Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Any chance they just want to buy my idea and have someone else rewrite it?"

A writer calling themselves "Inconsolable Cat" sent me the following question:

How likely are you to pass up the line a script that has a great concept, but which is merely competently executed? Have you ever written, "The only good thing here is the idea. But what a great idea!"? How likely is a studio to buy a script just to own the concept, opting to send it to an established pro for a re-write?

I've been asked variations on this question before, and usually with a specific subtext to the query.  I'm not saying "Inconsolable" is guilty of this motivation, but this seems like a good opportunity to address those who are.

When I'm asked, "If the idea is great, would the studio buy that and get someone else to rewrite it?" my first thought is that I'm dealing with a writer who doesn't have confidence that their writing is up to the level of other professionals.  But somehow, they're convinced their idea is wildly original, so original that they can cash in by selling that and banking on someone else to get hired to do all the hard work.

I hate this sort of attitude.

It smacks of the laziest sort of writer, the kind of writer who's just in it to "cash in."  A real writer with a brilliant idea shouldn't want to give it up.  A true writer resists someone else coming in to work on his baby.

If you want to be a writer and you have an idea you believe in, they should have to pry that script out of your cold dead hands.  The only reason you should ask the question above is out of the fear that you won't get to complete the project on your own.

If  you welcome the idea of someone just tossing a nominal fee at you to buy the idea and then do what they want with it, just get the fuck out right now.

I mean it.  This isn't a profession for dilettantes.  When you treat screenwriting in that manner, it's disrespectful to the people who work hard to develop their craft and better their product.  If you don't show respect to the profession, I'm under no obligation to show respect to you.

As I said, Inconsolable Cat might not be coming at the question from the motivations I ascribe above, but I know that there are people out there who DO think like that.

To cover the rest of the questions, yes, there have been plenty of coverages where I've said, "Good concept, terrible execution."  It's somewhat rare to find an EXCELLENT concept and terrible execution, only because the work of a weak writer might end up undermining anything good about the script.

A weak writer also is less likely to conceive with an entirely unique concept.  If it's an idea they came up with, odds are someone ELSE has thought of something similar, and they might have done it even better.  So while readers like me can always champion the concept while slamming the script, a sub-par writing sample does no one any favors.

The decisions about that kind of purchase are made above my paygrade.  While it might happen now and then that a concept is SO impressive that it merits immediate purchase, I can't say I've ever seen that scenario happen at any of the companies I've worked for.  In other words, don't bank on it.

I'd say it's more likely that a script would sell if it's by written by a writer just short of professional level.  That writer would then get their guild-obligated rewrite and then the script would get passed on to another pro only after it was decided the original writer couldn't get the script to where it needed to be.  That kind of thing is probably more common than the concept being bought and the original writer being immediately removed.

Your goal should to sell that script, and be strong enough to be hired on even after the requisite rewrite.  Strive to be a writer, not a concept farmer.


  1. Great post - completely agree. It reminds me a bit of those people you meet at parties who say, "oh you're a screenwriter? I've got a great idea for a film: how about you write it and we'll split the money!" I normally behead those people on the spot

    1. yes! EXACTLY that sort of person. And usually they never understand why writers get so mad at that suggestion.

    2. I once had someone (a lawyer) do that to me, and when I attempted to explain (I didn't have an axe handy) he said "it won't be that hard for you - I can get my secretary to type it!" Because that is the real challenge of screenwriting: ALL THE TYPING.

  2. My view is, writing is hard. Coming up with a killer concept and giving it a mediocre execution is difficult enough as it is. You still have to write 100 pages that make sense, create three acts and arcs for all the characters. If you get that far, you might as well spend the extra effort and make the execution perfect. Otherwise, why bother?

  3. Love this post on so many levels. I've met countless people who ascribe to the idea that screenwriting is just a chance to cash in as opposed to an actual skill that has to be learned and perfected. New writers should be encouraged to write, but not everyone should be encouraged to pursue screenwriting professionally.

  4. You have to remember that the mortals don't understand what our craft is really about. It's a fantasy land from their point of view and they think they have suddenly caught a leprechaun. Now they want take our pot of gold.

    Business is hard, but you already know this, if you are on your way to be your own man. Crying for agents and managers to make your life easier won't help.

    There are no shortcuts and no one wants to make YOUR movie.

  5. It's sort of the same feeling I get every time a friend says the words "I've got a great idea for a film YOU should write".

    No one wants to put in the work these days.

  6. Seriously, I have this great idea for a project. I mean, this idea is so FANTASTIC that whenever I mention even part of it, to total strangers who are otherwise trying to ignore me, like on a plane or like that, they stop what they're doing and breathlessly blurt, "What a great idea! You ought to be working on that project right now!"

    And the funny thing is, it's the simplest concept you can imagine, it's so obvious that you can't understand why nobody's ever made a movie about it. And it has the potential to be more than a great movie, more than a franchise even, but an entire new genre unto itself, like Westerns or romcoms or like that --

    Oww. Got a bit of a twinge in my craw, there. Must be indigestion.

    Anyhow -

    Oww. There it goes again.

    This idea -


    So simple a child could write it --


    Billions to be made --

    If only -

    I had -

    The time -


  7. During my years as a reader (almost a decade) I saw this exactly once. The story was simplistic and the dialogue was some of the worst I ever read. I thought the idea was hackneyed. The producer who bought it paid bottom dollar and another writer was hired immediately for the rewrite. It was an impulse buy, and everyone tried to dissuade the producer from doing it. He was the only champion of the idea, and he didn't even like the writer. The project died after the first rewrite which coincided with the producer's trip to Betty Ford.

    Along with the fantasy of becoming a seller of ideas to Hollywood, many aspiring idea merchants figure that with the sale they will get to join the WGA and enjoy the great health insurance and other benefits. What they don't learn until they join is that sale dollars do not qualify towards pension and health (P&H) benefits. Only work for hire dollars count towards P&H qualification. That's another reason why everyone chases open writing assignments.

  8. I think just as many writers ask that question out of fearfulness, though. They ARE proud of their writing -- so much so that they think it's worthy of being stolen! -- and what they actually fear is their lack of practical industry knowledge and experience. "What if the producer loves my script, but I'm the third wheel?"

  9. I’ve got a great idea for a story. I’ll tell you my idea, and you write it. We’ll split the proceeds fifty-fifty.

    Ideas are a dime a dozen. That makes your idea worth about eight-tenths of one cent. An idea is no more a story than a lump of carbon is a diamond necklace.

    Alternative answer:
    Why don’t I think about a swimming pool and you dig it for me?

  10. People who think that way are never going to be writers anyway. I wouldn't worry about it.

  11. This makes me think of all the people I hear who want to be in "Development" or a "Development Executive." Basically that make me think that the want to play around with ideas and brainstorm, but they don't want to do any of the actual work of writing.

  12. Agree with you here, but writers DO get rewritten all the time. Writers definitely shouldn't get lazy and think, "oh well, my script can be mediocre because someone can rewrite this" - but I think all writers should know that it's not uncommon at all for companies to buy scripts and then hire different writers to rewrite them. I do sometimes write "consider" hoping that a rewrite (by the current writer or someone else) might be able to fix the things I had problems with. For example, if a script's dialogue is terrible, the script would probably need to be rewritten by a different writer.

    However, per the WGA, writers are guaranteed the Right to the First Rewrite of Optioned Material, Right to First Rewrite After Acquisition or License, Right to Perform Revisions, etc. Also: "If the company contemplates replacing the original writer, a representative of the company is first obligated to meet with that writer. This gives the writer an opportunity to discuss staying on the project." Writers could waive these rights, but it's not as easy as it might sound for a company to buy a script and immediately hire a new writer (and perhaps that's why a company might not be thrilled to purchase a script with a great concept but terrible execution).

    This gets complicated and I admit I'm not an expert, so here's more info:

    Also, there are plenty of people who love coming up with ideas but do not wish to write scripts: producers. This is obviously not the sole job of a producer, but many producers have ideas or pet projects that they find writers for later. If you love coming up with ideas but don't want to write, you might consider getting an assistant job at a production company and working your way up.

    1. Not all producers, especially on the feature end of the business, are guild signatories. And a lot of the niceties and protocols in the MBA are either unknown, ignored or trampled on daily in this town. The WGA doesn't tend to care unless there's money on the table.

      I agree, if someone isn't confidant in their ability as a writer but feels they have ideas to offer, then producing is the course they should tack to. Unfortunately, that road is a long tough slog (sorry for mixing metaphors) if you don't have solid contacts in the business or a bunch of money to throw around to make a low budget film or two.

      I think Bitter nailed it as being a lazy writer who wants the big payday, but doesn't want to work for it. It takes years of writing to become a good screenwriter. Everybody in this town thinks their ideas are pure gold, and mostly they're not.

      I also think this is a separate issue from the "what if they steal my idea" fears of many newbies. As someone said, "Ideas are a dime a dozen" and we are all reading the same news stories, novels and such. Some stuff is just percolating in the ether and several people are going to make the same connections. It's happened to all of us. And at the end of the day, an idea is just that: an idea. It's the execution that counts. A writer will write that idea as a script. A producer will hire a writer, director, actors, etc. and produce the movie. Producing is much harder than writing in my opinion.

  13. Because everyone has written, everyone thinks they can write. Good writing is hard work. The people who don't think so are the people who can't write.
    While new to screenwriting, I've been professional journalist and freelancer good long while and as former editor exposed to the raw copy of dozens of newspaper reporters I can testify that most people PAID to write are sucky writers.

    The "great idea" people don't just bug screenwriters.

  14. The really sad thing is that people who can't write get published all the time. Just look at Dan Brown, Rowling, Weber, and Jordan, among a host of others.