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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Should You Rush a GREAT Idea?

I was having dinner the other night with three talented writers who are all close friends of mine when one of them, two margaritas in, reminded me of a script idea that he'd partially worked out a couple of years ago but set aside in favor of a newer project. As he described the logline, we all went nuts - it is BRILLIANT. It is high concept, it is zeitgeisty as hell and it is completely original - for now. Unanimously, we urged this writer to drop everything and complete this script as quickly as possible. Because somebody else is definitely going to come up with this idea. In fact, in the two years between writing a rough draft of the script and having moved on, my friend did find out that there is a comic book coming out with the same basic idea. Normally, I am not one to be super secretive about loglines but this is one of those loglines that you DO NOT tell many people because it is just so fantastic.

How do you know if you have a money idea? Well, that's one of those things that is helped quite a lot by living in LA and being around a lot of industry people so you can research whether it's been done before or worse - is being done right now.

But you don't necessarily have to live in LA for that advice. It's not so hard to find out if the idea has been done before. You can do an IMDB keyword search and go to a trusted industry connection and ask them to help you out. Is this idea floating around Hollywood right now? That's harder to find out. That's the kind of thing I turn to my colleagues for, since I know so many people who are preternaturally plugged in to what's going on in Hollywood.This is when having paid it forward will be enormously helpful. I have so many people (and you know who you are) who were former clients, became friends and do me little favors all the time. And I return those favors whenever I can. And the same is true for me - I have paid it forward and I have many colleagues that I turn to as well. On my own behalf and on yours.

I know a writer who had what felt like a GREAT idea for an episode of an existing show and was so excited - until he talked to someone who just happened to have seen literally every episode and...yep, it had been done. What a buzz kill that was. Better to find out in advance than shop around a spec with something that has already been done and look foolish.

Say you have an idea like my friend does. Fresh, totally original and yet totally obvious, thematically familiar and yet fundamentally different. Is it a rush or a race? Unfortunately, yes. A very strange thing happens with writers - and it doesn't matter where you live - but we seem to share the same thinking. It is a common occurrence that script ideas come in clusters. Without going all metaphysical on your behinds, I have no explanation for this. Ideas swim around in the ether and writers are always looking for them. We are all exposed to the same media and group-think and national and international zeitgeist so it's like being in a petrie dish; sooner or later connections will be made from one news item to another and new ideas will begin to form from single cells to wriggling flagellum.

So your totally brilliant, one-of-a-kind idea is, in all likelihood, not so original. So now the race is on. Who is going to not only get their wonderful idea DONE first, but who is going to execute it the best? You cannot sacrifice speed for quality if you are an unproven writer. Yes, established writers - known quantities - can sell the idea alone. Or the treatment. But new, unproven writers really can't. Because the idea might be great, but why should someone trust you, a new writer, to execute that on the page in a way that services this great idea beautifully, when they can either steal your idea and get it to a writer they KNOW is great, or wait for that to occur naturally. Because it will. And yes, idea theft does happen.

If you are a semi-experienced screenwriter, meaning you've written at least four or five scripts and done well in a competition or any other venue, you should be able to outline and write a first draft of your brilliant idea within six weeks. Or less. I know, that sounds insane, but so often we writers actually drag out the process much more than we need to. If you are that excited about your brilliant idea, you better burn the midnight oil and get it done. I give that about six weeks because after that you're going to need another two weeks to get notes and rewrite the draft. And maybe even another set and another rewrite. If you turn in a slipshod, rushed draft, this golden idea just turned into brass. Game over for you.

I generally like to practice what I preach - be present, enjoy the process, write for the joy of it. But once in awhile, when I hear an idea as good as the one I am referring to, then I preach Getting Thy Ass in Motion. Now. Because if you don't - someone else will. It happens all the time. Enlist your friends - get notes and guidance. You have one shot and you don't have much time. So do it right.

What if you knock yourself out to get a draft out there of an idea and then you read in the trades that another script is making the rounds with the same idea? Well, if the other draft out there is by a novice screenwriter, and you have rep, there's still some chance you'll be able to get your draft out there was well. All may not be lost. But - it's not a great situation. If the other draft floating around is by an experienced writer, it's time to go put your fist through a wall because it's all over for the shouting.

A couple of years ago, my former writing partner and I had a GREAT idea to adapt a cheesy 70s book (and television movie) into a feature film. It was a slam-dunk. Until we found out, very early on in our conversations that Scott Rudin has already set it up at Paramount. What a huge let down that was. But there you go. Glad we didn't waste our time, tell ya that.

So you have an amazing idea. The first thing you need to ascertain is if it really is that amazing. Then you need to make sure it truly has not been done before. Then you need to find out if it's floating around Hollywood right now. Then you need to buy three cases of Red Bull and outline and outline and outline and get ON writing the draft.

That is all. Now get back to work.

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E.C. Henry said...

Thanks for sharing your experiences, Julie. NEVER subscribed to the "rush the idea and script developement because someone MIGHT beat you to the punch" worry." WHY? Because I'm a pre-pro writer who writes what I want. I'm not paid to share ideas, so why bother? I show COMPLETED scripts that have been copywrite protected.

You've gotta wonder if "idea chasers/worriers" are really even writers at all. My guess is they're HACKS. Real, tride-and-true writers take their own ideas, develope them, then share them with others when they think they've taken the story as far as they can.

Don't believe in "writting by committee," do believe in discussing ideas in forum of mutal respect where it's been pre-arranged how idea/embronic stories are handled by creatives.

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Luzid said...

E.C., if one is *not* an "idea chaser" (someone who crafts the very best concept they can with any germinating idea) one simply will not make it in this town.

Hollywood craves great scripts based on great ideas - one doesn't exist without the other.

The real tried-and-true writers are the ones who know what their market wants (great ideas and execution) and strive to create it - and are rewarded by becoming professionals working at their craft.