Posts Tagged ‘First comes marriage’

I didn’t intend to spend several days exploring movie cloning, but it’s turned into quite a rabbit hole of information. On top of the words that I listed in part 1 that explain why some movies remind you of other movies (remake, update, homage, rip-off, mash-up, inspired by, parallels, movie mapping, story patterns, story echo, influences, plagiarism) some additional words have popped up—imitation, riff,  and paean. (Paean: A fervent expression of praise.) Writer Lee A. Matthias at The Last Reveal calls it “Lateral Screenwriting.”

Now on the comment section of Movie Cloning (Part 2) a point was made that the word cloning “makes it sound like copying and that reduced creativity is involved.”  But I’m not talking about hitting Apple—C on a script. And I wrestled with using the word cloning, but went with it because it seemed fresh. Another reason is I associate the concept of DNA with cloning.

Perhaps a scientist can fill us in (in layman’s terms) on how cloning is really an “umbrella term.” Not all cloning is the same. My understanding is that not all cloning is reproductive cloning (a duplicate copy). Nor is there anything easy about it. (And, for the record, scientists do very creative work.)

I think “DNA Cloning” is what I had in mind when linking two films that have similar characteristics. With the example of “Avatar” and “Dances with Wolves” I don’t think there was anything easy about James Cameron’s 15 year journey to get “Avatar” made. But I do think it’s clear that “Avatar” and “Dances with Wolves” do share the same DNA—and that was by design.

Cameron used structural DNA from “Dances” and that helped greatly with some of the heavy lifting on “Avatar,” but there was still a lot of work to be done.

It’s not really even possible to perfectly clone a film unless you had the exact same actors, locations, etc. The 1998 version of Psycho where Gus Van Sant matched Hitchcock’s 1960 version shot for shot is as close as I can think of as a film that was trying to literally clone another film. (I wondered if someone had edited the famous shower scene together from both versions and of course they have uploaded it to You Tube: Psycho Re-Imagined. (I think it was Sydney Pollack who said something to the effect that Hitchcock had his own style because he kept making the same film.)

And if you think all of this talk is beneath you as a writer, listen to the screenwriting advice from a Hollywood agent:

“Deliver a world or a setting that we’ve never seen before, or that we haven’t seen in a while (remember approximately 50% of the movie going audience is between 14 & 24. If a concept was used 10+ years ago, odds are they haven’t seen it). “War of the Worlds” = “Independence Day”=”War of the Worlds”. “Kelly’s Heroes” = “Three Kings”. “Taming of the Shrew”=”10 Things I Hate About You,” “Disturbia” = “Rear Window.” Are these exact matches? No! But are they delivering, or repackaging if you will, concepts that the earlier films/plays successfully sold to the consumer. Yes!”
Bruce Bartlett
Bartlett Screenwriting Tips Blog

Bartlett, by the way. was the first agent I ever talked to. Back in 1996 he read a script of mine called First Comes Marriage.* (In a follow-up phone call he said he was looking for something edgier like Swingers.) He’s a partner at Above the Line Agency in Beverly Hills. (You can submit queries to them online.) His partner, Rima Greer, has written an informative book called The Read , Low Down, Dirty Truth About Hollywood Agenting.

But as for movie cloning, can you really watch the 2010 film Date Movie and not at least think of Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest? Of course you can, and that’s Bartlett’s point. People just want to watch Steve Carell & Tina Fey and laugh—which is why it made $98 million domestic.  But people who write and are up on film history know otherwise. In fact, I just Googled, “Date Night is North by Northwest” and found a post by Allen Palmer titled, Did you catch Hitchcock in Date Night? He can fill you in on the similarities of the two films.

Ever wonder how Walt Disney and his team of animators were able to crank out so many great films? Maybe it had something to do with using the same DNA. (Again, I saw this connection on Kal Bashir’s website.)

Winnie the Pooh

The Jungle Book

Just one more reminder that there’s nothing new under the sun.

*As a side note, First Comes Marriage, a script I completed in 1995 involved a couple getting married the day they met. It was simply an original idea that I had never seen or read  before (or had ever heard of happening in real life) but I thought it could happen and would be interesting to explore. While never produced, the basic concept was similar to the hit TV show Dharma & Greg (1997-2002), and in the 2008 film What Happens in Vegas.

Scott W. Smith

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“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

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