It’s considered the ultimate mark of the amateur screenwriter: “I just had a million dollar idea, but I won’t tell anybody so that no one steals it.” They cover their scripts in copyright icons and WGA registration numbers. Worst of all, they actually read the fine print of submission agreements and raise hell about the ludicrously broad language found there.
Seasoned screenwriters always chuckle about the folly of this: “Ideas are a dime a dozen. Great screenplays are merely skillful new executions of old ideas. If you do have a ‘brand new idea’, then oh brother are you in trouble, because every studio in town probably already has a similar project in development. Want to do a dark reinterpretation of the Wizard of Oz? Join the club.”
That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. But someone forgot to tell the studios or the trade magazines. Every week, the new script deals are announced with much fanfare, and never once has anyone announced that their new movie is “a standard story with exceptionally rich characters!” No, script purchases are always accompanied by a one-line description of the brilliant brand-new-idea that the studio has purchased. And it often seems the studio bought the idea and only the idea, because an old pro is quickly hired to re-write the actual script.
So which is it? Are ideas cheap or valuable? The answer is tricky: Everybody knows that ideas are ephemeral and the only marketable skill is good writing, but you can’t boast to the trades about your opinion that the script you just bought was well written. You can only boast about the fact that it has a unique concept. So that’s what they do.
Like most screenwriters, I read the new loglines in the trades every month. For each one, I either say, “I wish I’d thought of that!” or “That’s idiotic!” (My all-time favorite: “The story of a serial killer who only kills people in the middle of tornadoes!”) But eventually, I noticed something… None of these movies ever actually seemed to get made, even if the idea was fantastic.
To understand why, I need look no further than the one exception that proved the rule... It was, hands down, the best idea I ever read about in the trades:
- Title: Time Capsule
- Idea: A kindergarten teacher and her class open a time capsule from the 1950s where kids drew what they thought the future would look like. To her horror, one kid drew childish crayon drawings of the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger blowing up, the twin towers getting hit, and a fourth disaster that has yet to happen! The cops assume this is her own sick joke, but she knows it’s real so she’s got to find the grown-up kid and help him prevent the last disaster.
How can you hear that idea and not picture the trailer? A camera pans across the four crayon drawings and then lands on the last one (maybe a nuclear bomb hitting DC)-- everyone in the theater would instantly get it and say “I gotta see that!”For years, I wondered what ever happened to that great idea… Finally, just when I’d forgotten all about it, the actual movie finally came out. The kindergarten teacher had been replaced by Nicolas Cage as an alcoholic mathematician. The drawings had become pages and pages of numbers (Numbers are more cinematic than drawings??) The disaster had become unpreventable (the sun going supernova), so the premonitions were for naught anyway. The convoluted explanation involved angels and aliens. The title had changed form Time Capsule to Knowing. It was a big flop.
For once, Hollywood had actually bought a once-in-a-lifetime, nobody-could-mess-this-up idea… and messed it up. And yet, the fetishization of ideas continues unabated. Why?? Let’s pick up there tomorrow…