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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Somebody Got There First

Well. It finally happened. You read the trades and you see it. A script that has sold that is exactly like the script you have been working on for months. Even the title is similar. Sure, sure, some of the details are different but the premise - yeah, that was your premise. And now it's out there and you're done for. Right?

Well, not exactly. Look, this is not a good situation, there's no two ways about it. If someone just SOLD a script that shares the same basic idea as yours, well, that puts you in a pretty disadvantageous position if you are a totally unknown, unrepped writer. Not quite as disadvantageous if you're repped and a known entity. Sometimes movies are released in twos: PAUL BLART and OBSERVE AND REPORT are a recent example. Then of course, ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT is probably the most famous example.

But there's a big difference between you, Joe Writer from Somewhere, working on a script and Joe Hollywood Writer who just sold a similar script. There's not really going to be an arms race there to get your movie into production as well. So if that is your situation, you're pretty much screwed. And you know what? It happens. And yes, you will cry in your soup for a few days. What an awful feeling. All that hard work for nothing.

But is it for nothing? No. It is not. Complete your script. Make it the best iteration of your take on the premise as possible. Why? Because you now have a great sample. And yes, when and if you get meetings, your script will be compared to the script that was sold - but that's okay. You are aware of that and this is a sample. To not be aware would be the biggest sin, honestly. But you're not going to query using this script. It's going to be in your kit bag as a sample. That's really the only big shift that's going to happen for you. This script is not going to the point of the spear for you. But in the big picture, while that's disappointing - well, let's be honest, it's really a blow - you still have other scripts in your arsenal.

And an arsenal is what you need to have. I know how exciting it feels to finish a script and query with it. But many writers forget that you need to have others that are also in great shape as samples of your writing. Ideally, you should have two or more really great scripts aside from the one you are querying with.

So if you find that a script quite similar to yours is out on the marketplace, just sold or even released in theaters, give yourself a minute to feel the burn of that. It's natural. But do not give up on that script. Focus on your craft and voice and screenwriting skills. Make your script the best mall cop script you personally could write. And then add it to your stack of samples. Then move on to a new script, one that you do trust is totally unique...and start again.

There's no way to prevent this situation from arising. We writers are all out there reading the newspaper and brainstorming and observing life and so it's only a matter of time before someone else has an idea similar to your own. And that writer might execute the script faster, they might be repped or lucky or an alien life form - and they get their script on the market first. So while I hope this never happens to you, if it does, stay calm, hang onto your script and make sure it is a GREAT draft because when you get into a meeting in which a rep is seriously entertaining taking you on, it is still part of your body of work. Not knowing that there is a script or movie like yours already out there - now that would be embarrassing. So do read the trades and stay up on script sales.

Here are some resources for following what's selling:

Done Deal Pro
Tracking B

-and the highly entertaining Script Girl.

So if you have been the victim of Somebody Got There First, breathe it out and do not give up on your script. You need great samples and though the issue was forced, this is a great sample. Never miss an opportunity to learn while you are on this journey. Never write a half-assed script and then let it languish in a drawer. Every script you write is potentially a great sample or, of course, in the best outcome possible, the script that got you repped - or even sold.

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Lisa said...

Great post – thank you!

I have a half-assed script that is smoldering in a file cabinet. It started strong, but it was written while taking a course and I was late and began writing at lightning speed to finish it and that is precisely where it became half-assed. I actually wrote 104 pages about a guy without a goal. And although it sounds like it would be simple to fix, I feel completely stupid when I look at it and it winds up going back into the drawer. The whole premise is so cliché. So I got a good laugh when I walked into Blockbuster and saw that an ugly replica has already been made into a feature starring Daniel Craig.

Not sure if I should take it out and rework it, but when I look at it, I lose all my energy and wind up writing nothing, and it feels equally as bad that the effort was wasted.

Christian M. Howell said...

Well, I guess I'm lucky in that none of my close to 100 idea outlines have popped up, but I always felt that - hey maybe someone sold it already but that means my idea was good and I would keep writing.

Besides, just because it sold doesn't mean it will get made so it's not over but...

Most of what we write on spec is just going to be writing samples anyway, especially with re-imagining frenzy.

Luzid said...

This is exactly why refining and testing your premise before going to draft on any project is so important.

Read Done Deal (it's totally worth the yearly subscription fee). Google the hell out of your concept for anything remotely close to it. Do the homework, and you can reduce the chances of identical-premise sticker shock.

One of my scripts that is currently being read by producers started off as a slight twist on private detectives -- a twist that, after research, I found had already been done. So I amped up the concept to something that no one's ever done before (it helps that I blend genres), in a way that actually made the premise way cooler.

If I hadn't done that hard work of trying to come up with the most unique premise possible, industry pros would not be reading that script right now.

I'm a big believer in nailing the premise and logline before even going to outline, and it really does make a world of difference!

(All that said, I still know that one day someone could have the same idea. All I can do is be as unique and true to my own voice as I can, and the rest is out of my hands.)

Dave Shepherd said...

I hear ya. I've had that happen about three times in the last three years.

Fortunately I wasn't past the outline stage on any of them, and one had originated from a novel I'd never heard of.

Means I'm on the right track though. Just need to be a little faster.

lawriter said...

I just have to say I saw Observe and Report tonight and it's amazing. I CANNOT believe Warner Brothers let them make that film exactly as written. At the question and answer session, the director said they didn't make them take anything out. Very impressive considering...