What is the secret to writing the spec script that sells? Victoria Wisdom

How do you find, develop and refine the successful idea that the studios are looking for ?

How can you find out why one idea sells over another?

How can you save yourself valuable time understanding what the inspiring story is that producers and film executives want to buy.

How do you combine creative inspiration with business know-how?

You need an inside look at how the highly competitive free lance film industry runs.


Victoria Wisdom was a partner at literary agency Becsey Wisdom Kalajian for fourteen years. Prior to BWK, Victoria was an agent at ICM/International Creative Management. Victoria has represented the writers and directors of Oscar winning films as diverse as “The Usual Suspects”, “The Red Violin”, British Oscar winner “Love And Death on Long Island” and Berlin Festival winner “Italian for Beginners.”

BWK agency clients have included Oscar winners “Crash”, “Million Dollar Baby” and nominee “The Fugitive”. Additionally, Victoria sold the hit CBS TV drama series “Criminal Minds”, now in its fifth season.

Victoria also represented Oscar nominees Deepa Mehta (Fire, Water), Doug McGrath (Bullets Over Broadway), winners Christopher McQuarrie (Usual Suspects), Ernest Thompson (On Golden Pond), directors Bryan Singer (X-Men), Lone Scherfig (An Education), and Alan Moyle (Pump Up the Volume).

Additionally Victoria represented the screenwriters of such mainstream studio hits as Hellboy, G.I. Jane, and Aliens vs. Predators.

Victoria most recently became a producer and a literary manager setting up the thriller Labyrinths at Summit with Hilary Swank starring, the comedy Amateurs with Paramount Pictures, and the romantic comedy Taravella with Amy Adams.

Victoria also teaches Advanced Screenwriting at UCLA’s Extension Writer’s Program. She has become a preeminent speaker on the subject of breaking into screenwriting in Hollywood and has flourished as both an independent career strategist and creative script consultant.

After selling screenplays for almost two decades, I am often asked what makes a screenplay commercial and why do some scripts sell over others? There is a common misconception about the film industry that there are great screenplays that are going undiscovered. This is simply a fallacy. There are armies of people looking for a script to buy or sell, hundreds of screenwriting awards to separate out the men from the boys, and thousands of actors, directors and producers trying to find the next big thing. We live in a media driven culture where no stone is left unturned. On the contrary, the web has also contributed to access and information at the highest levels in the film business. No. There are no undiscovered geniuses in the 21st century unless they wish to remain so. There are many called- but fewer chosen. If someone is not pursuing your script- it is probably because you have written the wrong story at the wrong time. If you have written the right one, as well as executed it, you are very likely to find yourself with many options, as clearly the community will recognize it as such, and pursue you with a vengeance.

How do you get to be that person?

I had a friend telephone me from Disney Feature production recently. He called to tell me he had been promoted to Vice President and was looking for new scripts. He also was reveling in the fact that he had finally gotten a window office. After packing up his boxes, he said he had an unsettling experience. They had found three boxes from the last three years with approximately fifty coverage reports each in them under the “writer recommend” category. This means the studio had declined to buy the script, but had liked the writing itself. He decided to call all one hundred fifty of the writers to tell them he was recently promoted, was in buying mode, and to see what they were up to. He figured he had a gold mine of spec scripts coming his way, also figuring that some of them at least would have gone on to greater success over time.

He was stunned when he told me that not one of them was working.

Not One.

What does this mean?

It means it’s not good enough to write well. You must be writing the story the studios are looking to buy.

This does not mean not writing from your heart. You should always be writing the story that moves you personally. Otherwise you are writing out of your own skin- and it will show.

But you must be writing towards the market- unless you are writing for yourself and don’t want your screenplay ever to be turned into a movie. (Well, I haven’t met that screenwriter yet.) You must write with a smart view towards success, learning how to capitalize on trends and understanding what the studios want- and why.

If you prefer to waste your time writing the movie they don’t want, then you are sure to end up in a box on some executive’s floor with the check marked off in the writer category. And three years later- they can’t even find you.

Or, you’re one of the ones that has the script recommend box checked. (You know that everything submitted to the studio is synopsized and assessed in a few pages- even at the specialty art house divisions.) In which case, you’d have become the writer fielding assignment offers- if you have learned how to survive and triumph over a competitive, ever changing free lance career.

So which one are you?

Do you know what kind of movies are made most often and why?
Do you know who the top ten movie stars are at the box office?
Do you know who won best original original screenplay at the Oscars over the last five years?
Do you know what the top twenty grossing movies were from last year?
Do you even know what was number one and two at the box office this past weekend?

If the answer is no, you’re in the majority. When I teach either writer’s seminars or university courses- NO ONE ever knows the answer to these questions. They are simply typing away without a second thought as to whether or not their movie is even makeable?

The average cost of a movie at the studios is more than a HUNDRED MILLION dollars. That’s the average cost. That’s rather a large investment to ask of someone, yes? And would you imagine anyone would make that kind of investment without a lot of research? But you as a screenwriter should just write what you think is a cool idea? And hope someone else agrees?

This is the road of disappointment and frustration. If you can come to understand why an idea is a good one, a strong one, versus a shop worn one, a thin one, or an out of fashion one, you can find the way towards writing the right thing at the right time. And only an insider’s approach, as well as a professional perspective, can help you there.

When I began teaching, I began realizing that the largest gap between artist and business was this very chasm. Everyone wanted to know the secret to writing the spec script that sold. After teaching now for more six years, I think I finally have come to understand how to articulate the market I work in, and how to build the bridge for the writer trying to understand how to succeed.