Why is it so hard to get someone to read your script? Why do I get so pissed when someone emails me their screenplay unasked? (And we've covered this before, if you send me a script unsolicited and your response is anything other than "I'm sorry" after I tell you why that's an unwelcome thing to do, YOU are the asshole in the situation.)
Short answer: legal reasons. I don't want to get sued down the line should I have some connection to a project that bears any resemblance to your idea. This is the same reason that most companies demand that you sign a release before submitting your script. One of the clauses in a standard release is that you waive your right to sue should the company eventually release a project similar to yours.
Not that this stops the wave of lawsuits. There are plenty of successful films that have to contend with nuisance lawsuits claiming the original idea was stolen from them. Less than two months ago, James Cameron fended off yet another lawsuit containing such allegations. I almost never believe the allegations of theft. True theft of ideas is a lot rarer than parallel development.
I should know. This week I had at least my third instance of a project being announced that bore similarities to something I had been working on for a while. I'm not going to name the project, but the concept is disturbingly similar to a pilot I've been working on with a friend of mine. There's no obvious link between us and them, nor do I think that the other writers could have seen our work through anyone we gave it to. This just happens to be one of those cases where someone else happened on the same idea we did.
My hope is that our script might still be alive and viable if this other project fails to get traction. If I'm really lucky, in a year or so, few will remember it. If they do, it might hamper the project, or worse, they might assume WE swiped the concept. Having said that, you can't copyright ideas and I have a feeling that our particular expression of this idea is already different from where the other creators have gone. Just because our concept can't go out now, it doesn't mean it will never have its day.
Case in point: in 2007 I wrote a spec screenplay that was a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. I cast it as a sequel to the original book (which was in the public domain) not the movie. I made it a bit darker and more mature. Not brutal, though. Think of it as being more in the tone of the Harry Potter films. In this way, it's a bit similar to what was eventually done with OZ: The Great & Powerful, though they went the prequel route. The week I started sending it to people also happened to be the week that Warner Bros announced they were developing a "revisionist take" on The Wizard of Oz that would be "a dark, edgy and muscular PG-13, without a singing Munchkin in sight.”
An agency friend revealed to me that another studio was quietly developing their own Oz take, but I opted to send this out to a few management contacts as well as query a few other possible reps. Let me give you an idea how long ago 2007 was - I actually had to explain to more than one rep that The Wizard of Oz was in the public domain and that there were no rights issues so long as everything was derived from the books. And even then - get this - a couple of them were STILL dubious that any studio would want to risk competing with the memory of such a beloved classic.
Yes, just six years ago, the idea of strip-mining every fairy tale in public domain was so novel that fairy solid reps were ignorant of some of the legal loopholes. Those days seem quite far away now that we're in a pilot season that has seen Oz-inspired projects developed at CBS, NBC, CW and SyFy.
Gee, those earlier Oz efforts sure killed the market for L. Frank Baum's material, didn't they? I sometimes wonder if I should have tried reviving my script but by the time fairy-tale adaptations became bigger, I was focusing on using my contacts for scripts that I felt were stronger and more likely to hook representation.
The most painful instance of a similar project came relatively recently. My senior year in college, I made a short film about a teenage girl who finds out she had been cloned as a child. In a story exploring nature vs. nurture, she comes face-to-face with her own clone, a very different person from her. I wasn't happy with how the idea came out, largely because it was a pretty big idea to squeeze into eight minutes. I spent some time trying to reimagine it as a feature, but even that wasn't working.
And then the idea hit me - do it as a series! That would give me the breathing room to explore the mythology and more importantly, it would really allow me to explore the lead character and her clones in depth. It could be a fantastic acting showcase for the lead actress - sort of like how Alias and Dollhouse demanded their leads take on multiple personalities. I brought on a friend to co-write it with me and it became a project we worked on in between our other screenplays.
For various reasons, this pilot became a lesser priority for a while. We'd gotten a few drafts done and had plans to revise further.
And then I learned about the show Orphan Black. Dammit.
I have very specifically NOT watched Orphan Black. All I know of it is the basic premise, which gets uncomfortably close to my idea. For all I know, the execution and tone could be completely different from what we planned. The mythology is almost certainly different. Still, my basic problem remains that I can't pitch the show to anyone without them saying, "Oh, like Orphan Black."
I hear it's a great show. I just can't bring myself to watch it.
But because this has happened to me three times, I'm well aware that there's no such thing as a completely unique idea. The important things to take from this are: Work hard to develop your ideas quickly, know that today's hard-sell can quickly become tomorrow's trend, and hope that the fact a similar premise has been done before doesn't necessarily mean that it can't still be useful.
Oh yeah - and your idea isn't as unique as you think it is.