Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Value of Ideas

Question: What is a great idea for a movie worth?

Answer: Not much.

Are you surprised by that answer? There is a misperception that a good movie idea is an incredibly valuable thing. It’s really not.

I (like every other screenwriter) am constantly told by people that they have a great idea for a movie or TV show. They either want to know how to sell that idea or want me to turn it into a script and split the anticipated fortune 50/50.

Usually their great idea is actually not that great at all. But even when it is, the truth is I have five notebooks filled with my own ideas. In my lifetime I will not be able to write a fraction of the ones I think would make terrific movies. Why should I write yours (and give you half the money for my hard work)? No thanks, don’t need your precious idea.

Similarly, studios don’t want to buy ideas for movies. They also know that ideas are a dime a dozen. What they need are great scripts – and those are incredibly rare. Any economist will tell you that price is greatly affected by scarcity. That which is hard to acquire costs a lot, that which is common costs very little.

On a related note, aspiring writers often ask me how they can protect against people “stealing their ideas.”

The answer: you execute on the page. You turn that idea into a great screenplay. As a new writer you’re cheap. If you write a good script they’d much rather buy it from you than steal the idea and hire a more expensive writer to write it.

(And a note about copyright law: you can’t copyright an idea. They can “steal” the idea from you and it’s completely legal. So can I, by the way. You’re only protection is to turn it into a script which you can protect. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer…if you want serious legal advice hire a real lawyer.)

Agents and managers aren’t really interested in ideas, either. They want writers. Breaking a newcomer into the business is labor intensive. They seldom make enough on a first sale to make it worth the effort. They will only do it if they believe the writer is going to generate income for years to come. That’s why they usually want to read two scripts before they sign a new client.

But now I’m going to contradict myself. It turns out ideas are actually quite valuable and important.

Just not on their own.

Studios do not want a well-executed screenplay with a bad story idea at its core. That happens a lot (I may have even done it myself a few times, though I won’t admit it!) You need both pieces of the puzzle – a great idea well executed.

And people do sell ideas…sort of. That’s what a pitch is. However, I am aware of exactly zero instances where someone who’s never written a script (or alternatively a bunch of novels or plays) has sold a pitch. Because in a pitch you’re not really selling just an idea. You’re selling an idea combined with a writer. They have to like the idea but they also have to believe this particular writer can turn this particular idea into a good screenplay. And if you’ve never written anything before they are not going to think that. The idea on its own is worthless.

So if you want to see your idea up on that big screen (or the small screen – all this applies to TV, too), go out and write the screenplay. That may be bad news for those who just want fame and wealth without any work. But it should be good news for those who truly want to be writers.

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