Reader Question: What should I do if a project sells in Hollywood which is similar to a script I’m writing?

Before you jump, step back from the ledge, and consider the following.

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Similar, but different.

From an Anonymous GITS Reader:

Big fan of your site. Easily one of the best screenwriter sites out there for info and inspiration. Anyways, I wanted to get your opinion on something. I was putting the finishing touches on an outline of my current script — almost finished with 1st draft now — when a pitch was sold with the same general idea…

Now I’m used to hearing about parallel development so I pretty much knew that this was going to kill any chance of a sale. However, since I am an unrepped writer my main goal is to get reads from agents and managers so I was curious if you think my target “audience” would still request this script even though a similar idea has recently been sold.

First of all, let me share this sentiment with AGR and anybody else out there who has worked up a story only to see another project with a similar premise get set up:

It totally sucks!

I’ve had it happen more than once. There’s nothing quite like the gut-churning sensation you get when you open the trades and see the project you have been working on just sold to a studio. It gets to the point where you almost hate to read about script deals, always that nagging fear that through some hideous twist of fate, you’re about to discover you just got beat to the finish line by some other writer.

In other words, I feel your pain.

Before I get to your specific question, let me also add this: The simple fact is that this cruel experience is going to happen. You can almost bank on it. There are so many people writing screenplays, graphic novels, comic books, books, pitches, and so on… and only so many good ideas. Steel yourself for the inevitable disappointment.

Fortunately, AGR, you have three things working in your favor:

#1: As we have discussed many times on GITS, Hollywood movie studios operate upon the ‘similar but different’ principle. They are loathe to greenlight completely original stories because they represent big risks (unless, of course, it’s a James Cameron or Christopher Nolan project, their track records effectively minimizing the risk). That risk factor (read: fear of flop) is one major reason why the studios tend to look for stories that are ‘similar’ to other stories. Everything from remakes to sequels to familiar subject matter — those represent a smaller risk because since the original movie was a success, therefore, the logic goes, this new version should stand a good chance of being successful, too. So, AGR, if your script is similar but different than a project which recently sold, that fact could actually help you get your script read. Perverse logic, I know, but hey, if Hollywood knows anything at all, it’s perversion.

#2: Here’s another perverse thing: The mere fact that you generated an original story idea that happens to hew closely to that of a project that recently sold suggests that your creative instincts are in line with what the movie studios are looking for. One of my agents told me this after two ideas on our possible ‘to script’ list sold within a month. When you first hear it, you think, “Well, he’s just saying that to make me feel better.” But when you step back from the blunt trauma of seeing two your ideas snatched away, you realize that yes, you are in sync with the current buyer’s marketplace. So, AGR, as rotten as you may feel, hopefully you can see the broader picture and realize that the sale of this other project actually validates your own creative instincts. Which leads to the third point:

#3: Despite their hard line against reading unsolicited manuscripts, managers and agents actually want, even need to read new writers. And most of them aren’t reading a script with the hope of selling just that script, rather they’re hoping to find a writer they can nurture into a writing career. 10% of a single script sale is one thing. 10% of multiple years of script sales, pitch sales, OWA gigs, TV writing is a whole other thing. So the fact that you came up with a story idea similar to another project which sold could catch the attention of a possible rep. Maybe you’re not just a decent writer, but one who can generate solid original story ideas.

Now if I was in your shoes, in my clever yet succinct query letter, I would include some info supporting my assertion that I came up with my story idea before the other similar story project got set up. For example, perhaps you registered your treatment or outline with the WGA. Then you could include that documentation as proof. Otherwise who’s to say that you aren’t just making it up. But even if you don’t have proof, I doubt it will be much of an issue. Something to consider in the future.

So in sum, I say go for it. Acknowledge to the reps that you’re aware of the other project (this shows that you savvy enough to track the acquisition and development market), point out whatever differences there are, and note that you have plenty of other equally commercial story concepts. And if you don’t, you know what you have to do.

Yes, that’s right: .

But that’s a whole other story…

UPDATE: Here’s something from Ryan Mullaney in comments:

Rework the idea into something more original. I had to do it, just like everyone else at one time or another, and I ended up with something better than what I had originally, so there is a silver lining after all.

By all means, yes. Probably the first thing you should do after discovering a similar project to yours (after knocking back a stiff drink). See if you can twist your story concept to make it more different than similar. Even something as simple as switching the gender of your Protagonist can work.

Nate Winslow said this:

Seeing the post Scott put up about DEVIL got me thinking about the number of times Hollywood has “doubled up” on their premises for produced films, which reminded me of the OTHER stuck-in-an-elevator-thriller that just sold.

So, DEVIL got made, DOWN is on its way to getting made, and what are the odds that someone buys two scripts that even involve elevators as a main plot point, much less the major location? (Not to mention they both start with D!)

And then a three or four years ago, again — who would have thought that out of all the genres and premises out their, we’d find two movies released in the same year about…19th Century magicians? The Illusionist and The Prestige came out within months of each other, if I remember correctly.

Off the top of my head, there are at least three sets of movies covering the same subject that are currently in production/greenlit/racing to the greenlight: competing Three Musketeers movies, competing Don Quixote movies and competing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea movies. The trend there with the current ones being that they’re all adaptations, but still. So. Just heaping the evidence onto the pile that already lets us know that Hollywood digs the same but different. And in these cases, sometimes doesn’t even bother with the “different” part.

To which I responded:

You can add K-9 and Turner & Hootch to your list. How about 18 Again, Like Father Like son, Big, and a fourth one that I can’t quite remember, all of them coming out within a year of each other? This springs, I think, from the fear that underlies much of how studios operate. Hard to spring for an original, fresh idea, but if Studio A buys a body-swapping movie, the execs in Studio B think, “Hey, if THEY think that’s a great subject matter, maybe WE should try to find something.” Put out the word to reps, dig through their development trough. The latter is pretty much what happened, as I understand it, with Turner & Hootch — it had been collecting dust at Disney until K-9 sold, then all of a sudden they sprang into action, hiring new writers, and so on.

In other words, sometimes it actually HELPS to have a similar project out there.

Finally, Teenie said:

Scott, your reply gives us all hope and when you stop to think about it, it is amazing the amount of similar films or re-makes being made.

Yes, even at times where your project gets blown out of the water completely by something else. I remember reading an interview with David Milch once, where he spent months working up a big TV project set in ancient Rome. He pitched it to HBO. They said, “Sorry, we’ve just bought a project called ‘Rome.’” They liked some of the themes and characters in Milch’s pitch, so he switched it around, and pitched them something else — which became “Deadwood.”

So again yes, there’s always hope.

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