Monday, February 28, 2011

Simultaneous development of the same idea

I had a few interesting responses to my post last week about the folly of trying to argue that you came up with an idea first if your script bears too many resemblances to recent sales and releases.

MAO asked:

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?

Okay, that's probably a fair question. Simultaneous development happens occasionally. I still recall the summer that Dante's Peak went head-to-head with Volcano, and then there was the year of asteroid movies, with Armageddon and Deep Impact. But just because it does happen more often than it should, don't assume that the situation is in any way desirable for those studios attached.

I'm not familiar with the particulars of those developments, but my hunch is that each studio had been developing their tent pole in-house and once one of the studios made the first move and announced their film, the other studio had to decide quickly to fish or cut bait. The way things work in Hollywood, there might have already been so much time and money sunk into pre-production that the studio couldn't afford NOT to make their movie, even though there was a risk of coming in second.

However, the fact that in the examples I cited above the films debuted within a month or two of each other pretty much points to near-simultaneous development cycles. It's not as if Deep Impact was in post-production before Armageddon got off the ground. Would Armageddon have sold if the script circulated around the time of Deep Impact's release? I'd say it's less likely.

So for the purposes of most of you reading this blog, if your script bears a resemblance to something you've seen a trailer for, you've probably lost the battle already. If your script is pretty damn close to something that just sold this week, you're probably not in much of a better position. Note this anecdote from our good buddy Scott Myers:

There are only so many good ideas and writers everywhere are constantly trolling for them. One time Siegel & Myers had a spec script going through one last polish, literally days away before going on the market. The script was based on a comedic premise I had come up with: Couple adopts the child from hell (not literally, just a problem child). Woke up one morning to see the sale of the spec script Problem Child: "A young boy is just short of a monster. He is adopted by a loving man and his wife." We sent the script out anyway and were told by one exec, "If you had gotten this out a month ago, we would have bought it. But because of Problem Child..."

But I still haven't answered the real question - what about studios that are developing their own versions of similar source material, like Snow White?

Pre-sold properties are going to be treated differently from original ideas. I've heard about the Amazon Studios winner "Villain," and how it bears some pretty serious resemblances to aspects of Megamind and Despicable Me. If that's true, this script is dead in the water. It's an original property with an idea that's been done twice. There's no enticement for the audience to see something they've already been sold.

The difference with Snow White is that the popularity of the fairy tale it's based on essentially makes it pre-branded. And this is a RARE exception in that the story is in the public domain. It's not as if two studios can simultaneously develop competing versions of Superman or Spider-Man. However, since no one owns Snow White, the studios have the advantage of free access to characters that everyone already knows and a story that is pre-sold to some extent.

So Universal is soldiering on with Snow White and the Huntsman for December 2012, while Relatively is doing The Brothers Grimm: Snow White, set for July 2012. I wouldn't want to be in the Huntsman's shoes, especially if the Grimm version happens to be a big bomb. And even though technically every other studio in town could also do a Snow White film, I don't think you'll see anyone else looking to throw their hat into that particular ring.

My point is: while this situation happens, it's not desirable, and it's not a way that movies get made, as a rule. There's a very specific set of conditions that have allowed this double-dip.

It's not that I'm not sympathetic to writers who find themselves in this situation. I once wrote what I still think is a pretty cool Wizard of Oz sequel, only to finish it the week that two competing Oz projects were announced at different studios. At present, neither of those has come to fruition yet. Instead, the first Oz project to go into production appears to be the Oz, The Great and Powerful project which just signed James Franco and Mila Kunis. Thus, I wouldn't suggest anyone start writing an Oz spec now.

Look at it from this angle - Alice in Wonderland is also in the public domain. After last year's smash success from Tim Burton, is there anyone out there who wants to make the argument that writing your own Alice in Wonderland spec would be a smart career move?

If you lost the race and someone else is making or has made your movie, you've gotta just let it go.

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