A reader question from The_High_Dweller:
I got one for ya… We’re always talking about “Similar But Different” here, right?
And we’ve even had suggestions on how to go about coming up with something that’s similar but different… Check out successful movies from the past and actually take their logline and change the genre, genders, setting, etc.
So I’m wondering how far is too far to take that suggestion??
Like take your script, K-9, for instance… What if someone changed the main character to a woman, the dog to a Dalmatian, and the career to a fire(wo)man, and the setting to say… Texas.
(I’m not thinking of doing this, by the way.)
And with those changes, having steered far enough away from your concept, could they actually use your story as a guideline and create similar conflict, scenes, characters, plot points, etc. as your story?
… I guess it sounds like I’m almost asking “Is it okay to just plagiarize?” But my point is: how far is too far and how far is safe?
I’d like to take the “similar but different” approach with a contained thriller. But I haven’t tried this genre before. So I like the advice of taking a successful film and creating something similar, yet different. But I wouldn’t want to use someone else’s script as my guide and end up with something TOO close to that already-successful and well-known script/film.
To frame my response, I went back to a lecture I penned for an online screenwriting course way back in 2002:
The mantra of the studios’ film divisions can best be summed up in this manner – what they want to buy, develop, and produce are screenplays which are “similar but different.”
Why? There is a two-part answer. The first part goes back to the familiar subject – marketing. Because the simple fact is that after script purchase, years of development hell and rewrites, actors and directors falling in and out of deals, battles over budget, months of preproduction, production, post-production, none of it matters one whit unless the studios can sell the movie.And in an increasingly noisy world with consumers bombarded by advertisers on all sides, the task of getting the message out is becoming harder and harder.
That’s where similar comes in. If the movie’s concept or storyline has a familiar ring to it, so the marketing theory goes, then the consumer is more likely to remember the advertisement. And if they remember the ad, then the odds increase exponentially that the consumer will be motivated to get off their fanny, drive to the local Cineplex, and actually buy a movie ticket than if they do not remember the ad.
The different component should be obvious – the story can’t be exactly the same as something else, it has to be spun just enough to make the consumer think they’ll be viewing something actually worth seeing, even if what’s on the screen turns out to be a nauseating copycat of another movie – of course, by then, they already have your money.
And then these observations from another lecture in that same screenwriting class about the idea of recycling plots:
What do I mean by recycling plots?Just what it says: Take old stories, and use them again.Tweak ‘em, shake ‘em, rattle ‘em around a bit, then put them down on paper, make the movie, and voila – a new theatrical release is born.
This is not a recent phenomenon, indeed, it is as old as Hollywood itself. I read an account from one veteran screenwriter who confessed that he had written the same exact plot for seven different movies, back in the 30s and 40s.One time, it was a western, another time it was a pirate’s tale, another time it was a gangster movie, and so on. One plot. Seven movies.
This approach is not restricted to Hollywood either.In the field of storytelling and creative expression, the old adage is most certainly true: There is nothing new under the sun. But don’t listen to me; hear what these experts have to say on the subject.
“Every writer has certain subjects that they write about again and again.Most people’s books are just variations on certain themes.” – Christopher Isherwood
“I think one writes and rewrites the same book.I lead a character from book to book, I continue along with the same ideas.Only the angle of vision, the method, the lighting change.” – Truman Capote
“Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves – that’s the truth.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
Need more proof? See if you recognize these movies from their plot descriptions:
“A man who wins a lottery takes a vacation with the girl who gave him half her ticket.”
Has to be It Could Happen To You, the 1994 romantic-comedy starring Nicholas Cage and Bridget Fonda, right?
Wrong. This is the log-line to a French movie, Bonne Chance, released way back in 1935.
“A shopgirl finds an abandoned baby and is thought to be its mother.”
Sounds like the 1987 comedy BABY BOOM, starring Diane Keaton and Sam Shepherd.
Nope. It’s the one-line description of a 1939 RKO release, Bachelor Mother, starring Ginger Rogers.
“In order to stay in America, a European refugee arranges a strictly platonic marriage with an American.”
That’s got to be the 1990 romantic-comedy Green Card, starring Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell.
Sorry. That is the high-concept behind the 1941 MGM movie Come Live With Me.
With that as background, one thing should be abundantly clear re your question: Recycling story concepts and plot elements isn’t just acceptable in Hwood, it’s in its very lifeblood. Think of it this way: There’s a very thin line between homage and recycling.
Re your question specifically, you zero in on the key consideration: When is a story too similar to a preexisting one? I don’t think there’s any specific guideline. The best bet for a writer is to go with their gut, akin to what former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity in movies, “I know when I see it.”
You mention K-9. This might be instructive. After we sold the script, we were the proverbial “flavor-of-the-week,” which meant our agents set up meetings for us all over town. One of those meetings was at Disney with a studio executive (now a major movie producer). We walk in, introduce ourselves, start what we think will be another typical schmooze session to start the meeting when the exec says of our script, “Yeah, we thought about suing you guys.”
Gulp. Turns out Disney had this script lying around in development hell called Turner & Hootch. Here’s its IMDB logline: A detective must adopt the dog of a dead man to help him find the murderer.
The movie’s tagline: “The Oddest Couple Ever Unleashed!”
Here is the IMDB logline for K-9: To stop an elusive criminal, a maverick detective enlists the aid of a police dog who’s an unusually intelligent smart alec.
The movie’s tagline: “Meet the two toughest cops in town. One’s just a little smarter than the other.”
Okay, let’s compare the movies.
* Buddy comedies
* Human and dog partnership
* Cop partners with dog to solve a crime mystery
* At first, the human and the dog don’t get along, but over time they bond
* Jerry Lee (K-9) is a police dog; Hooch is a ‘civilian’
* Scott (Tom Hanks in T&H) is a neatnik and Hooch messes up Scott’s well organized life; Dooley (Jim Belushi in K-9) is having romance issues with his girlfriend (Mel Harris) and the dog messes the couple
More similar than different, right? Evidently not because Disney didn’t sue. [It also happened to be the case that neither I had ever heard of T&H, let alone read it]. Instead based upon the sale of K-9 and in a classic case of Hollywood-think, figuring that if Universal Pictures saw something in a cop and dog movie, Disney dusted off Turner & Hootch and thus began a race between the two studios: Competing cop and dog movies.
But that’s another story.
My answer to your question is there is no answer. It’s a case by case thing. Story Idea A may be too similar to a preexisting movie, while Story Idea B may be different enough.
One easy way to avoid this dilemma: Come up with really different story concepts. I’ll bet when Kyle Killen came up with the idea for “The Beaver” — a dark comedy where one of the story’s main characters, a hand puppet, comes alive — he wasn’t worried about anybody copying him or a studio exec saying, “Eh, too similar.”
So to sum up, it’s perfectly acceptable in Hwood to troll in the ‘similar but different’ waters. You do have to be careful not to be too similar, however there is no specific guideline to steer you in that regard, you just have to go with your gut.
And the best solution: Come up with unique, different story ideas. Especially ones you’re passionate about. Then write the hell out of them.
[Originally posted February 21, 2010]