Have you ever watched an episode of your favorite show and thought “man, I would love to write for this show”? Well, you may not be part of the writing team in charge, but nothing is stopping you from doing just that! Just don’t expect for it to ever see the light of day.
A spec script, or a speculative screenplay is any kind of screenplay written without guarantee of it selling to a studio. Spec scripts are typically written either as – 1) a screenplay for a film or new television show pilot that the writer wants to shop around and hopefully sell to a studio, or 2) a screenplay for a new episode of an existing show whose goal is to display proficiency with the show’s style, characters, tone and plot.
Film spec scripts are notoriously hard to sell if no one knows who you are (just try to impress all those cynical Hollywood studio readers!), but if you do manage to impress someone at a studio with your spec film script enough for them to want to potentially use it, you don’t automatically get the keys to your Maserati at this point. Often times, they will want to simply option your script, meaning that they want exclusive rights to potentially turning it into a film. When this happens, it has been pretty common for them to promise you the real money if – and only if – they decide to actually go through with the film.
For your trouble, they could have you sign a contract to lock the script as their option for a whopping $1, with the understanding that you will get paid later. Until then, the script officially belongs to them for an agreed upon time frame, where it will either go forward at some point, usually years later, or else it will fall into Development Hell, meaning it will stay there under wraps and never actually get produced as the option time frame expires and you eventually get control of your script again. This happens all the time in Hollywood, with even big name celebrities having stories of scripts they wrote being shopped around to various studios and ending up taking years and years to finally get produced. The good news is you wouldn’t be alone if this happens to you!
The kicker here, however, if you manage to get past the Hollywood readers, and get to the point where they’re ready to produce your film, is that they will almost definitely immediately re-write your script with a better-known, more experienced writer. Don’t take it too personally, though. At least they will pay you for your initial work and may even credit you with the original screenplay/idea. The best outcome here is that they actually use you to rewrite your own script based on production needs, but don’t get your hopes up. Really, the best thing a new writer can hope for in this case is building a relationship with the studio and potentially getting more rapport with the producers and eventually becoming that writer who comes in and rewrites scripts. But it’s a long road for that.
For spec scripts for television, just get it out of your head that the episode will actually be produced. Your whole goal with these is to prove to the studio that you can do it, and if you do manage to do it, it’s an uphill battle to secure a place on the writing team. That’s how these shows work, they have a heirarchy of writers and producers and showrunners who make the major decisions for plot and characters, and you, as a brand new writer for the team will need to do what they say. After all, they’re your boss. Creative freedom may come a little bit more as you rise through the ranks, but don’t expect it to come quickly if you manage to join them.
The good news in either case is that if you manage to impress the right people, you may break through and be able to have a career writing for film or television. Just don’t expect your spec script to be produced. It’s very rare, and if you manage to do so, you must be something really special. Don’t let this discourage you though, just keep writing for fun and for experience and who knows what may happen!