Vanity Fair: “Will the Spec Script Rise Again?”

Vanity Fair is out with this insightful history of the spec market boom that lasted in Hollywood from 1990 to 2008. A must read for aspiring screenwriters and screenwriting scholars alike.

The key takeaways for me are about technology.

First, technology helped destroy the spec market by killing off home video sales (“as Hollywood’s cash flow slowed — home-video revenue fell by more than $3 billion from 2007 to 2011 — development funds used to buy specs began to dry up”) and by eliminating anticipation from the sales dance between agents and producers:

One day, no one knows exactly when, agents stopped messengering scripts around town. Instead, IsHak says, “you just e-mail-blast it.” Producer Luke Ryan, of Disruption Entertainment, based on the Paramount lot, adds, “Now when an agent’s pitching me a spec, it lands in my in-box before we get off the phone.” Gone is the tense anticipation as a messenger makes his or her way across town, followed by the crisp tactile thrills of glossy agency-embossed envelopes, cover letters, and brads. Today a script is digital static, a title next to a virtual paper clip, closer in form to spam than to Billy Wilder’s copy of Sunset Boulevard.

Second, technology may be helping to revive a Long Tail version of the spec market:

“A good idea can come from anywhere,” says Langley, whose studio reportedly shelled out $5 million for the e-book phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey. Though not a spec script, the erotic trilogy that began as fan fiction and became a worldwide best-seller shares a similar up-from-nowhere spirit. New media, while whittling away audiences, have also unearthed fresh voices. The Academy Award–winning screenwriter Diablo Cody was discovered via her blog. Kelly Oxford, a housewife from Alberta, Canada, who amassed hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers, recently sold her first screenplay, a spec. Another spec, The Disciple Program, was snapped up after a series of teasing tweets hyped it, reminding Hollywood of pre-tracking-board days.

In other words, screenwriters are walking through the music industry experience. The digital revolution decimated the music industry at first, which hurt musicians. Eventually, however, the industry and musicians themselves learned to leverage the Long Tail of the new digital marketplace, creating a thriving new creative economy. The next generation of screenwriters will come to rely on friends, fans, and followers the same way independent musicians have for the past decade, and they may be better for it.

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