Saturday, 19 July 2014

how to have someone else's idea



If you tell a mainstream film producer that you've got an original idea they usually ask what it's based on. If you say you made it up, because making things up is what writers do, they laugh, narrow their eyes, and surreptitiously text their assistant, asking them to find out what writers really do. If you persist in pitching your original idea they press the button under the desk that tips you into the tank of starving piranhas, and snigger as they stroke a fluffy white cat with a diamond collar on their lap. Then they pour a fresh drink from a bottle of orphans' tears, and fire a few people.

But wait. Perhaps we're being unfair. Put yourself in the producer's shoes for a moment. Nice, aren't they? Very supple. Handmade. Italian, probably. But as a producer, facing a writer across your desk, here's what you're thinking:

1. If this idea is so original how come nobody thought of it before?

2. There are no original ideas.

3. I wish this idiot would shut up. Why hasn't my secretary buzzed me to pretend I have an important call, like I asked her to, so I can get rid of this idiot, who is now talking about what, exactly? Holy shit, character arcs. Unbelievable. I should never take meetings with writers. What do they do again?

It doesn't matter if you don't agree that there are no original ideas. If someone is paying for your script they're also paying you to agree with them. You're perfectly free to make a film the way you want, but you have to do it with your own money. Then, if you want to argue with the producer you can yell at yourself in the mirror. But the surest way to scare off mainstream money is by being original. Naturally, producers claim to be looking for originality, but what they mean is a new version of something that's been done before, and made a lot of money.

So, how can you persuade a big producer to make your original idea? Easy. You say you're going to do something that's like something that's been done before, and then do something different. You just need to reassure them by using ingredients that look familiar. They're probably not going to read the script anyway, so they just need to know there are things in it they've recently seen in films that have kept people like them in the style to which they believe they're entitled.

Your first step is to choose one from each of the following categories.

PROTAGONIST
Boy wizard, Teenage vampire, Brooding superhero, Robot, Toy, Cop with a drink problem, Crusading journalist with a broken marriage, Eccentric family with a cute kid, Sassy newcomer with an attitude, Feisty woman on a life-affirming journey of self-discovery, Wronged warrior on a rampage of slaughter.

ANTAGONIST
Bad wizard, Bad vampire, Bad superhero, Bad robot, Bad toy, Serial killer, Evil tycoon, Corrupt politician, Fashion magazine editor, Master criminal played by respected British actor with an unexpectedly large tax bill to pay.

THE GOAL
Save the world, Make the kid happy, Kill the villain, Serve justice, Serve dinner, Expose evil, Get married, Get published, Get rich, Get home, Get laid... mmm... cigarette?

THE OBSTACLE
Greed, Power, Corruption, Protagonist's inner flaw, Kryptonite, Lack of time, Lack of money, Lack of George Clooney, Irascible police lieutenant, Devious best friend, Bad breath, heart-rending moral dilemma, Bubonic plague, Death.

Don't forget to choose a genre. To help you, here's a guide:

SCI-FI:  In a distant galaxy, far away, everything explodes.

ACTION: Your mission, should you accept it, is to explode.

KIDS:  Everything explodes but no one gets killed.

ROMANCE:  Two people, an explosion of love.

COMEDY:  Hey, what does this button do? (BOOM!)


Now just write the script you wanted to write in the first place. They'll never suspect it's original. There's only one danger. The idea you've come up with to make your original idea look familiar may actually be more fun than the original idea, especially that one about the dying geography teacher who's secretly a chess genius. That one could use a little more action anyway, to be honest. What if the chess pieces were these, like, really cool helicopter gunships, flown by wrongly convicted special forces dudes on death row as part of some kind of gladiator fight-to-the-death type deal? And one of them is this beautiful but deadly female special forces assassin chick and she has a blind daughter, and she's reluctantly agreed to do one last mission to pay the hospital bills? And they're all vampires. Or robots. Or robot vampires. Whatever, now we're cooking with gas. And it's original, in a way. But in the right way: it's a new story in a familiar genre. There it is again, that little word: genre.


Big, successful movies are genre movies. In the words of Jane Austen, screenwriting guru, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." In other words, here comes a story you know. Because what we want are old stories, told in new ways. Austen was able to tell them in wonderfully creative ways, but she lays her cards on the table with that opening sentence from Pride and Prejudice, and lets us know we're in for a familiar love story. A genre story. Yes, she's playful with it, and sometimes subverts it, but she sticks firmly to the conventions of her genre. And so should you, if you want that big producer's big money. If, on the other hand, you don't want to tell a genre story, go ahead and do your thing on Kickstarter, but get out of that producer's office right away. His finger is  caressing that button under the desk, and the piranhas are hungry. Run. Run like the wind!

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