“Virtually all artists spend some of their time (and some artists all of their time) producing work that no one else much cares about.”
David Bayles & Ted Orland
Art & Fear
Anytime you take up a new sport or hobby you often see a sudden rise in your skill level at the start. That’s when learning is fun. But sooner or later you hit a plateau. That’s when you start thinking of the next sport or hobby you’d like to take up.
This rings true for screenwriting. It’s easy to get discouraged when writing screenplays because there are so few peaks. In fact, I think writing screenplays is a lot like climbing mountains. While climbing to the top of Mt. Everest seems almost common these days the fact is there still aren’t that many people who have made it to the peak. (Less than 3,000 people have seen the view from atop Mt. Everest.)
And when you ask how many people have ever made it to the top more than once the numbers really drop off.
The real killer about climbing Mt. Everest is once you get to the top you only have 5 minutes to enjoy the view before you have to head back down due to oxygen demands. The real killer about writing a screenplay is once you reach the peak (produced and your movie finds an audience) — you may never get there again.
But a lot of people dream of climbing Mt. Everest that never step one foot on even the smallest mountain. (Kind of like, “Someday I’d like to write a screenplay.”) But there are other people who are climbing all the time and enjoying getting to the top of much smaller mountains.
There’s nothing wrong with dreaming about winning an Oscar, but chip away at it page by page and script by script. Years ago a college professor showed me a picture (that I believe was in Esquire magazine) of writers standing by the amount of work they had written before they became successful. From memory it seems like the stacks for each writer were in the four to six foot range.
Meaning a lot of writing. I thought of this yesterday as I was going through my own piles of writings. But what do you do if you’re discouraged? Seems to me you have two options: quit or just keep writing.
My first screenplay was about a college walk-on football player. I was told that it was an original protagonist and a good story but football stories didn’t sell. A couple years later a film called Rudy was made about a walk-on football player and my idea wasn’t so original. (Not to mention there have been about half a billion football movies made since that time including one opening this weekend.)
What do you do? Quit or just keep writing.
Back in 90s I completed a script called First Comes Marriage about a couple that gets married just hours after meeting each other. Then they have to work out their differences. One reader told me it was the best screenplay she’d ever read. (They say Hollywood will nice you to death. The real sign if someone loves your script is if they give you a check.) Two years later a successful TV show appeared called Dharma and Greg where a couple married instantly after connecting on a first date.
I began sending my script out in 1995 and Dharma and Greg began airing in 1997. For all I know the show’s creators had been pitching that show for years — but it does make you wonder. Other than the initial concept the stories and characters were not the same and my understanding is you cannot copyright an idea only the expression of it. So what do you do? Quit or just keep writing.
Art Buchwald’s well known case (Buchwald v. Paramount) comes to mind where his treatment was declared to be the story behind what would become the Eddie Murphy film Coming to America. (According to attorney Ray Dowd, “If parties agree by contract that one is going to pay another for an idea, that contract may be enforceable.”) Buchwald did have an agreement – and money, lawyers, a track record and a lack of fear of Hollywood that prevents writers from suing.
Buchwald had a great career as a writer. He was a long-time columnist for The Washington Post, wrote 30 books and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 Outstanding Commentary. But even though he won a breach of contract against Paramount and the case was later settled before an appeal — he died last year without a single feature film credit to his name.
On my marriage script, a friend said I should be glad because that meant I was on the right track. Somehow it didn’t make me feel better. (Honestly, I was so upset at that time when I heard the concept of the TV program that I never watched a single episode of Dharma and Greg.) But I kept writing. I’ve kept climbing smaller mountains. Writing and producing videos and commercials here and a short film there.
Here’s why you shouldn’t get discouraged. There is nothing new under the sun. (Yes, I know that’s not a new thought either.) Just this year a film came out where a couple meet and hours later get married. When I saw the first promo for What Happens in Vegas I actually had new hope for my old script because I realized that the getting married without knowing each other was practically becoming a new genre.
There is lots of room for comedy there. Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat says that Hollywood is looking for is “the same thing… only different!” When I first saw the trailer for The Earnest Gaines Story about a football player up against the odds I thought “how many times have I seen this film?” It is the same thing…only different. And I’ll go see it because I appreciate the sport genre.
And like horror or westerns or thrillers there are built in conventions that audiences are looking for. Your goal as a writer is to give that genre a fresh twist. The same thing… only different.
Also know that writing is a two way street. You may think someone is just stealing your idea (and of course, that does happened) but the chances are better you are stealing someone else’s idea. Or at least playing homage (that line between influenced and stealing) someone else’s idea.
I have a coming of age script that is my version of Stand By Me and The Wonder Years. The place, story and characters are different, but it’s in the same family. It’s set in the 70s. It’s encouraging that I’m starting to see a lot of interest in the 70s these days; There’s the TV program Life on Mars which is set in 1973, quite a few NFL players are driving 70s classic cars these day, the Greg Kinnear film Flash of Genius takes place in the 70s,– heck, I even saw 70s sitcom star Valerie Bertinelli on a magazine cover last week. And is there a day where we aren’t exposed to 70s music?
The bottom line is trends come and go. The stock market goes up and down. Your job is to just keep writing. Focus on writing a great story and the rest will take care of itself. Flash of Genius is a good example.
I doubt that film will make a ton of money, but it is a solid film (and script written by Philip Railsback) and one that I hope gets some Oscar nominations. The director, Marc Abraham, bought the rights to a story nine years ago. (That New Yorker article was written by John Seabrook.) But for whatever reason it took nine years for Abraham to bring that to the big screen. Certainly in those nine years I’m sure he had plenty of investors tell him his version of David & Golitah parallels too many other films. (And there are probably other people who had written screenplays on inventor Robert Kearns.)
So the next time you see a movie that you feel parallels the one you have spent months or years working on relax and just keep writing. But it wouldn’t hurt to read The Writer Got Screwed (But didn’t have to) by Brook A Wharton. And for more information about copyright laws visit attorney Mark Litwak’s website Entertainment Law Resources.
Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith