30 Things About Screenwriting: Similar but different

July 14th, 2015 by

Sequels. Prequels. Remakes. Reboots. Why do Hollywood studios choose to go this route with such familiar material? Why not fill their development slates with bold projects full of fresh ideas and innovative stories?

That would run entirely counter to the working ethos which informs the studio system decision-making process, a business mantra that can best be summed up in this manner: What they are inclined to buy, develop, and produce are projects, including screenplays, that are similar but different.

Again the question: Why? There are many reasons. Here are the biggest two.

The increasing importance of marketing: The simple fact is after the acquisition of a project, years of rewrites, talent falling in and out, battles over budget, months of pre-production, 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, a studio’s task of getting the message out about a movie has become harder and harder.

If the movie’s concept or storyline has a familiar ring to it, so the marketing theory goes, it’s more likely to connect with consumers. And if a consumer remembers some aspect of a movie’s ad campaign, the odds increase exponentially they will be motivated to get off their fanny, drive to the local Cineplex, and actually buy a movie ticket.

Think of the sport of stock car racing. A competitor can position themselves after the leader and benefit from reduced air resistance by taking advantage of the slipstream. Likewise if a studio can position a movie similar to a preexisting property – (e.g., movie, TV series, book, graphic novel), the movie can reduce the amount of ‘drag’ in the marketplace because consumers will already have some awareness of the title.

Hence the value of similar. The different component should be obvious: the story can’t be exactly the same as the preexisting title, it has to be spun enough to make the consumer think they’ll be viewing something… well… different.

So from a purely marketing standpoint, similar but different is supposed to make selling the movie easier and more effective. That’s the first reason. The other reason lies at the heart of the studios’ decision-making process regarding movie deals:

Fear of making a mistake: Studio executives are afraid to commit to projects because if a movie they’re associated with bombs, it doesn’t bode well for their careers. This is especially true with the current climate where the major Hollywood studios are all part of major corporate conglomerates which means pretty much everything boils down to profits.

Flops make bad things happen.

The 1981 historical epic Heaven’s Gate, subject to massive cost overruns, essentially killed United Artists. The 1987 comedy Ishtar was perceived as being such a bomb, it led to Coca Cola selling Columbia Pictures to Sony.

And a studio exec’s fear is not only based on the prospect of giving a green light to a project that flops; they also have to be worried about passing on a project that turns out to be a big hit elsewhere such as the case of the Twilight movie series to which Paramount once had the rights, but let slip away to Summit Entertainment. That’s over $500 million in box office receipts Paramount could have included in their revenues, but did not because their execs decided to pass on it.

Big budgets. Pressure if they say yes and a movie tanks. Pressure if they say no and a project does well elsewhere. All of that translates into a subtext of fear. And that translates into yet another reason why similar but different rules the roost in Hollywood today. If a studio green lights a body-switch project that is similar but different to a movie that was successful, they have a built-in excuse: “Hey, their body-switch movie was a hit.”

This should put a personal spin on why Hollywood puts out so many sequels, remakes, and film adaptations of TV shows. Even if they fail (Cats & Dogs II, The A-Team), studio execs can defend themselves because there are equally, if not more, hits based on similar but different content (Iron Man 2, The Karate Kid, Star Trek).

The thing is similar but different doesn’t just pertain to movies based on preexisting content. It also comes into play in the spec script and pitch market. And this is where this state of things can turn in a screenwriter’s favor.

First of all, no one in Hollywood is expecting a writer to come up with a completely new, wholly fresh story concept. One reason we’ve hit on already: Hollywood doesn’t actually want that type of thing because it’s too risky, not similar enough to existing movie titles. The other reason is this: There are no new ideas. Writers know this:

“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

So the burden of generating a heretofore unseen, unknown and untouched story is removed from our shoulders.

Second, because everyone in Hollywood knows there is nothing new under the sun combined with the fact that the suits embrace the very concept of similar but different, that translates into this:

We can recycle ideas.

I have run a series of blog posts called Movie Story Types, which is archived here, featuring story arenas like The [Blank] From Hell, Contained Thriller, Mistaken Identity, Road Picture and dozens more. Looking for a story concept? There is no reason you can’t dig into one of the story types, research a bunch of existing titles, then spin them in a unique way. Gender bend. Genre bend. Geo bend. Mix and match.

If you think this is cheating, think again: Hollywood has been recycling stories since before there was a Hollywood!

Moreover here is where I get the chance to trot out one of my favorite anecdotes on the subject. The great American songsmith Woody Guthrie is said to have written over 4,000 songs. He was asked how he was able to come up with so many tunes. His answer [paraphrased]: “Well, I take a melody I like, give it a twist here, a twist there, and I make it my own.”

I make it my own.

That is what you can do when recycling story ideas: Spin it a different way, dig into the characters to surface what is unique about them, and make the story our own.

Gravity is Apollo 13… but different.

Prisoners is Se7en… but different.

Last Vegas is The Hangover… but different.

So see what I did there? I started off exploring what is seemingly the depressing reality which is similar but different, examined why that business ethos is as locked in as it is, uncovered some positives for writers, then charted a path through it enabling us to work within its confines while still exploring our own creativity and unique voice.

Or something like that.

Anyhow similar but different is here and won’t change anytime soon. It’s a fact of Hollywood life. As writers we can fight it, condone it, or embrace it.

The choice is yours.

For the rest of the 30 Things About Screenwriting series, go here.

[Originally posted November 14, 2013]

Reader Question: What to do if a movie is similar to my script?

December 1st, 2014 by

Question via Twitter from @auntiemamer:

Saw a film last night wherein ending was beginning of ©’d treatment I posted to Screenwriters Guild two years ago. Common? What should I have done or not? Thank you so much, Scott!

This questions brings us to the ‘similar but different’ mentality that exists in the Hollywood film and TV business. It boils down to this: Studios, producers and networks generally want to work with projects that are similar to successful, already produced movies or TV series, yet different enough to be distinct. Why?

* Similar: This plays to the buyer’s comfort level. It is safer – and therefore easier – to commit to a project that is like a predecessor because the buyer can always point to the success of the previous project. There’s also a marketing component as the new project can ‘draft’ on consumer awareness of the earlier one.

* Different: This plays to the buyer’s understanding of consumers who, via the marketing of the new project, have to feel like it’s unique enough from previous similar projects to warrant their attention. In other words, it can’t come across as simply a clone or rehash of a previous story.

With that as background, let’s consider the question from two angles. First, if the issue is “My script as currently written turns out to have some elements that are awfully similar to a movie that I have just become aware of, should I change those parts of my story,” there’s no clear answer because there are so many questions to address. How important are the scenes / sequences in question? In what ways are the scenes / sequences similar: Concept, execution? How much page count do the similar scenes / sequences comprise in your script?  My advice? Do a thorough compare-and-contrast of the two, then put on your producer’s hat: If I read this script as a Hollywood buyer, would I think these scenes / sequences were too similar to the previous movie and too visible in terms of their role in the script? If your gut says no, perhaps you can leave it as is. If your gut says yes, then consider rewriting your pages.

Second, if the issue is “The scenes / sequences in this movie are so similar to my script, I can’t help but think someone read my screenplay and ripped off my ideas,” time for a reality check: There’s a 99.9% chance that did not happen, especially if the possible point of intersection between a producer and your script was the Writers Guild registration service. Believe me, studios do not have the time or resources to go through the 30,000+ scripts that supposedly get registered each year. The most likely scenario is you had your ideas and they had their ideas, and the ideas just happen to be quite similar. This is a fact of life. I blogged about it here: Someday someone WILL beat you to the punch. With so many writers working on so many stories, it is inevitable there are other stories, either already produced, in development or being written similar to something you or I are working on.

Note: This is more true if you are writing mainstream, commercial, high-concept stories. If, on the other hand, you traffic in quirky, unusual indie fare, less likely precisely because of the distinctive nature of this type of storytelling. So if you really want to decrease the odds of someone beating you to the punch, be like Charlie Kaufman and work on stories like Synecdoche, New York.

Hopefully the content in question is innocuous enough, you don’t have to rewrite your script. But if you do have to revise it, why not adopt the attitude of a professional screenwriter: There is always another way. We are used to rewriting, cutting, changing, revising. It comes with the territory.

And worst case scenario: The similarities are so profound and so large in scope, your script is in effect DOA, that is, indeed, a bitter pill to swallow. However it shows one thing: Your creative instincts are aligned with what Hollywood is producing. Cold comfort, I know, but at least it’s something.

Note: Before you submit your script anywhere in Hollywood, you should copyright it, not register it with the WGA. Why? Go here.

For more background:

A ‘similar but different’ primer

How far can a writer go with the ‘similar but different’ approach?

How about you, readers? Do you have any advice for @auntiemamer? If so, please head to comments for your thoughts on the matter.

Reader Question: Should writers be concerned about projects that have similar concepts to theirs?

September 24th, 2014 by

Question from Eric Harris:

Should writers be concerned about projects that have slightly similar concepts to theirs though the plots, characters, theme, etc are completely different? You’ve worked on a script for months, maybe even longer and then you hear something in development that has a slightly similar concept.

First, unless you are writing a quadrasexual snuff musical in Norwegian, you know… something really obscure… you should always be prepared to be blown out of the water by another project that gets set up before yours. I have had this happen more than once and wrote about a particularly painful experience here in which we were literally days away from going out with a spec when another one quite like it sold.

The saving grace is this idea of ‘similar but different’. I have posted about this many times and will include a bunch of links below for those who want to escape down the rabbit hole of one of Hollywood’s most longstanding business philosophy, but let’s just distill it here.

Hollywood likes similar projects for two primary reasons:

* It is easier to market a movie if it can ‘draft’ off the success of a predecessor film that has done well. If a consumer can see a trailer and go, “Oh, this is like Groundhog Day only it’s science fiction movie,” the studio will feel more confident they can sell the movie… unless you are Warner Bros. and blow the campaign for Edge of Tomorrow. And since marketing costs have skyrocketed over the last decade, getting a movie lodged into the consciousness of moviegoers is a big damn deal. Similar but different can help.

* The business is built on fear of failure. So perhaps the best Cover Your Ass excuse is to green light a project that is similar but different because the execs can always say, “But it was like Avatar which did two billion dollars!” In other words, it’s safer to go with something more similar than it is to commit dollars to something that more different.

So with that as a frame, let’s look at your question, Eric. Two things:

* The word “slightly”. If that’s an accurate appraisal, your project only slightly similar to one already set up, you’re probably on safe ground. Indeed, depending upon the status of the competing project, specifically if it is generating good buzz, has quality talent attached, slotted to be released in a valuable spot on the calendar, the fact your project is similar but different can actually be a plus for your project. Why? Because if the expectation is the other project is going to do well, then that suggests there is fertile ground in that genre and subject area, so another buyer may see an opportunity to pick up your script, produce it and get it out to moviegoers in a time frame where it can draft off the first movie.

* “You’ve worked on a script for months.” If by that you mean you are at least halfway through the final writing process, unless the other project is exactly like yours, I’d say finish your script. You’ve already committed all that time and effort to it, plus you will never know if it could have sold or not unless you do complete it. Besides even if it doesn’t sell, you can hope that it would benefit you as a writing sample.

But know this: If you traffic in writing mainstream movies, you automatically increase the chances someone will beat you to the punch. And you just have to flat-out learn to live with that reality.

Which is why sometimes this writing mantra, even though a harsh one, can be the best one to get your ass onto a chair and start working:

“If you’re not writing… someone else is.”

And speaking of ‘similar but different’:

Related Links:

Similar but different

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 1: Remakes)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 2: Retro)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 3: Playing the Game)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 4: Archetypes)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 5: Psychological Journey)

Question: How far can a writer go with the “similar but different” approach?

Readers, if you have any thoughts about Eric’s question or the subject of ‘similar but different,’ please head to comments and share them with us. And if you’ve been beaten to the punch by a competing project, it might be a cathartic experience for you to recount this tragic state of affairs.

Question: How far can a writer go with the "similar but different" approach?

April 15th, 2014 by

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]

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 4: Archetypes)

March 28th, 2013 by

In the first three parts of this series — here, here, and here — we have been exploring Hollywood’s default business strategy of ‘similar but different’ pretty much on their side of the playing field.

Now it’s time to move the ball to our (i.e., writer’s) side.

As we have noted, simply because a movie is ‘similar but different’ doesn’t mean it will necessarily be a bad one. Indeed there are remakes that are arguably better than the originals, one of which we will consider below.

Thus if we acknowledge it’s possible to create ‘similar but different’ stories that are good, even great, it behooves us a writers to figure out how to do that.

For purposes of this discussion, I will suggest two narrative elements we can use to write entertaining and compelling ‘similar but different’ stories, thus allowing us to survive, even thrive as we play the screenwriting game in Hollywood. Today we look at one of those elements: Archetypes.

Now I suppose only I could attempt to pull a discussion like this back to Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, but honestly doesn’t ‘similar but different’ apply to the very idea that all stories share universal elements? Whether we talk about The Hero’s Journey, metamorphosis, and other character or narrative archetypes, aren’t we essentially looking at variations on familiar themes?

The difference between the Hollywood studio version of ‘similar but different,’ furiously digging through development slates for something that hearkens back to a successful previous movie, and a Campbell-Jung approach tapping into character and narrative archetypes, patterns that have evolved over thousands of years and exist both in our consciousness and unconsciousness, is a matter of depth. And therein lies the secret: By using archetypes to dig deeper into our stories, we go beyond a shallow, surface level approach to writing, which is prone to generate nothing more than ‘knock-offs,’ to find and create stories that resonate with script readers and movie viewers on multiple levels of entertainment, meaning, and emotion.

Archetypes have power because they carry with them associations we have made through the tens of thousands of stories we have read, heard, or listened to in our lifetimes.

Archetypes are true because if used well, they reflect genuine and real aspects of the human condition and the universe around us.

Archetypes are entertaining because we recognize them consciously and intuitively, both as familiar forms and when crafted against type to surprise us as fresh variations.

In other words, understanding and being attuned to archetypes as we craft our stories, even ‘similar but different’ ones, allows us to find deeper drama, humor, thrills, action, suspense and all the rest of the psychological reactions we hope to evoke in our characters and plots.

A great example of this is the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit. As noted previously, a remake is Hollywood’s perfect version of a ‘similar but different’ story: It is the same movie, only done with a different cast and a revised script to reflect contemporary sensibilities and freshen up the narrative. Any filmmaker who sets out to do a unique and compelling retelling of a previously told story has a huge challenge. In my view, one of the major reasons the Coens succeeded with True Grit is because of their understanding and use of archetypes. Whether they were conscious about these elements as they wrote the script or not doesn’t matter. The fact is their cinematic version of True Grit is infused with powerful character and narrative archetypes.

I have already done an analysis of the story’s archetypes here, so I will only summarize my thoughts [I encourage you to go back and read my OP].

In the movie, we see the five primary character archetypes:

Protagonist: Mattie Ross

Nemesis: Tom Chaney

Attractor: LaBouef

Mentor: Rooster Cogburn

Trickster: Mattie’s father

Each character provides a specific function to the story and in aggregate create a rich tableau of personalities and interrelationships.

Moreover there are several narrative archetypes at work as well:

* The Hero’s Journey: Mattie leaves her Old World — the family farm — traveling to the New World — the wilderness — in order to pursue the goal of killing her father’s murderer.

* Metamorphosis: Along the way Mattie confronts both her adult self and juvenile self, going through a transformation of her psyche.

* Romance: In LaBouef she finds an idealized version of a potential lover.

* Surrogate father: In Cogburn, she finds a more powerful and compatible version of a father figure.

* Good versus evil: She is an innocent who is exposed to the harsh realities of a dark and dangerous New World.

* Stranger in a strange land: She is a fish-out-of-water.

* Underdog: The odds are stacked against her.

I’m sure you can find more.

These character and narrative archetypes connect with us psychologically in a variety of ways and in so doing create a depth of experience that transforms this remake of True Grit into a powerful ‘new’ version of the story.

So how to survive as screenwriters while playing the ‘similar but different’ game in Hollywood? One set of tools we have is archetypes. Use them well and we can play their game while playing our game… and everybody wins.

In order to use archetypes well, we don’t come at them randomly, but must see how they service a story’s central organizing principle — its psychological journey.

That is the subject of our final post in this series which will post tomorrow.

[Originally posted October 27, 2011]

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 3: Playing the game)

March 27th, 2013 by

It may not be pretty, but screenwriters — professional and aspiring — have to deal with it: Hollywood’s default business model of ‘similar but different.’

* Movie studios want projects that are similar to movies that have been hits. Per their logic, this is a safe way to approach script acquisition and development — If something was successful before, it can be again — and increase the odds the ‘new’ project will make a profit — Marketing efforts will benefit from pre-awareness among consumers.

* Movie studios want projects that are different enough from movies that have been hits. When they toss out a phrase like a “fresh take,” they don’t mean wholly original, rather they want a story that offers a spin on something that has been produced before.

I’m not saying this is a good state of affairs. Nor am I saying it’s necessarily a bad state of affairs. I’m just saying it is the state of affairs.

In the first two posts in this series, we looked at this phenomenon from a studio, filmmaker and consumer perspective, each a contributing factor to the preponderance of remakes, prequels, sequels, and heavily similar movies.

Today we bring it all down to the screenwriter. And the simple fact is you have a choice:

You can play the game. Or not play the game.

You may look at the status quo of the Hollywood movie business and decide you simply can not work within the ‘similar but different’ framework. You want to write original stories, cutting edge scripts, movies not just filmed product.

If this is who you are and what you are about, two things:

First you absolutely have the right to write whatever stories you want. Indeed I’m sure all of us who visit this blog applaud your courage and creativity. God knows we need visionaries and unique voices creating distinctive films.

Second if you go this route, eventually Hollywood may seek you out if you create a successful niche for yourself, but on the whole that approach is not the studios’ first resort. Rather they want screenwriters and filmmakers who work within the confines of ‘similar but different.’ In other words, screenwriters who can play the game.

What is the game?

It’s coming up with similar but different stories.

It’s providing your take on writing assignments that is — shock! — similar but different.

It’s trafficking daily in a world of ideas and story concepts that fit comfortably within the broad perimeters of stories that have been written and produced before.

You must understand that almost every single professional screenwriter including A-listers, make their living writing these type of projects.

For example, Sony asks Aaron Sorkin to write a Steve Jobs movie which you can be sure the studio is thinking is similar but different to another Sorkin film, The Social Network.

Warner Bros. hires Ben Affleck to write a movie version of “The Stand” that is a remake of a TV mini-series.

Name any A-list screenwriter or filmmaker and I guarantee you they have worked on at least one and more likely many more similar but different projects..

Here’s the thing: There is no inherent reason why a similar but different movie has to be bad. Indeed they can be great. Look at some of this year’s quality hit movies: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Bridesmaids, The Help, Rango, Contagion, Moneyball.

Why do some of these similar but different films succeed aesthetically while others just feel like knock-offs? I would suggest that it’s because the filmmakers looked below the surface of remake and retro sensibilities to some familiar, powerful dynamics that exist in all stories which we can mine to craft compelling narratives: archetypes.

That’s the subject of tomorrow’s post in this series.

[Originally posted October 26, 2011]

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 2: Retro)

March 26th, 2013 by

With several remakes currently in movie theaters (e.g., The Thing, Footloose, The Three Musketeers) and a confluence of interesting articles of late, I decided it would be valuable to revisit a familiar subject that has a definite impact on a screenwriter’s life: Hollywood’s default business approach of ‘similar but different.’ Yesterday I spotlighted this this 24 Frames [LAT] article by Steve Zeitchik that delved into the whole 80s remake phenomenon. We explored two ideas:

* On the business side, remakes are popular in Hollywood because they are the perfect version of ‘similar but different,’ perhaps the safest way to create a product that carries with it strong consumer pre-awareness.

* On the filmmaking side, remakes are an acknowledgment that all stories have been told before, so why not retell the good ones.

Today I want to highlight a recent article by LAT’s columnist Patrick Goldstein. The title suggests one thing — “Is Hollywood’s mania for remakes spinning out of control?” However if we dig into the piece, we confront a powerful dynamic that seems to be at work in contemporary culture which would also help to explain the enduring power of remakes.

Some excerpts from Goldstein’s article:

“Everything old is new again,” the expression goes, but in pop culture these days, it seems more fitting to say everything new is old again. This weekend is an apt example: Paramount Pictures opened “Footloose,” a remake of the cheesy 1984 dance movie, and it’s battling for the box-office crown against “The Thing,” a new version of the 1982 John Carpenter horror film from Universal Studios.

I guess it was inevitable that we’d have a weekend where both of the big new releases were remakes. (Next week brings another: “The Three Musketeers.”) Whether you’re writing about Hollywood, pop music, TV or theater, the prefix “re” gets a serious workout on your keypad, since every other new project seems to be a remake, reboot, revival, reissue, relaunch, reunion, restaging, reimagining or reenactment.

Goldstein had a sit-down with Matthijs Van Heijningen, the 43-year-old director of “The Thing.”

Van Heijningen spent his teen years gorging himself on Kafka novels and groundbreaking American movies, notably “The Godfather” series, “Blade Runner,” “The Exorcist” and “Jaws.” At 17, he said, he sneaked into Carpenter’s “The Thing” (itself a remake) and was impressed, being a Kafka fan, by what he calls “its nihilism and sense of doom.”

The movie resonated with him so much that when Van Heijningen was looking to make his feature debut here, he found himself eager to revisit the film. The whole mania for remakes tends to revolve around commercial motives — it’s usually easier to sell something that is familiar to audiences — so it’s hardly a surprise to discover that there was an element of careerism in Van Heijningen’s decision to pursue the film.

“It is slightly strategical to do something that’s familiar,” he told me. “But I thought I could give the movie some of my own flavor as a filmmaker. It’s a lot like making a commercial. There’s already a story, created to sell a product. So as a director, you just have to find a way to express your own ideas inside of that framework.”


Van Heijningen has a shrewd grasp of showbiz history. In the 1970s, with the studio system in a state of collapse, a generation of New Hollywood filmmakers seized power, inspiring a decade of auteur-driven artistry. But by the 1990s, Hollywood was once again firmly in the grasp of media behemoths. Intent on bringing order and sustainability to their often-chaotic studio subsidiaries, they began systematically developing the kind of film franchises and remakes that were easily marketable and offered predictable profit potential.

Here we see the merging of the two points we explored yesterday: Hollywood’s ‘similar but different’ credo, filmmakers attempting to find an aesthetic justification to retell a story that’s already been told. But later in the article, Goldstein cites another dynamic which suggests that the real energy behind remakes may not be studios or filmmakers — but consumers themselves:

Why are we so culturally backward-looking today, especially when our technology — our iPhones, iPads and computer graphics — leaps forward at such a dizzying pace? If anyone has a good theory about this deceleration of pop culture, it’s Simon Reynolds, whose recent book, “Retromania,” is about how pop music has gone from being an exploratory art to a form of cultural archaeology.

He argues that retro has become a structural feature of pop culture, acting as an inevitable down phase to an earlier manic burst of creativity. Though he’s speaking in terms of music, many critics might apply that logic to film or TV as well. “Like a boom-time economy, the more fertile and dynamic a genre is, the more it sets itself up for the musical-cultural equivalent of recession: retro,” Reynolds writes. “The sheer creativity of its surge years (the sixties, seventies and parts of the eighties) inevitably made it increasingly irresistible to be re-creative.”

But today’s retromania is also tied to the way young consumers experience pop culture. When I was a kid, I wanted nothing to do with my parents’ music or movies. I needed to carve out my own cultural identity. Today’s kids, thanks to the easy access to Netflix and YouTube, make far less of a distinction between what is old and what is new. With a century of culture just a click away on any computer, young consumers have become the ultimate archivists, just as willing to embrace familiarity as innovation.

What if remakes are primarily a response to a retro consciousness permeating contemporary culture? “Young consumers have become the ultimate archivists, just as willing to embrace familiarity as innovation.”

What if old is the ‘new’ new?

Given the business, aesthetic and consumer state of affairs that suggest ‘similar but different’ is going nowhere soon, what is a screenwriter to do? It’s easy for a professional screenwriter when asked by an aspiring writer, “What should I write,” to go to the default answer: “Be yourself, write something original.” Frankly I wince whenever I hear that, not at the spirit of the answer, but at the absolute lack of help that advice offers as it stands in complete opposition to nearly everything the Hollywood movie business is about.

The reality is this. A screenwriter has two choices: To play the game or not play the game. That is the subject of Part 3 of this series.

For more of Patrick Goldstein’s article, go here.

[Originally posted October 25, 2011]

UPDATE: I teach a History of American Screenwriting class and here is a relevant quote from one of my lectures, something from film historian Michael Phillips writing about the blockbuster mentality that arose in the 80s:

When the economics started to drive film distribution in the direction of a thousand to two-thousand print releases, and big national buys of media cost ten, thirteen-million-dollars, the stakes were so high that each decision was fraught with sheer terror.  Instead of a seat-of-the-pants process, people were grasping for a rational framework to make decisions, and the only rational process available was precedent and analogy.

Precedent and analogy. Think on that:

* Precedent: Something that has come before which was successful.

* Analogy: Something that akin to what was successful.

In other words a fancy way of saying ‘similar but different.’

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 1: Remakes)

March 25th, 2013 by

Perhaps you are sick of me talking about how Hollywood approaches moves and TV with the business ethos of ‘similar but different,’ a subject I have explored here, here, here, and here among many other posts.

Hey, I am sympathetic to you. However since now more than ever Hollywood is relying on similar but different, I’m going to hammer on the subject this week.

We start with this recent LAT article: “‘Footloose:’ The ’80’s are dead. Long live the ’80’s.” Despite the inauspicious B.O. performances of Footloose, Fright Night, Conan, The A-Team and Arthur, Hollywood keeps dipping into the 80s well:

Seasons, like paychecks and Republican presidential front-runners, come and go. But some things remain constant. Like ’80s remakes. And, specifically, their power to make us yawn.

[Last] weekend saw the moviegoing public shrug off two more retreads, a revival of a 1984 Kevin Bacon classic and a prequel of a 1982 John Carpenter cult hit. “Footloose,” that Bacon revival, pulled in $16.1 million — not a terrible number, but considering how heavily the movie was marketed, not exactly auspicious, either. Results for “The Thing” looked more grisly — the movie eked out only $8.7 million.

The films join a long list of ’80s reboots that have yielded lackluster results: “Fright Night,” “Conan,” “The A-Team,” “Arthur.”

So if 80s movie remakes may not be faring all that well at the box office, why does Hollywood keep going to that well? Safe to say the big reason is ‘similar but different.’ A remake is the perfect execution of that concept: It is the same movie, only done with a different cast and a revised script to reflect contemporary sensibilities and freshen up the story.

At the core of ‘similar but different’ is a belief: All stories have been told before. More from the LAT article:

In “Drive,” the well-reviewed art-house piece that has established a loyal fan base, Nicolas Winding Refn channels the spirit of “Miami Vice” and other pastel-colored entertainment. Throwback action movies such as “The Expendables’ and “Fast Five,” meanwhile, have turned into the biggest hits of the last couple of years. “Footloose” may have struggled, but its spiritual descendants, the “Step Up” films, has blossomed into one of the hottest teen franchises of the last few years.

And this summer J.J Abrams looked to the movies of the 1980s, like “Stand by Me” and “The Goonies,” in creating his coming-of-age adventure “Super 8.” The film went on to become a huge global hit.

There are good reasons we’re looking back to the movies of several decades ago: There were some storytelling values to that period, for one thing, and there are only have so many stories to tell.

Even a contemporary director such as Jason Reitman, one of the more original-minded filmmakers out there, said he felt the ghosts of decades past when he gets behind the camera. “In a strange way, I always feel like I’m doing a remake,” he told 24 Frames in an interview last week. “I mean, ‘Thank You for Smoking’ was ‘Jerry Maguire’ if Jerry sold cigarettes.”

So even if the B.O. results aren’t overwhelming, there is a default attitude deeply entrenched in Hollywood that will persist in remaking 80s movies… then over the next few years 90s movies… and so on.

That attitude? Similar but different.

You don’t have to like it. You do have to understand it.

[Another reason remakes are so popular, as manager-producer Gavin Polone notes here, is that movies are “the greatest hard asset they [studios] possess,” so a remake not only generates its own revenues through box office receipts and ancillary streams, it can also increase the value of the original film, a case of double-dipping.]

Tomorrow: Another LAT article and Part 2 of this mini-series.

[Originally posted October 24, 2011]

The value of “hating movies”

September 2nd, 2012 by

Shaula Evans sourced this gem:

Scott, have you ever come across the story of how Wilder and Diamond came up with The Apartment? I just read it in this Frank Cottrell Boyce interview (in the BAFTA Guru series) and thought of you.

“…the pleasure of going to movies and really hating it, which is a very important creative energy I think. Nobody ever talks about that. When you go to a meeting it’s always about ‘it’s a bit like this film that I really love’ and actually so much creativity comes out of really, really hating another movie.

“…It’s true, it releases an energy. There’s a brilliant story about two great heroes, Billy Wilder and Izzy Diamond, who went to see Brief Encounter together and just didn’t get it at all. Izzy Diamond said, ‘I just don’t know what was going on there, why didn’t he just give her one? What was that about?’ They hated the film. And Izzy Diamond said the only interesting person in that film was the guy who lent them the flat. What was going on in his head? What was that conversation? And by the time they got home they’d come up with The Apartment, which is about someone [Jack Lemmon] who lends his flat out to people. That kind of hatred and misunderstanding is such a power.”

Hating movies: another way to come up with movie premises.

Shaula was kind enough to think of me for two reasons: (1) She knows The Apartment is my favorite movie. (2) She also knows I’m always looking for ways to generate story ideas.

Per the latter, what Wilder and Diamond did was very much in the spirit of ‘similar but different,’ taking some preexisting story and working a variation on it. Instead of genre-bending or gender-bending, here they simply found a side character from Brief Encounter and considered the story universe through his eyes. This is how the Broadway musical “Wicked” came about — The Wizard of Oz through the Wicked Witch’s perspective. Or the upcoming movie Oz: The Great and Powerful which is told from the perspective of Professor Marvel.

So even with movies you hate, they can be the source of inspiration to create different story ideas.

While we’re here, we might as well have a go at this question: What are some movies you absolutely hate? Then as an exercise, is there something about them you can spin into a different story?

Thanks, Shaula, for that find. Another piece of trivia to add to my knowledge of The Apartment. And a helpful tip on how to generate story ideas.

Everything is a Remix

February 19th, 2012 by

I’ve been following this series of videos from Kirby Ferguson since his first of four entries. He just finished up the whole thing. Here are all four videos:

Part 1: The Song Remains the Same

Part 2: Remix Inc.

Part 3: Elements of Creativity

Part 4: System Failure

If you don’t have time for all four and your focus is screenwriting, Parts 2 and 3 are must-sees. “Remix Inc.” explores the idea of ‘similar but different’ that pervades Hollywood’s thinking about movie and TV. Elements of Creativity is about.. well… creativity.

It’s all been done before. And yet, it’s all somehow different. That is the dichotomy we, as writers, face when attempting to be creative. There’s magical formula how to do it right, but there is a premium put on immersing yourself in whatever medium and genre in which you hope to excel, both to know what’s been done before and how it’s been done.