Reader D Brian Weller recently asked me, “How can a writer know an idea hasn’t been done before?”
Of course this is of great concern to screenwriters. But the short answer is, you can’t, really. In fact, with tens of thousands of people out there writing spec screenplays, there’s a pretty good chance at least a few of them are working on very similar ideas to yours right now. Every movie that comes out inevitably gets sued by two or three people who are convinced the producers stole their script. The writers always lose those lawsuits. Always.*
I’m not saying nobody ever steals an idea in Hollywood, but in the vast, vast, vast majority of these cases, a writer simply couldn’t accept that someone else had the same idea as them. I guarantee you, no matter how original you think your idea is, at least three other screenwriters are working on something similar.
It can, of course, be pretty depressing than to be a few weeks away from finishing a spec only to read about a sale in the trades of a script with the exact same idea. Unfortunately it happens.
That said, you do need to make an effort to make sure there wasn’t a movie already made on your idea. There’s no quick way to discover this. However, you should be watching everything you can in the genre you’re writing. If you’re writing science fiction, you should be watching every science fiction movie that comes out and working your way through the catalog of science fiction movies on DVD. If you’re writing horror, you should be seeing everything horror you can. Also reading books and comic books and seeing plays in your genre. (This is one often unmentioned reasons to work in a single genre… switching around requires you to do considerably more homework and research.) I would also recommend using a source like Done Deal Pro to keep track of what has sold recently.
There have been so many movies made (and books published and plays performed, etc.) that there really are no original ideas anymore, at least not good ones. But the originality of an idea is a little overrated. You don’t want to have a logline that immediately brings to mind another movie, of course, but it’s really the development and execution of the idea that counts.
Sometimes it’s a matter of identifying what’s original in your own idea. The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) is about a bachelor party gone bad, an idea that was also the basis of Bachelor Party (story by Bob Israel, screenplay by Bob & Neal Israel and Pat Proft). If you presented The Hangover as:
A raunchy comedy about a bachelor party that goes horribly awry.
It will sound derivative. What’s original is the search for the groom aspect. That’s the new element. So a better log line for The Hangover would be:
A raunchy comedy about five friends who go to Vegas for a bachelor party and lose the groom. The four groomsmen must retrace their steps and find the groom in time for the wedding.
You’ll notice that it’s the specific details that make the idea seem original. This may seem obvious when analyzing an existing high concept film, but I see many writers who don’t take the time to identify the core details that are crucial to the originality of their concept. They either make a generic log line (such as the first one above), or they overload their log line with non-core detail. But identifying the core, specific, original details of your idea will help ensure you develop your script to emphasize these elements. Spend time on this before you start writing!
Often good movies come from adding a twist to a common or even cliché idea. Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) took the monster movie and set it in space. Frequently the best way to ad a fresh spin is through the main character. Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) did the bachelor party comedy seen in movies like Bachelor Party and The Hangover, but made the main characters women. Suddenly a tired idea was fresh. Attack the Block (written by Joe Cornish) is about an alien invasion – something we’ve seen a million times – but the heroes are street thugs. How original!
In 1981, Dragonslayer (written by Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins) made a cliché story idea of a hero rescuing a princess from a dragon fresh by making the hero the wizard’s inexperienced apprentice rather than the wizard himself. Twenty years later Shrek (screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman) told the same story but made the hero a grumpy ogre, a traditional villain in most fairy tails.
Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) did both a twist on the genre and an unexpected main character. At the time, action movies were globe-trotting adventures with heavily armed, indestructible, superheroic main characters. Die Hard contained the action in a single location and gave us a hero that was unarmed, overmatched and bled when he was hurt.
But the bigger point is that Alien, Bridesmaids, Atack the Block, Dragonslayer, Shrek and Die Hard succeeded because they were good, at least in terms of what they were attempting to do. A good idea poorly executed will do nothing. So do your research, identify the original core details of your idea, and, most importantly, write well!
(If you’re interested in more on this topic, see this post on The Value of an Idea)
*You may be thinking of the Art Buchwald Coming to America lawsuit. He actually won breach-of-contract, not copyright infringement. He had a contract with Paramount that if they made a movie based on the idea, he would be compensated. Or maybe you’re thinking about The Matrix case. That’s a myth based on an inaccurate newspaper article. See: http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/matrix.asp