What Does It Mean to Write a Feature Screenplay on Spec?

A person sitting at a desk editing a screenplay

As an aspiring screenwriter you have probably heard the term “spec script” in reference to television. But what does it mean for feature writers? In feature screenplay writing, a “spec script” specifically refers to the process of writing an original script for free or without any guarantee of payment or compensation from a producer or production company. Meaning when your friends ask you what you’re working on, just tell them you’re “working on spec.” The point of writing a spec, is to take the risk and hope your screenplay will be well-received and possibly optioned or produced.

“Spec,” is actually short for "speculative.” This is what aspiring writers do who are looking to break into the industry as it allows them to showcase their skill and potentially attract the attention of producers and other studio executives. Writers may not always think of it this way, but when they finish a spec, they are essentially creating a marketable product. The downside of writing a spec is that the writer is responsible for all aspects of the script, stories, dialogue, formatting, etc. This means that it’s up to them to make sure their script adheres to industry standards, conventions, and tells an engaging story. 

Consequently, the process of writing a feature screenplay on spec can be challenging, as it requires a significant investment of time and effort with no promise of paying off. That is why it is important for the writer to have a passion for the story they are telling and a desire to see the story through to completion. However, writers also have to be smart with their time and do a bit of research to make sure they're creating a marketable story that has the potential to realistically be produced. To do this, a writer can study current trends in the industry and try to understand what sort of screenplays are being produced; especially those with a lower budget. 

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It’s unlikely a first-time writer will be able to sell their new script they describe as Star Wars meets Lord of the Rings. Nonetheless, if that is the story the writer feels compelled to write, nobody is going to stop them. And there lies one of the advantages of writing on spec. The writer has complete creative control over their work. They are free to explore their ideas without any outside interference or pressure from outside producers or studio heads. Specs allow the writer to fully realize their vision and create something that is personal and true to their voice. 

Nonetheless, there are risks involved with writing a feature screenplay on spec as well. The obvious being, no guaranteed payment. This becomes quite significant considering a writer may spend months or even years of their time working on a project that will ultimately go nowhere. This is why a writer must be realistic when setting their expectations and make the determination if the end product is worth the risk. And remember it’s okay to accept the spec script you’re working on will never be produced as long as you understand that with each script you complete you are learning to be a better writer.

In closing, writing a feature screenplay for free on spec can be a valuable experience and tool for aspiring screenwriters looking to break into the industry. So, remember, when discussing feature specs, it refers to an original idea created solely by its authors. This is drastically different from a spec television script that copies a popular series and is often used to judge a television writer’s ability to capture the specific voice of a show. Instead, a feature spec allows a screenwriter to showcase their talent and potentially attract the attention of producers and filmmakers. With hard work, perseverance, and a bit of good luck, writing a feature screenplay on spec can open the door to a successful career in the film industry. 

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