The Business of Screenwriting: Someday someone WILL beat you to the punch

If you traffic in high concept stories, chances are you’ll confront this scenario.

NOTE: I first posted this article in March 2011, but I just had to re-post it today. Why? When I landed at the airport for my stint at the recent Austin Film Festival, the first screenwriter with whom I intersected was none other than Scott Alexander, part of the writing duo (along with Larry Karaszewski) who wrote the…

Well… read on.

It’s 1988. My writing partner and I are excited. We are just finishing up a new spec script, a comedy with a strong high concept: A couple adopts the child from hell (not literally, just a boy who simply can not help but get into trouble). One last pass on the pages, then it’s off to our agents and out to buyers.

So I’m feeling pretty upbeat as I to get to my office on the old MGM lot and open up the trades like I do everyday to catch up on the news…

Wait. What’s this?

“Universal buys spec comedy ‘Problem Child.’”

No. No…

“The plot described as a married couple who adopts a child from hell…”

NOOOOOOO!!!

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And so it goes: The first time one of my ideas — and this one was my concept — gets squashed by the sale of another project.

Sadly it’s not the last time.

For screenwriters who don’t work exclusively on writing assignments, but generate original story ideas, this reality is one that really bites, creating a sense of dread every time we open the trades.

Someday someone will beat you to the punch.

With Hollywood sifting through approximately 30,000 project submissions per year, it’s inevitable. As the saying goes, “There are only so many good ideas.” And with thousands of writers chasing them down, we live with a weird version of Russian roulette — one day a bullet is going to be in the chamber and blow the brains out of one of our projects.

As screenwriters, we can’t escape that reality. So the trick is to learn how to deal with it.

First, when you hit on a great story concept, you want to try to speed the script to market as quickly as possible. Of course, you have to consider equally as much the quality of the writing. It does you absolutely zero good to have a strong concept wrapped in a poorly executed script, something I touched on previously here. But don’t dilly dally around. And certainly don’t sit on a killer concept. I did that with another idea only to see Monster-In-Law crush it.

Second, this is yet another reason why you should come up with as many good story concepts as possible. If one gets axed by a competing project, the sting of that defeat is lessened by the knowledge you have several other stories you can write.

Third, you can go the Charlie Kaufman route. Here are the loglines from a few of Kaufman’s movies:

Being John Malkovich: A puppeteer discovers a portal that leads literally into the head of the movie star, John Malkovich.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: A couple undergo a procedure to erase each other from their memories when their relationship turns sour, but it is only through the process of loss that they discover what they had to begin with.

Synecdoche, New York: A theater director struggles with his work, and the women in his life, as he attempts to create a life-size replica of New York inside a warehouse as part of his new play.

Those are such distinctive, unusual concepts, I doubt seriously whether Kaufman ever goes to bed thinking, “Oh, my God, what if someone else is working on a script about a guy creating a play that takes decades to produce.” Of course, by choosing not to generate mainstream, commercial story concepts, you shrink the number of potential buyers, but at least you worry less about having your ideas scarfed out from you under you.

Then there’s this: The fact someone else sells a project with a concept the same as yours suggests your creative instincts are on the money. Cold comfort, I know, but it’s the truth.

Finally you can do what one screenwriter I know does: He has a special bottle of Scotch. Really expensive stuff. He calls it his “I got screwed” booze. He only cracks it open when something terribly awful happens, such as waking up one morning to read in the trades that a script similar to his just sold. When you get clobbered by an event like that, go ahead. Get a good buzz on. But just for one night. The next day, get back to work. Because the last thing you want is another one of your projects to get whisked out from under you while you have been busy bemoaning your fate and crying in your beer… or expensive Scotch as the case may be.

Besides when you do sell that spec script, if you cup your hand around your ear, and listen real hard, you will be able to hear the anguished screams of some other writers — because this time, you beat them to the punch.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

For more Business of Screenwriter articles, go here.

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