Wednesday 9 November 2011

Steal my ideas!

Seems the first reaction I get from people when trying to discuss my latest script idea is: "If you talk about it, won't someone steal your idea?" Even my podiatrist (Hi Melanie!) worries that I'm about to be robbed. Worse than that, wannabe writers worry their brilliant, never-before-in-history, original idea will be stolen if they breathe so much as a syllable about it. 

Bobby Bowfinger hands his script around.
This fear is the mark of an amateur, because it's born of ignorance. 

The first place I came across a discussion of the fear of plagiarism as with so many other thingswas Terry Rossio's Wordplay, Column 4: Steal this Column! wherein he explained:
Nobody in Hollywood steals screenplays. It's usually easier to just buy the damn thing.
   Think about it. Imagine a writer has sent a finished script to an unscrupulous producer. The producer says, "Aha! Great screenplay. But I won't buy it -- I'll steal it instead!".
   Okay, so now the producer has a stolen movie idea, some characters to re-name, maybe even some kind of loose structure. Next step, he's got to find a writer to write this faux screenplay.
   No problem -- he just reads lots of scripts, conducts interviews, hoping to find a decent writer who'll write the thing the way he wants to see it. And whose fee isn't way beyond what it would have cost to buy the original screenplay in the first place.
   But before any writing happens, the producer must negotiate the writer's deal, and perhaps wait for that writer's availability. Finally, the writer starts writing. Six months later he turns in something that may or may not be a good execution of the stolen idea.
   And for all this, what has the producer gained? The potential for a lawsuit, and the dubious value of arriving second to the marketplace with the original idea.
   Uh-uh. No, your average Hollywood producer or studio executive would rather buy your script if they love it enough to steal -- and then ruin it on the way to production. (Typical of the writer's fate in Hollywood -- you still get screwed, but at least you get paid.)
Brad, thinking up a new idea to give away.
There are many blogs about screenwriting on the internet. One which takes a different approach is Steal My Script. In it Brad offers all his writingboth broad ideas and detailed scriptsto anyone who wants them. Criticize, rewrite, film; do what you want with it. In return he asks only one short line of acknowledgment. That's it. No tricks. Help yourself.

Brad recently wrote that:

This blog, Steal My Script, is based around my opinion that new writers (and some not-so-new writers) are overly concerned that their precious ideas are going to be stolen. I think that's (99% of the time) bullshit. I think a great script is just so damn hard to write that an idea is useless without execution.

About ten years ago, an offer appeared on our office computer network. A local genius had come up with a "guaranteed, sure-fire winner idea for a movie." He offered the idea for sale for $100. All you had to do was the easy part, hand over $100, then write the script. I laughed about that for months. 

Xander Bennett (author of Screenwriting Tips, You Hack) said this:
It's almost always the case that what you think is a billion-dollar idea is less than meaningless to somebody else. Nobody could have imagined Inception before Nolan wrote it -- at least not in a way that would have suggested a box-office success. Same with The King's Speech, Bridesmaids, Slumdog Millionaire or any number of surprisingly successful movies. Hell, Matthew Weiner sat on the concept for Mad Men for almost a decade. And it's clear why -- as anyone who's ever tried to sell their friends on that show knows, it's not exactly an easy idea to describe.
Blake Snyder said this:
The other great part about road-testing your logline is that you have the experience of all-weather pitching. I pitch to anyone who will stand still. I do it in line at Starbucks. I do it with friends and strangers. I always spill my guts when it comes to discussing what I'm working on, because:
a.  I have no fear that anyone will steal my idea (and anyone who has that fear is an amateur) and...
b.  You find out more about your movie by talking to people one-on-one than having them read it.
Alec Baldwin listens to a pitch in The Last Shot.
So, set your fears aside. Gain the confidence to talk about your ideas and--

What?  Me? 

Okay. I'm working on a romantic comedy about a journalism graduate who can't find a job as anything other than a blogger for an online newspaper. (That was one of the things that prompted me to start this blog, because I knew nothing about blogging and needed to find out the hard way.) My writers' group has the first 45 pages of a first draft and will be taking it apart later in the month. If I suddenly stop posting, it'll be because I've slashed my wrists. (Just kidding.)

I'm also working on a webseries idea about a bunch of older nurses (like my wife). They do lunch every few weeks. Some of them are retired (like my wife). Some are still working and bitching about all the problems that arise in modern nursing, the rest are sympathising and rejoicing they no longer have to put up with all that crap (like my wife). This one's in the early stages. I need to do a lot more research, which will involve me doing lunch and listening like an artist. 


Kathy said...

I know professionals laugh at people who worry about their ideas being stolen but this seems to me to be an Ivory Tower approach. They are saying, look, the people you are talking to are not screenwriters, or not screenwriters in your genre, or not screenwriters who would express your idea the way you would. In fact sometimes the people you are talking to are people who write in the same category you do, marketing to the same limited number of readers, readers who may see the idea as innovative the first time and derivative the second time. Critique partners have the power to steal your ideas.

Just saying.

Henry Sheppard said...

Thanks, Kathy. Just saying that the FEAR of being robbed will cost you more than any actual theft.

Screenwriters have to get past that fear if they want to function. Filmmaking, unlike novel writing, is a collaborative business. If screenwriters can't talk about their ideas, they should focus their writing energy in another direction.

Anne Flournoy said...

I'm so excited to have found your blog. Chock-full of really helpful tips and advice AND IT'S FUNNY. (Hi Melanie!) Why aren't you famous yet??

Henry Sheppard said...

Oh, don't worry, Melanie's famous. Having a New York filmmaker talking about her online is one sure sign...

Henry Sheppard said...

And now Melanie's even more famous. Regarded by many as Australia's greatest podiatrist, Melanie Clark was recently sought out by a national television show for her opinion. You can see part of the show at:

Enter "feet" in the search field on the upper left and an episode called "Feet ailments" should come up. Have a look at Melanie giving expert advice. (In real life, she's funny as well as wise.)

Princess Scribe said...

There is no way to copyright an idea. In that regard, all ideas are available to steal. Does that mean that they will be? No.

It takes time, a long, long time to go from concept to completion, and even longer to have something ready for market eyes. Why expend all that time/energy on something that somebody else is already ahead in the process? That's time that you will never get back. Fear of theft is the mark of the amateur writer. Plain and simple.

That being said, there are reasons that you cannot shout out an idea - the NDA being one of them. If you have one of those, that can fall under "I'd tell you but I'd have to kill you" category. ;)

And then, there is the writers collective - there is this unexplainable phenomenon in which writers all begin writing about the same thing at the same time. It's happened to me more than once; to me, that simply validates that I am on the right track. At the end of the day, it is my execution that matters. There are no original ideas. There is an original, unique way to tell your story/idea.