"Is it possible to spontaneously die of despair?"

June 17th, 2009 by

I received a rather frantic email from screenwriter, blogger — Acerbic Bubblegum — and GITS reader Caitlin. Her email read:

Sorry to bug you, but I was hoping for some sage advice… Having just read this news, should I die of despair on the spot, or no?

For the full context, I went to Caitlin’s blog and read this:

Sarah Haskins sold a screenplay with essentially the same logline as my spec script. I pretty much want to die.

She might be Internet famous, but now Haskins is hoping to branch out. She recently sold a screenplay with her writing partner, a friend from college. It’s called Book Smart, and chronicles the two overachieving girls who realize in the middle of their senior year of high school that they don’t have boyfriends and haven’t had enough fun. They decide to put their minds to getting boyfriends by prom and “hilarity ensues,” says Haskins, adding that it just might be inspired by real life. “I’m not going to spoil the ending but you can see it in 2017.” [The Daily Beast]

My screenplay, Those Girls, chronicles one day in the life of two overachieving girls on the verge of graduation, who realize that their high school memories consist entirely of homework, extracurriculars, and college applications. On this particular Friday, they’re determined to create some new memories involving drugs, alcohol and boys, so they buy a bag of weed and crash the popular kids’ party. Of course, hilarity ensues, and of course, it is inspired by real life.

So…anybody want to buy a screenplay? Superbad meets Gilmore Girls? Please? It’s good, I promise…

FML.

Committed as I am to saving writers from “pretty much wanting to die,” I did some research and sent back this response to Caitlin about another project Sarah Haskins recently set up:

“Lunch Lady”

Let me dig some more.


But you have to know that Hwood operates on the ‘similar but different’ premise. Oftentimes projects getting set up help similar script sell. When we sold K-9, that actually jump started a script stuck in dev hell called Turner and Hootch.

So take a deep breath and step away from the ledge.

Let me get back to you.

A few hours later, Caitlin responded with this:

Deep breaths, deep breaths… Thanks for the reassuring words, Scott.

I have been Googling Book Smart, but haven’t found anything other than the Daily Beast article and an EW article from April 30 that says it’s been optioned.

I’m trying to look on the bright side, but it’s just so startling and disheartening because until now, I’d been thinking, oh, I’ll just be patient and see how I do in the competitions I entered and focus on my next script…and now I’m wondering if that attitude was completely wrong and stupid.

Similar but different, similar but different, similar but different…

And then me again:

There’s one apparent big difference between your script and Book Smart: Yours takes place in a night or two; there’s takes place over a longer period of time. That is not an insubstantial difference. Imagine The Hangover taking place over several months – totally diff picture.

And by the way, an optioned piece of material is way less likely to get produced. There’s a phrase in Hwood, called getting a studio “pregnant” on a project. Basically the more money they spend on a project — the more ‘pregnant’ they become — the more likely they are to have to go ahead and produce it. Option deals are typically no more than $10K which is nothing in terms of development dollars. Plus the writing duo has this other gig going now with Amy Poehler attached, so they may have already moved on to this other project.

And finally this from Caitlin this AM:

The more I investigate Book Smart, the more it sounds like the scripts themselves are probably fairly different. Aside from the time compression thing, mine is more about the girls’ friendship and fun adventures, and less about boys and romance. The premises just seem so similar at first glance – both are buddy comedies about two overachieving girls in their senior year of high school.

I was a little relieved when I read that it had actually been optioned, rather than bought.

So why this thread? Actually Caitlin suggested it would be worthy of a GITS post: “If you want to use my freakout as easy blog fodder, feel free. I certainly know I’m not the only one who’s experienced this horrible sinking sensation.” And Caitlin’s absolutely right. I’ll bet some of you have awakened one morning to find a project just sold with a story concept the same or almost the same as yours. I’ve had that experience at least a dozen times — and the immediate reaction is, at least for me, the only time I ever feel this odd, sickly sensation simultaneously in my throat, gut, and sphincter.

Oh. My. God. No!!!

Here’s a fact of an Hwood writer’s life and even those trying to break into The Biz: There is always a chance that someone else — perhaps several ‘someone elses’ — are right now working on a screenplay with your story concept.

Look at the numbers. There are over 30,000 story submissions each year to Hwood.

30,000!

Let’s say you’re writing a comedy. Given how popular that genre is, you can figure that about 12-15,000 of those submissions are comedies.

Now ask yourself: Just how many good comedic story concepts are there? Not that many.

How many different story types are there? Again not that many.

It stands to reason that if you’re working on a mainstream, commercial screenplay with a mainstream, commercial high concept as its foundation, someone somewhere is working on something similar to your story, maybe exactly like it.

Back in 1988, I was reading Weekly World News — I actually subscribed to the tabloid, part of my insane daily search for story concepts — when I saw a headline, “Family adopts the child from Hell.” That inspired my writing partner at the time and I to write a family comedy with that same premise, only not literally a child from Hell, but rather a problem child. As we were wrapping up the final edit on our draft, we opened the trades to see that Universal had bought the spec script “Problem Child” by writers Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski.

Problem Child went on to gross $53M. And our script? Sent out meekly 2 weeks later, then into recycling bins across Hwood. Too similar, too late.

So you have to work under the assumption that your script could get scooped.

How to live with that reality?

One thing you can do is go the Charlie Kaufman route: Write stories that are seemingly not commercial. You will have a harder time selling that type of material, but you’re much less likely to run into similar scripts. And if you write a great script — like Kaufman — you could get lucky and get the project made.

But let’s assume you want to make a living writing commercial movie scripts. Here’s how I approach the reality that other people could be writing what I’m writing:

* Write faster: Use that fact to inspire me to push ahead with my scripting process. When I’m tempted to slough off for a day, I remind myself that there is probably somebody out there working on their spec script with my idea. That usually gets my butt back in chair.

* Write better: There may be someone out there working on a concept similar to mine, but I’ll work my arse off to make sure my script is a better read and a better story than theirs.

* Track the marketplace: Check everyday to see what sells. Nothing worse than writing a script that is exactly like something that sold months ago — only you didn’t know about it. To do this, subscribe to DoneDealPro.com (about $25 per year).

* Generate lots of story concepts: If you do wake up and see that dreadful headline in the trades where the story you’re working on has been sold out from under you, and that’s the only story concept in your Idea Warehouse, then yes, maybe it’s okay to “spontaneously die of despair.” That’s why I keep dozens of story ideas at hand and continue to develop new ones. Because if you lose one story concept to a competitor, you can always move onto the next one.

If you do discover a project that appears to have a similar story concept to something you’ve written or are writing, there are two things you need to do:

(1) Research: Just like Caitlin and I did re “Book Smarts.” Find out as much as you can about the project. What may seem like the same story from a logline may in fact be quite a different script.

(2) Tweak: If the story turns out to be almost exactly the same as yours, play around with your concept to see if you can tweak it, differentiating it from the other project.

The saving grace here is that Hwood operates by this principle: Similar but different. Typically the studios buy projects that are similar to movies that have succeeded, but different enough that they won’t be accused of remaking or ripping off the earlier film. A perfect example is the pitch “Conjuring” that sold yesterday in a bidding war, noted in the GITS post previous to this one. It’s similar to the Exorcist, Amityville Horror, and The Haunting in Connecticut, but also different enough to warrant a new movie.

So instead of casting yourself off the ledge, there are things you can do to protect yourself against the dreaded “I-Just-Read-A-Script-That-Sold-Like-Mine” phenomenon.

BTW, I have a three-part series on “similar but different” — you can go here and track back to the first post.

So does anyone have a story similar to Caitlin’s scare?

9 thoughts on “"Is it possible to spontaneously die of despair?"

  1. Caitlin says:

    Thanks for the link, Scott! You are the best.

  2. Joshua James says:

    You are good people, Scott, good people.

  3. E.C. Henry says:

    My heart goes out to Caitlin.

    The first script I wrote, "Give It Up for Chimpy" (2003, copyrighted in 2004) has the logline:

    "A man’s ability to interpret for a monkey wins him a job hosting a late night talk show where the girl of his dreams works."

    Doesn't sound too much like "The Zookeeper" AT FIRST.

    "The animals at one particular zoo decide to break their code of silence in order to help their loveable zookeepr gain the attention of one particular woman."

    BUT my story starts out in a zoo. Where a zookeeper pines for a lady who works in the movie buisness. And much of ACT I takes place in a zoo — in Los Angeles.

    For a while I worried about it. "Oh my god they stole my idea!" Or more likey read the script and developed a simular idea, carefully skewing a few things of course.

    But now, so long as this story doesn't mirror TOO CLOSELY what I've done, I'm cool with it. Heck, "The Zookeeper's" sucess might even improve the chances I can sell "Give It Up for Chimpy." Would LOVE to see Judd Apatow do it. (fingers crossed)

    You're not the only one Caitlin with similar concerns. My advice to you is use that concern to your advantage. Maybe this circumstances will help you sell your script. K9 AND Turner and Hootch BOTH got made, which is the end-all bottom line, isn't it?

    Once again, my heart goes out to you Caitlin, I hope your story has a happy ($$) ending.

    - E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

  4. jess says:

    Hey, Caitlin-

    It happens to the best of us. About five years ago I started writing a script I was calling SCREAM QUEENS. I got as far as the midpoint, but just couldn't seem to find a way to finish it. The basic premise was this:

    Sidney Prescott (SCREAM), Rachel Keller (THE RING), Jamie Lloyd (Laurie Strode's younger sister from HALLOWEEN), and a brand new Scream Queen who'd just escaped her fate, join forces to hunt and kill the Preternatural Killers that have plagued them all their lives.

    I even posted the first five pages on Done Deal a few years ago. The problem was, I just couldn't break the story. I'd pick it up every now and again, the last time a few months ago. But I couldn't find the inspiration if it burrowed a hole up my tush.

    Then, yesterday, a friend of mine sent me this, ostensibly from some tracking board site (probably TrackingB):

    "HOLLY McC

    Representation: David Boxerbaum (APA)

    Written by: David Schow (THE CROW, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE)

    You know that one girl at the end of every horror/slasher movie that escapes (from the prom gone bad or the babysitter home alone). Well, what if four of them teamed up to catch the killers that wreaked havoc on their lives. Stacy Maes attached to produce."

    Now, I don't know if he's sold this, yet, but he is a produced writer, so he's definitely got the one up on me. Besides which, it's obvious he's cracked the story. Well, more power to him — good luck, David. And stick with it, Caitlin.

    Jess

  5. James says:

    It's the same logline as AMERICAN PIE — with chicks.

  6. Luzid says:

    I had a similar experience, Scott. I started with a more generic concept (private detective losing his sight) only to discover that such an idea had been done more than once.

    So I dug deeper, researched like crazy (via Done Deal Pro, Google, and IMDB) and pushed the concept to turn it into BLIND 5POTS. Had I not done that, I doubt you (or anyone) would be reading it right now.

    Part of why I write blended-genre speculative fiction is the desire to craft as unique a premise as I can with every story. The other, of course, is because I love those kinds of stories.

    So far, it's been win-win — I can't find anything like the ideas I've been writing. It pays to research and work concepts as hard as possible.

  7. Jeff says:

    This actually occurs somewhat regularly with me, enough that at this point, I stopped freaking out and merely shrug and say, "well I guess I'm on the right track…"

    My writing partner in the 90's and I devised a nifty little script that actually got us representation for a time with a project called "57 Outdoor." Flash foward a year later and we're basically watching our concept onscreen as John Sayles' "Lone Star." As disturbing as it was (worse, Sayles film was, of course, miles better than ours… I mean, c'mon, John Sayles???) we at least had landed an agent off the script so all was good.

    Our follow up for this particular agency was a re-imagining of the old Washington Irving tale "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Ours was a modernization of the tale and, again, this particular agent was pretty jazzed about it. The project fell apart quickly but imagine my shock that two years later, Tim Burton's version hit the screen. Again, no big deal, Burton's was, of course, terrific and now, in hindsight, I can see how flawed our take on the script was.

    There have been other times too, some slightly resembling, others a near carbon copy.

    All it really means is that you're an active member of the times you live in and are consciously plugged into the miasma that is modern life. As writers, ain't that our gig?

    Caitlin, all is good, sounds like you're doing everything right, not the opposite.

  8. Nicholas says:

    "blended-genre speculative fiction"

    Yeah, that's what I do too, Luzid. Luckily for me, I have a knack for coming up with those unique concepts, so chances are I won't have much of a problem having something sold out from under by feet.

  9. Nicholas says:

    I should also note that most of the concepts people would come up with tend to bore me just enough that I would have no interest writing them. It's because of that, really, that I have to write things that are different…because they are much more exciting to me.

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