The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

April 2001

by Terry Borst

filed 26 February 01 Copyright ©2001 alt.screenwriters

In Screenwriting Heaven, screenwriters don’t have to pay any attention to the spec script marketplace. They write what they want to write, and are able to sell their screenplays purely on the virtue of their quality.

In Hollywood, however, every scrap of knowledge about the trade is liable to be the one that pays off. But until a few years ago, if you wanted to stay current on spec script wheeling and dealing, and try to stay ahead of the trends, you had to: 1) read the trades obsessively; 2) phone your agent (yeah, like he’d return your call) and try to pick his brain until he hung up on you; OR 3) take an awful lot of (sh-shudder!) d-boys and d-girls to lunch.

Good news. No phone calls, lunches or expensive subscriptions are necessary any more. A staggering amount of information about spec sales, projects in development, and open assignments is available online — much of it for free, some of it for very modest sums.

Head to websites like, and, and you’ll soon be wallowing in what was once highly “inside” knowledge. Screenwriter Sharon Cobb, whose credits include the feature Return of the Sweet Birds and the MOW On Hostile Ground, is one of a number of Guild writers who are tapping these new sources of buzz.

“Before I write a spec,” Cobb says, “I want to know if there is anything out there remotely similar, so I log on to hollywoodlitsales. They have this cool database you can search and find out if anything has sold in the last ten years with the same concept.”

She does this because “if you’re a feature writer and you’re writing specs without checking out what’s in development or what’s sold, you may be writing a story that everyone already has. You know how studio execs are: if they have a project set in the world of baseball, then they have their baseball story. No matter how different your genre, characters and story, if it’s connected to baseball, forget about it.”

While hollywoodlitsales specializes in tracking book, script and pitch sales, 4filmmakers keeps tab on projects in development and open assignments. And a little homework can pay dividends.

According to Cobb, “Before I go to meet with a development exec I check out their company’s projects in development online and print that out. So in the meeting I can have a conversation with the exec about his projects, not just sit there and have him tell me about his slate. I’ve had people actually say they were impressed with how much I knew about their company and projects. I think it’s good for any writer to know what assignments a producer has available before they meet, so the writer can be prepared to guide the meeting toward talking about a potential job. ”

And though Cobb is not likely to give all the credit for her current career momentum to online spec and development tracking, she does point out that “the more a writer is prepared for a meeting, the more profitable the meeting will be for the writer.”

The information on 4filmmakers and scriptsales (another deal-tracking site) is free. A good chunk of their information does derive from the trades, but both sites rely on other sources — and a considerable advantage is that they act as central repositories for this information.

At hollywoodlitsales, however, you should have your credit card handy. The site actually evolved out of the regularly published and commercially sold Spec Script Sales Directory. Now, that exhaustive directory is available online, for an annual subscription fee that works out to about the price of a tall cafe latte per month. A free taste of the directory is available with a simple registration — and even this provides an impressive rundown of recent book, spec and pitch sales, with names of executives, agents, screenwriters and a logline of the property.

Of course, when boning up on projects in development and open assignments, one risk is the rapid obsolescence of the information. As Cobb notes: “Everyone knows how fast something goes from hot to cold in this town depending on talent falling in or out of the project.” But she believes this is a small worry when compared to the big picture. “Writers have more information available to help with developing their careers and marketing their work than ever before. Analyzing the marketplace is invaluable in determining a successful plan of attack.”

It might seem as if Cobb has reduced the art of screenwriting to a series of what-if analyses run on spreadsheets. But nothing, in fact, would be further from the truth.

“I still believe that if a writer is excited about a specific story or in love with certain characters, then that’s the next script to write. The hell with left-brain thinking and analyzing numbers. After all, numbers can’t influence passion.”

Which means that the words and the pictures still have to get on the page, same as it ever was. But the business end of screenwriting, at long last, can be just a little less mysterious than it has traditionally been…

Written by tborst

February 26, 2001 at 9:53 pm

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