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…
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:
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.
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?