spec. If you really are as talented as you say, the best way to break in is with original material. It might not happen on the first spec, or even the third or the fifth. This is a marathon, not a sprint. If you don't have it in you to write four or five original films before you get a shot at breaking in, this really isn't the career for you.

Writing your version of someone else's idea is a really hard way to break in, particularly when a half-dozen writers already have the exact job you are going for.


  1. Wow, Excellent post. Its really beautiful.Thanks for your nice post.
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  2. So, I guess we should all just give up?

  3. I think his point is two fold.

    1) Specs don't often get made but they will get you noticed if they are good enough.

    2) Don't be a douche bag like the letter writer and assume you know everything about how Hollywood works and that everyone is a hack accept for you.

    The excerpts from this guys letter make him come across like an arrogant tool and the last person I would ever want to work with.

  4. I like your comment on critiquing the finished product, not the engineering of it. I've been focusing more on that of late as I see just how powerless the writer is in film vs TV.

  5. Great post. However, one of the letter writer's quips stood out to me:

    Assuming he didn't know about the six scribes on the upcoming film and he was referring to the long development process even before the DCU was a thought, does he include Joss Whedon?