Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Tuesday Talkback: They stole my idea!

I'm sure this happens to a lot of writers - ever work for weeks or months on a great new story idea, only to go to the theatre and see a trailer for a film with that exact same premise? That's got to be one of the most frustrating things for a creative person because you know you didn't steal that idea, but now your innovative concept is going to look like a rip-off and probably will have a much harder time finding a buyer.

A few years ago, my roommate and I were spitballing ideas and eventually came up with a clever comedy premise that could have been either a movie or a comic book. As I recall, since the premise was mostly his idea, he was the one who got to run with it, and though it wasn't an active project, he often came up with new gags for the eventual script. Then, about a year or so later, I was reading the latest comic book news at Newsarama, only to run across a feature article on a miniseries with that EXACT SAME PREMISE. That would have been bad enough, but I went out and bought the comic, hoping to reassure myself that they were significantly different so as to not make our idea a ripoff.

As it turned out, the hook was the same, but the main plot was totally different. Unfortunately, the tone and the style of the writing was so similar to my roommate's that had I not been the one to discover the comic, he easily could have dropped it in my lap and made a convincing case that it was written by him under a pen name.

I've also had some of my ideas end up as episodes of Dollhouse, as well as a spec script that has been in development with a major director for a while. Since there's a chance that project will still fall through, I'll keep quiet about specifics. There was also the time I was at lunch with a friend, and tossed out a high concept logline for what could be an HBO series. My friend, an aspiring comedy writer, agreed it was funny and for a while it sounded like we might develop it.

A few weeks later he shot me an email, informing me that one of his friends who worked in comedy at NBC had been on a conference call and heard about a project that had been pitched using the exact same logline as ours. Knowing that if this thing went to series, our idea would be dead in the water, we decided to abandon it. However, it's been a few years and has failed to surface so maybe we'll revisit it soon.

Has this ever happened to you? Does anyone have any really funny horror stories of getting "ripped off" after pouring blood, sweat and tears into your work?


  1. My first almost-big break came when I convinced a producer with rights to a stage play by a big-name playwright to let me write the film adaptation. He wasn't thrilled with my first draft but was willing to work with me on a second draft when the news came out that a big star was working on a film with WAY too close a premise. That film never materialized, but the producer lost interest anyway...

  2. It's happened once or twice now, yeah.

    Granted, some ideas I've lost haven't been terribly original to begin with, though I live in constant fear of losing my high-concept or adaptation ideas to big budget ambitions.

  3. Kevin Smith stole my life.

    The first script I ever wrote was about guys hanging out at a gas station. Six months later, I saw 'Clerks.'

    In college, I wrote a comic strip about a guy in love with a lesbian. The next year, 'Chasing Amy.'

    For a class, I adapted 'Good Omens,' a book about an angel and a devil trying to stop the end of the world and then 'Dogma' came along.

    Oh, and a couple years ago I wrote a tv pilot about people making porn.

    Damn you, Kevin Smith.

  4. The 1st script I ever wrote was a screwball comedy entittled, "Give It Up for Chimpy." It's about a zookeeper who finds out he can interprit for a special case monkey at a zoo. He then uses that ability to win the girl of his dreams who works at a late-night talk show.

    A film called "The Zookeeper" is set for a 2010 release. Its logline (copy 'n pasted off IMBD):

    The animals at one particular zoo decide to break their code of silence in order to help their lovable zookeeper gain the attention of one particular woman.

    VERY similar concepts. Did someone read my scipt, skew it a bit, then come up with something slightly different? I based my story in L.A., it looks like they based their story in Boston. I don't know, but it looks suspicious...

    Hopefully, "The Zookeeper" is different AND successful from what I've written. Its got a great cast and I can't wait to see it. I hope it makes a BOATLOAD of money and paves the way for me selling my script, "Give It Up for Chimpy."

    So long as it's not BLATANT copyright infringement, I wish "The Zookeeper" well. I had some rather unique characters in my script, hopefully those in the "The Zookeeper" are much different than the ones I wrote. Eyes on the prize I want to sell MY SCRIPT. Moreso I'd actually like to get "Give It Up for Chimpy" in the hands of one of the actors doing a voice-over for an elphant character, Judd Apatow.

    It's a crazy world. At one time I actually envisioned the lead protagonist in "Give It Up for Chimpy" being played by Adam Sandler, who is now also doing a voice over in "The Zookeeper."

    But in life you've gotta roll with the punches. Be willing to re-invision dreams. And I am. I just gtta somehow land a first sale...

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  5. I think that the best stories are the ones that can't be stolen and converted into something lesser. Sure, everything is derivative of something else, but it's the concept vs. execution that sets apart the wheat from the chaff.

    Take for instance the much balyhoo'd entry in the scriptshadow logline contest, "The rules of Cusack." Everyone in the comments was raving about how "Wow, this would make a great movie!" Sure, it -might- make a great movie, and it's a great pitch/logline, but does the script match up to the concept?

    I think that simple ideas executed well, always sell. Look at "The Hangover." It was a simple pitch of a couple of guys that try to figure out what happened on the previous night's partying in Vegas. It made a half a billion dollars.

  6. Just did. Read about Ryan Reynolds and Anna Farris in a romantic comedy called "TMI" which is remarkably similar in premise to a novel I'm writing called "Too Much Information".

  7. When I was in high school, I came up with an idea for a movie that was about a prince falling in love with an american - I know it was totally lame, but then they made the Prince and Me and all those horrible sequels!

    30 Rock and Leverage have had some episodes that I have thought about as well, like using wikipedia; and the Leverage team high-jacking a jury! Granted, I am sure that these shows executed my ideas a little better than what I could have come up with, except for the Prince and Me - I would have stopped with one!

  8. I spent a good week working on an outline and treatment for a suspenseful sci-fi spec. The very next Monday I was reading Variety and the EXACT same premise was touted as starting production soon.

    Scrambling, I asked all the tracking boards if they had a copy of the original script. They did. I read it. I hated it. It was nothing like the script I had spent time working on.

    I'm still in development on that one, but because of the ballyhoo that went on with the Variety article I got the wind knocked out of me and haven't really been too excited to work on it. Maybe after the other movie comes out and no one goes to see it in theaters...

    It happens all the time though - some high concept that I write a quick logline for gets scratched out of my notes because a movie trailer or article comes out that's too similar.

  9. Yes. The collective unconscious is a bitch. Modern calculus was discovered/invented by two people - Leibniz and Newton - around the same time. One thought the other plagiarized them for a bit before it was proved they both arrived at calculus independently. I believe this same type of dynamic happens a lot with movies/ideas that seem similar. Blake Snyder has a good write up in one of his books about how Tina Fey (and co-writer) sold Mean Girls around the same time he and writing partner were finishing their script Really Mean Girls. I believe 80% of occurences are coincidence and 20% some sort of theft or generous borrwing.

  10. The recent movie ALIENS IN THE ATTIC has a similar premise to the script I'm finishing up right now. I 1st came up with my idea in 2006. I knew nothing about AITA until the week it was released.

    That other movie is in a diff genre & tone. It's more of a kids/family movie, mine is a sci-fi/horror. They both feature meteors & vacation homes, by coincidence (UGH).

    That movie tanked. Hopefully, people will look past the similarities & give mine a read.

  11. I came up with this kick-ass idea of a girl trained to be a killing machine in Serbia.

    Then I found out about 'Hanna' coming out in 2011.

    Sometimes anyway...