Thursday, February 24, 2011

"I thought of it first" is not a defense.

As Scott discussed the other day at Go Into The Story, it happens fairly often that a writer will discover that an idea they've been laboring over has just been written and sold by someone else. Most of the time, this might render that writer's idea useless for the time being. After all, if Paul has just sold, you're probably not going to want to send around your comedy about two geeks who meet and go on a road trip with an actual alien.

However, it's not too unusual for some writers to attempt to get traction on their "dead" scripts, either by entering them into competitions, or by taking advantage of whatever limited connections they have to get them read by people like me. In that case, it often falls to a reader like me to say, "Hey, this reads like a rip-off of [insert movie that beat them to the screen.]"

If that happens to you, here's what NOT to say, "Yeah, but I came up with this idea in 2004 and was working on it WAY before those guys sold their script! I didn't rip them off!"

In the immortal words of Tommy Lee Jones' Lt. Gerard... "I don't care!"

It doesn't matter if you thought of it first. Your script is still useless. Dead. Finito. (Unless you find someone who WANTS to make a rip-off.) All that matters is perception. If I as the reader have seen that this idea has been done before, you have already landed in second place.

My bosses are not going to pay good money just to re-do I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry. Sorry, bub.


  1. Would you recommend that someone take a different approach using Scott's advice of "similar but different?"

    So if you have a superheroes in retirement home film that is already being made, perhaps you can still make a film about retired superheroes, old superheroes, superheroes and their heirs, something that makes it similar but different.

    The concept doesn't have to die. Or should it?

  2. While I agree with your point, don't you think the line "this reads like a rip-off of ________" is a bit harsh?

    The term "rip-off" is kind of accusatory and sort of begs for the "But I've been working on this for ___ years" response simply because the writer wants to explain that he didn't intentionally "rip-off" some other movie.

    If you, as a reader, had simply said "This is too similar to ____________," the writer probably wouldn't feel the need to defend himself.

  3. So does the fact that a screenplay reads like a ripoff make it totally unusable as a reading sample?

  4. Carlos - I'd say that's a case-by-case thing, dependent on how unique the concept is, and how close it is to the previously released material. For example, if you wrote a spec script about toys that were actually alive and talked to each other when their owner wasn't around, then I would have suggested junking the whole thing once Toy Story beat you to release.

    If you've got a contained thriller about a guy trapped in a coffin the whole film - junk it.

    If you wrote a spy thriller about a CIA agent accused of being a double agent and THAT is the only similarity with SALT, then you MIGHT be able to salvage it.

    Jay - Point taken. I'll note that I have seen the "defense" get whipped out in regard to the criticism "This is too similar to [insert film here.]" The main issue is to never expect the benefit of the doubt if you're submitting something that bears major similarities to released material.

    Todd - I could have sworn I've addressed "writing samples" somewhere on this blog, but I can't seem to find the entry. I think writers are a little to quick to grasp that thread when trying to salvage their work.

    Best case scenario - You submit an idea that's been done before. The reader gives you the benefit of the doubt and say s it shows promise, but since his boss can't do anything with it, they ask you to submit something else. They read your second script, love it, decide it can be a movie and sign you.

    Worst case scenario - They read your "writing sample", decide you're a hack and the door slams shut.

    Thus, you have everything to lose and nothing to gain by leading with this "writing sample" script because it's still your "real" spec that will made the final decision for them.

    I've always been told "agents are looking for something they can sell." The one time I can think that the writing sample might help you is if it proves you're not a "one hit wonder." If you hit them with one awesome and marketable spec, and they want to see what else you've written just to size you up, THEN the writing sample might bail you out.

    But if the only thing you have in your arsenal is the "writing sample" get to work immediately on something new.

  5. What about when multiple studios start making their own versions of similar ideas or source material? The most recent example would be the competing Snow White films in development.

    Would a production company be interested in a similar-but-different script if it has a broad appeal or built-in market?

  6. Damn...what about the script I just finished about a great white who terrorized a small coastal town. I mean....I set it in Maine! It's different. I just put it down for a few years between drafts! Damn! I guess I'll have to go to my backup script.

    You see...there's this Island ioff Bolivia where the guy Jack Mammoland is using genetics to make dinasaurs...

  7. I've become very zen about this. Ideas are always floating around and it seems inevitable that multiple people will pick up on the same trends and themes in our zeitgeist. It's happened to me once already, but I've got too many ideas to really care.

    My question is, what happens when you see something produced that is similar to something you've already written, but the produced work flops entirely? And you secretly feel that your work was much stronger? Should you still just forget about it and continue with your other projects? Will the concept ever seem fresh again?

  8. There's another way to look at the duplication problem. Terry Rossio posted an article called the Second Concept on Wordplayer. Any one high concept is not enough these days. E.g., the monster under your bed when you were a kid. What if it were real? What if it were fun to play with and led you on an adventure that only you and it could share? That's one high concept but it isn't enough by itself; it does not suggest or necessarily support a twist or reversal. That's where the second concept comes in, and the second idea is what makes the idea unique and gives the story a theme. What if the adventure were ultimately a trick to lure you to a Monsterland from which you couldn't escape. You'd be set up nicely in Monsterland, you'd practically run the place, and the monsters there would love you, but you could never get home again to your parents. So there you have it, familiar, yet different. Of any number of monster-under-the-bed movies, that's one that could be memorable, and it starts more coherently than Where the Wild Things Are. Regarding the adopted monster of a kid idea, I think there are numerous "adopted with problem stories" in any number of genres. E.g., Young Tarzan, returned to his relatives in England. The second concept is...what? Skywalker in the Family: the story of young Luke Skywalker, space child with Sith roots, as he wreaks havoc on the frontier lives of his Uncle Been and Aunt Beroo. The second concept is...what?

  9. Speaking as a frustrated movie watcher - there's so many remakes out there, who cares if a script seems to be a rip off anyway? It won't be long before one remake follows another within months of each other.