2 Types of scripts: commissioned vs. spec screenplay
If you decided firmly to take up a career of a scriptwriter, you have to be able to differentiate the two basic types of screenplays you’ll be dealing with. Knowing what exactly is a spec script and a commissioned script will save you a massive amount of time and set you off in the right direction.
Commissioned screenplays are those that are written by authors that producers hire for a specific show or franchise.
You have to understand right away: it is a highly coveted business occupied by established authors only. It’s also a trade with a somewhat limited amount of creative freedom - producers who get ahold of the rights of a prospective novel, play or a comic book (or maintain the rights to a popular franchise) usually have concrete plans for what they want to get in the result.
How does someone get to write a commissioned script? Well, you first have to prove your worth. The best way to do it is to write spec scripts. In the earlier days of filmmaking the authors of specs used to be regarded as hopeless losers (the author of Hitchcock’s North by Northwest describes vividly those condescending looks he was receiving from his colleagues at that time). But now the things are much more looking up for aspiring writers.
Spec, or speculative, script is an unsolicited screenplay that you write in hopes of selling
or at least proving your skills to get an offer in the future. As you might guess, these kind of scripts involve a high degree of failure, as agents and studios are literally bombarded by thousands of spec scripts every year. By writing those you usually expect not to get paid, but rather be noticed.
A spec script is usually an original piece, but it can also be based on a previously published work like a play or a book in order to be adapted for the silver screen.
There is a difference between composing a screenplay for a movie and a TV show.
In the former your skills sell the script (and pulling some strings is usually involved, too), whereas in the latter it’s rather your script that sells your skills. Writing a pilot for a new TV show or a sample for the existing one is probably your best shot at carving your way to the business. Make a list of the shows you enjoy personally, pick one that is buzzworthy enough (but not too popular) and still running (but not for too long) and pen a spec that gets the characters in an interesting premonition. Send it to an agent and, who knows, maybe you’ll be offered to write for one of the next seasons!
But if you only dream of writing a script for a movie, then films like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine might serve as great examples of original stories that were spec scripts once and got a great deal of the critics’ and audience’s acclaim.