Thursday, July 15, 2010

Thursday Throwback: Playing with someone else's toys

This rerun post is from February 20, 2009 and deals with a subject that comes up a lot - writing for characters that you don't own.
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When I was 10, my parents bought a video camera and, knowing my interest in film, they encouraged me to play with it and perhaps make a movie or two. Naturally, I did what any aspiring filmmaker my age would have done – I shot a fan-film for a movie series I loved, casting my friends in the iconic parts of that franchise. The plot was thin, and basically an assembly of some of my favorite moments and lines of dialogue from that series and there were maybe about two ounces of originality to it – my own mistakes.

So it’s not that I don’t understand the compulsion to remake a favorite movie, or to make a sequel to a favorite film. And I’m hardly alone in my urges. When he was 14, Len Wiseman apparently shot a backyard version of Die Hard. The thing is, that kind of fan fiction has a time and a place. When you’re ten, it’s no big deal to invest your time in writing and/or shooting your own James Bond or Star Wars sequel. But if you’re trying to break into the business, writing a sequel or a remake really isn’t the way to go about it.

When you’re writing a screenplay, presumably you want to sell it, and logically that means that you want to have as many potential buyers as possible. Just by way of example, an action-comedy with original characters is the sort of script you can take to any producer and any studio in town. But what if you decide you want to write the next Star Trek movie. Do you know how many potential buyers do you have in that case? One – the studio that owns the rights to the series, which in this case would be Paramount. And do you know what you are if Paramount reads and feels they’d like to “go in a different direction?” Screwed.

If you don’t hold the rights to what you’re writing about, don’t bother. Amazingly, I’ve seen several scripts over the years where wannabe writers have ignored that advice. Possibly the most ridiculous violation of this rule I saw was a script that was a misguided attempt to continue a 30 year-old action franchise by crossing it over with another 40 year old film! One of those films featured an actor long dead, and the other featured an actor who likely would never return to this signature role. Out of respect for the writer, I won’t post the specifics, but it was sort of like crossing over The French Connection with the original Gone in 60 Seconds. It would have been difficult enough to do a sequel to just one of those films, but with a crossover, this writer was putting himself in a situation where he couldn’t make a sale unless two completely different sets of producers and rights-holders signed off on the concept. This would have been a legal nightmare even if someone like Steven Spielberg or J.J. Abrams was determined to make it.

And let’s be realistic here – in the case of franchise films like those, the studio never is going to buy the latest sequel as a spec. Those kinds of tentpoles already have specific producers attached, and they’ll have considerable say in the hiring of a writer. Even if you manage to query the producers, it’s extremely unlikely that they’d be receptive to a script from an unproven outsider, and again, there’s still only one guy you can take that script to. As a writer, the franchise film isn’t something you can really go after until you’re inside the club. Then, either your agent will lobby to get you onto, say, the next Superman. Or the producers or studio behind said movie will come to you and say, “How’d you like a crack at Superman?”

If you don’t have any script sales to your name, you’re essentially an unproven writer and no one hands a franchise movie to those guys. It’s like writing for the school paper and then expecting to get hired as the main political writer at The New York Times. It just doesn’t happen.

So consider all that before you invest six months of your life writing a live-action adaptation of the 80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms or GoBots. In the end, you’re going to need your own idea and your own characters in order to break into this business.

4 comments:

  1. I have to admit though, sometimes some of those fan-envisioned ideas of playing with others' characters turn out to be loads better than what Hollywood actually *does* give us.

    I remember about ten years ago, spending late nights at work talking with friends about how we'd do a G.I. Joe movie or a Dukes of Hazzard movie if given the chance... and in both of those cases, the actual films failed, in creativity and in matching the original promise and premise of the original source material.

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  2. Of course, the drawback to that is that fan-written scripts tend to read like bad fan-fic. A while back there was a fake script for Transformers 3 which was a very clear effort to re-mold the storyline into an homage to the original animated series. I don't think it ever would have worked on the big screen.

    For as vocal as "classic" Transformers fans are, they aren't the viewers that made that franchise two of Paramount's biggest films.

    I've also read Batman and Green Lantern fan-submitted scripts that were way too "inside baseball" and never would have worked as feature films.

    Writing a good movie is hard and something that takes experience. Writing a franchise film requires an even more advanced skill-set and it's not something that a writer is going to grasp on their first or perhaps even their second script. So if you figure that most of the people who make this mistake are writing Fantastic Four 3 as their first script, you'll see how most of the writing wouldn't be good enough for a sale even if said writer stood a snowballs chance in hell of selling it.

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  3. BSR, this is one of the most common questions I field at the script analysis company where I work. I tell the inquirers pretty much what you said (you can't sell what doesn't belong to you), encourage them to use it as a sample if they feel they absolutely must write it, and direct them to John August's post here: tp://johnaugust.com/archives/2009/use-book-without-permission. I will start sending them to this post as well.

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