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The Bane of Hollywood: The Bulls and Bears of Writing A Spec Screenplay ala The Wolf of Wall Street

Updated on December 20, 2020

A Speculator's Guide to the Screenwriter's Market

Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street rides an NYC subway train to takes its place among a long cinematic line of cult classics by the iconic director. An unforgettable performance by Leonardo DiCaprio certainly helped the film achieve its lofty critical and commercial success. The superb acting and directing do somewhat, unfortunately, overshadow the outstanding screenplay.

The Wolf of Wall Street and all its vulgarity represents "one of those films" that inspires average entertainment consumers to become screenwriters. Ironically, the film is also one of the worst types of spec scripts to write. Does that mean there is no value in writing a screenplay in the vein of this brilliant film?

As the great William Goldman famously said, "No one knows anything." In other words, any endeavors in Hollywood are pure speculation. He's right. You could craft an against-the-grain screenplay and achieve overnight stardom.

More likely, sticking with the tried and true path of what "usually works" might chart a more likely route to success.

What an Awful Screenplay This Great Screenplay Is

Truthfully, there are many problems with crafting a spec that follows the structure of The Wolf of Wall Street. Success in Hollywood proves elusive absent strategery. Writing an unsellable screenplay, even an aesthetic masterpiece, doesn't fit into the "wise strategery" bucket.

I can hear the criticism levied at the screenplay now. The "how-to" analysts and industry script readers are likely going to harp on the following points:

  • No through-line or definitive plot exists. The narrative seems to play out event-to-event.
  • Two many characters compete with one another for screen time.
  • The language is vulgar, and many scenes are sexist.

In all honesty, there is validity found in all three of those points of criticism. The film reflects a "life lived" and does not follow the "plot point 1 and plot point 2" methodology of many other screenplays. You have many characters to keep track of, making things difficult for anyone reading the pages. And yes, the film is a very, very R-Rated one, and the screenplay is not exactly trying to avoid offending. Do you want to offend an agent or producer who chose to read your script?

Origins, Options, and Development Mean Things

Writing a screenplay with these three elements and hoping to shop it around as a spec would be near insanity. Yes, it is a brilliantscreenplay on many levels, but the work was not born of spec writing. The film is an adaptation of an autobiography. It was the original book that was optioned to be turned into a film. $1 million went to author and subject Jordan Belfort.

The film went into development under the eyes o Leonardo DiCaprio and the legendary director Martin Scorsese. Those are two celebrtities who can pretty much do whatever they want with a film. No one is going to step in and tell them what not to do. Upon tallying up all these theatrical gross figures, The Wolf of Wall Street pulled in $300 million worldwide. That figure only adds up the theatrical earnings. DVD and television revenues are probably in the $100+ million range, too.

What can DiCaprio and Scorsese do with their next project? Anything and everything they want. Money talks.

You Have Yet To Be Established

As a newbie screenwriter looking for an agent or getting a script optioned, an over-the-top film of this nature is not likely to be an easy sale. That said, you might not be able to sell the screenplay, but you could sell yourself.

Even if a sample screenplay was unsellable and unfilmable, the artistry may come through on the page. The screenplay could still open doors and help establish your talent. Hopefully, there are two or three "more standard" screenplays in your portfolio, too.

Now, the above scenario "could" and "may" happen. Sometimes, the only thing anyone wants is the script pitched at the moment. Any screenplay - specific screenplay - they cannot buy or sell is going to be dismissed. If the pitch reflects something they do not want, they probably won't read it.

No one ever sees the brilliance of the writing as a result. The pros might not care to see other works from someone who didn't impress them the first time around.

There may be a way around this cynical truism. Someone working as a receptionist or an assistant in a production house, development office, or agency will become known to industry professionals. Some pros might get willing to give John or Jane Receptionist's screenplay a read. Even if they don't like John or Jane's screenplay, they might read another one down the road.

The "foot in the door" plan may have its perks.

Discouragement in the Enemy

Anyone who is a budding screenwriter does need to develop a tough skin. The author of the greatest screenplay ever written could easily find 100+ people in Hollywood who hate it. They will also have a dozen reasons each, while their favorite "great" script is an awful one.

Anyone wishing to become a screenwriter might find it wise to follow two fairly well-known steps. Hone the craft of writing and try to make valuable, sincere contacts. Writers might find it best to avoid developing an "artiste" mindset or becoming a know-it-all. Who wants to work with someone as obnoxious as that "Wolf of Wall Street" guy on the TV?


The second thing to remember is to never, ever let anyone discourage you with overly harsh or unfair criticism. Do not let those who are jealous of your abilities try to convince you that your skills are lacking. People do have hidden agendas and petty natures. If you let them define you, they will do so....and you will be the loser as a result.

Believe in your talent, always try to improve your skills, stay positive, and don't get discouraged.

If you write a great script, it can always help you. Just be realistic about the limitations certain types of screenplays yield.

Just like The Wolf of Wall Street, you have to be confident and sell yourself. And just like the scene where he was selling those terrible penny stocks, you may very well be able to sell really bad screenplays for huge fees. You never know.

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