The Spec Script: Sizzle and/or Steak —
When it comes to any product and its sales strategy & potential, there is sizzle and there is steak. There’s the sexy, flashy, alluring aspects that get everybody amped up, activates F.O.M.O., creates heat & urgency, and elicits a reactive decisiveness to acquire it – the aspects that are cleanly and clearly attractive when you hear about and talk about it in shorthand. In short, its smell. And there’s the organic, substantive, meaningful aspects that are baked into the product’s functionality, what makes it work so well, and which better ensure actual quality will come from it – the aspects that require the full experience, the investment of time and focus that have you truly appreciate its masterfulness. In short, its taste. These aspects are the sizzle and the steak.
Using this analogy, I contend there are 4 kinds of spec scripts:
#1: That spec with no sizzle nor steak – a script with a derivative, uninspired or contrived idea that reads like it was haphazardly constructed, probably due to either not enough writing talent or experience to realize it properly yet or no personal, genuine connection to the story or its characters. This spec is either rejected entirely by the market or relegated to a level of sales where quality and taste are not required criteria for the final product.
#2: That spec with sizzle but no steak – a script with a sexy idea, a lively voice, and/or a viable element but the material doesn’t deliver on the execution and/or the necessary elements of craft. When you strip away the magic trick and really look at the material for what it is on the page, beyond the voice, beyond the conceit, it’s determined that the script needs a lot of work to be something more worthy and memorable than just a poster and a trailer. This spec often finds a buyer somewhere, sometimes in a competitive situation and sometime even on a high-level buy, but then it languishes in development or results in a rushed, mediocre movie. Every once and a while there’s enough aggressive rewriting done on this kind of script and it manages to turn that big
or sexy idea into something sustainable for the whole story – but it takes a lot of time and money to reach that iteration.
#3: That spec with steak but no sizzle. A well-written, well-executed screenplay with well-drawn characters, but bears specific subject matter or exists on a certain scale or occupies a world & time period that invoke concern it may not translate into a standout or marketable product. This spec either ends up as a good sample for the writer or slowly leads to a gratis or nominal option agreement and/or a dedicated producer attachment, and it takes time, strategy, and elbow grease to figure out the best way to convert it into a financed project, if it manages to get to the goal line at all.
#4: That spec with both sizzle and steak. A fresh, relevant, inspired idea and world that really stands out as something special in the marketplace and the story on the page is told with intelligence and exceptional craft, and the roles are highly castable. There’s often a sexy, high-level package surrounding it when it goes to market or there’s a strong prospect the script will attract one. This spec sells and gets made quickly. Usually in under 2 years from sale. The industry converges on this kind of material. This script is a rep and producer’s wet dream because the script generates incoming call business from talent and buyers. It gets sent around by those who read it. It makes people want to share it, talk about it. It’s the kind of script that reminds people in this town why they love this job and why they love movies. Why they love being told a great story. And it’s a story that needs to be told now. There’s usually only a couple specs a year that attract this level of urgency and enthusiasm. It’s the gold standard of the spec business.
As a representative, I’ve been involved with all 4 versions of these specs, with #1 mostly happening behind the scenes and before the market, dying on its vein where it rightfully should. So I know that every writer, every script is built with a hope to have a #4. Just like when everyone buys a lottery ticket, they hope to win the jackpot. There’s still, of course, a certain lack of control of the outcome with a spec sale, but not as much as there is with the lottery. There’s not a whole lot of luck involved in selling a great spec in a meaningful way. It’s a process dictated by the quality of the work, effort, preparation, presentation, strategy, and talent and experience of the people involved.
And if there’s any confusion or denial surrounding the outcome, the market will always give a writer accurate feedback on the state of their script on the page; on its levels of sizzle and/or steak. If the script gets around and gets read, the results it garners are a function of what’s on the page.
So, write. If you haven’t written your #4 yet and that’s the level you seek, even if you need to write some 1, 2 & 3’s along the way, keep searching for it, working toward it, put it on the page, and let someone with taste and experience tell you the script has reached that capacity. In fact, have more than one person tell you or them that.
#4 is often the spec that takes awhile to get right and the kind of script that when read feels like it was cared for, lived in, really meant something to the writer, and that careful hard work at the keyboard and getting feedback and doing revisions and believing in the material on an ontological level, it all leads to a meteoric process after those pages finally hit the industry’s eyes. Who knows what it takes and when/if it’ll happen, but it happens when you’re ready, when you’ve earned it, and when you’ve lived it enough to put it on the page. It may not involve luck, but I think it does involve karma.
#4 is a high-powered magnet that can’t be shut off, because the real power is on the page itself. The subject matter, the themes, the writing, the tone, story, characters, plotting, craft, voice, everything – it just clicks together like a finely-tuned engine in a slick and sturdy body. Every talented, dedicated, naturally-gifted screenwriter has this story in them. I believe that. It just may require a deep dive and some patience to manifest it.
So, please create your #4. This industry wants and needs it from you.
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