If there was a dispute over who invented calculus (Newton or Leibniz — who’s your guy?), then you’d better believe your one-in-a-million screenplay idea may not be quite as original as you thought.
text Allen B. Ury
It’s an experience every screenwriter suffers at least once. Some may endure it dozens of times. You get a “brilliant” idea for a screenplay. It’s clever. It’s compelling. And, damn, it’s marketable.
You probably let it percolate for a while. Maybe you play with an outline. You discuss it with a trusted friend. If you’re really ambitious, you actually start pounding out a screenplay. As the project progresses, and what was once an amorphous haze of images and impulses begins to coalesce into a coherent narrative, visions of contracts and green lights and fresh tomatoes and golden statuettes begin to dance through your head.
Then you’re blindsided. Maybe it comes as an announcement in the trades. Maybe it’s a trailer on YouTube. Or, worst of all, it comes barreling off a 50-foot screen as you sit there stunned, unable to comprehend the enormity of the blow that just struck you in the face.
They say that life turns on a dime, and this is one of those shiny ten-cent pieces, the kind that takes your oh-so-certain future, one brimming with hope and money and respect and security and possibilities, balls it up into a fist-sized wad and lobs it into an open trash can of doubt, uncertainty and despair. It’s that big job promotion that comes just as your company becomes the victim of a hostile takeover. It’s finally getting a “yes” to your wedding proposal, only to have your new fiancée elope with her old boyfriend. It’s winning the Mega-Millions lottery, and finding out you have inoperable brain cancer.
Yes, someone else came up with your brilliant, one-of-a-kind movie idea. Worse yet, that someone else actually sold it. Which sends you and your precious script up shit creek.
Discovering that all that time, energy, enthusiasm and perhaps even actual hard work have just gone down the crapper can be devastating. It has driven even the hardiest, most calloused screenwriters to thoughts of suicide. And why not? Having a possibly viable screenplay go up in smoke — especially due to the act of unknown third parties — can seem like a form of death. A potential life that could have grown, frolicked and perhaps even changed the world, has been snuffed out of existence before it could even draw breath.
And like anyone who has lost a loved one or been given a terminal diagnosis, a screenwriter who discovers his work-in-process is D.O.A. before it has even made it to the printer is likely to experience the Kübler-Ross Five Stages of Grief:
1) Denial. This is usually expressed as: “My script is different than that other one. Okay, maybe there are some superficial similarities, but I take the idea in a whole different direction,” “The two scripts are in the same basic genre, but otherwise, they’re completely different!” or, even worse, “I don’t think they’re really similar at all.”
2) Anger. Usually expressed as: “That other script sucks,” “It only sold because the writer is fucking the producer” or, my personal favorite, “They stole my idea!”*
3) Bargaining. Usually expressed as: “If I change this or that detail, or make this person that person, that should make it different enough, right?” or “Why can’t there be two similar movies out at the same time? Heck they made two volcano movies at once, didn’t they?”
4) Depression. Usually expressed as: “I quit. This business sucks. I’m going to go work for my father.”
5) Acceptance. Finally, you realize you were beaten to the punch and your project is dead. Dead as disco. Dead as Elvis. It’s like the Firefly series’ return to network TV. It ain’t gonna happen.
So, you’re back to square one. What do you do now? Pack it in? Press ahead? You actually have several alternatives:
Mourn and Move On. If you’ve written a high-concept comedy about a police detective who is killed and reincarnated as a dog, only to discover that Disney has just bought a high-concept comedy about a police detective who is killed and reincarnated as a dog, perhaps it’s best you kill the project and start another spec. The concept is too specific for the market to support two simultaneous iterations. Perhaps you can perform a symbolic burial to help deal with your grief. Beyond that, appreciate the fact that no effort is ever truly wasted, that by pursuing the project as far as you did you gave your creative muscles valuable exercise, and thus better prepared yourself to conquer the next script you tackle, be it a spec or (God willing) a paid assignment. Hey, if nothing else, you can use it as a writing sample!
Revise and Repurpose. Let’s assume your project is similar, but not identical, to your rival. In that case, sufficient retooling may result in a marketable product. Sometimes, just changing the gender of your leads can send you into new, yet-unexplored directions. Adjusting the period or location can help. Or mechanical details. (Have a script about an out-of-control freight train? Make it an airplane!) You might even consider repurposing your genre. For example, you could take the core idea of your drama and, with sufficient creativity, spin it into a comedy. Even a romantic comedy. Stranger things have happened.
Go Drafting. In auto racing, “drafting” involves placing your car directly behind the leader to take advantage of the lower-pressure shock wave he leaves in his wake. Likewise, there are production companies that produce low-cost homages — a more polite word than “rip-offs” — to big studio films currently in the market to exploit the “buzz” they’ve created. In other words, you may find producers who want your script not because it’s unique, but because it isn’t. These producers may make films for the straight-to-video market, for cable TV or even as low-budget feature films. Either way, they have an audience and they have money. Granted, your payday is apt to be a whole lot less than if you had sold your script to an A-player, but even a tenth of a loaf is better than a sharp stick in the eye, to mix metaphors.
Wait It Out. The lousy thing about Hollywood is that no one has a memory capacity of more than five years. On the other hand, the great thing about Hollywood is no one has a memory capacity of more than five years. Need proof? They’re already talking about rebooting Batman — for the third time. Trends go in cycles. Slasher films. Teen comedies. Alien invasion flicks. Body-switch movies. What’s new today is old tomorrow — and new again next weekend. If your script is “dead” this month because a similar script just sold, give it a year. Either the rival project will:
A) Never get made.
B) Get made, but disappear in a week.
C) Get made, make a few bucks, and be forgotten.
D) Get made, be a big hit and spur dozens of imitators.
Whatever happens, the powers-that-buy will have forgotten about your rival project in just a few years (at most), at which time your “old” script will suddenly seem new and fresh. Just dig your flashdrive out of that makeshift grave you dug in the backyard, slap on a fresh coat of contemporary references and you’ll be back in the game.
The bottom line: No screenplay is ever truly dead. Like a good movie monster, it can always be resurrected. Just be patient, be flexible and always be on the lookout for opportunities.
You never know when a producer will be looking for a script about a cop who is killed and reincarnated as a dog.
* Actual plagiarism is very rare in Hollywood. Even if you suspect such a thing, it’s even harder to prove. The number of successful plagiarism suits involving pilfered screenplays can be counted on one hand — assuming that hand has been in an industrial accident. So don’t even go there.