by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
If you write for any length of time, eventually you will see an idea you had make it to the screen. The downside, of course, will be that you had no involvement with the project at all. It’s enough to cause one to embrace conspiracy theories about Hollywood spies staking out coffee shops and combing through personal hard drives in search of Final Draft files. The odd truth is that ideas seem to float in the air at certain moments and multiple writers will grab them at the same time, confident that they have a unique idea. (Deep Impact and Armageddon are the classic example.)
I recently saw the trailer for a film called Professor Marston and the Wonder Women. It is based on the true story of William Moulton Marston and how he created the comic character of Wonder Woman while balancing a polyamorous relationship with two women. I had been developing a script called The Wonder Man, based on the exact same premise. I stumbled on Marston’s story a few years before there was even talk of a Wonder Woman film, much less a project around Marston’s life. I worked hard to develop research around the project. I banged out an outline. I even had concept poster art created to empower my pitch as I took it around Hollywood. I spent grueling hours writing the script, trying to get it polished after I heard rumors of a Wonder Woman film in development from Warner Bros. I knew if I had my project ready at the right moment, there would be interest around Marston and who he was. And I was right. Unfortunately, there were others who had stumbled on Marston’s story as well. They had gone through the same process I had, and one of them managed to sell their story and see the film made before I did.
This wasn’t the first time I had this experience. I had been plotting out an NWA biopic for more than five years before Straight Outta Compton was announced. I was shopping a comedy about a man in a dead-end job who fakes his own death several years before Adam Sandler’s The Do-Over was created. And the list goes on and on.
Had writers somehow divined what I was working on, stole it, and beat me to market? No. They saw the same idea floating around in the air and grabbed it. They did beat me to the market, but this is where the many adages in Hollywood about luck come into play.
So, what is a writer to do when the idea you’ve been working on hits the big screen at a theater near you, or even worse, becomes the next binge-worthy hit on Netflix? Here are three ways to move forward when you find out your story has been snatched.
1. REMIX IT
Your story might still be salvageable. Depending on how close your premise is to the one that has been produced, you might be able to change key elements of the story to make it workable. For example, significant changes to who the protagonist is might make the story feel very different. If your hero was a Korean businessman in the cutthroat world of advertising, pivoting to an African American woman in the competitive world of on-line startups would likely make the script so different that your story can have new life again. Of course, this will require a significant amount of work. However, it might allow you to still keep important sections of your script, including setups and payoffs, killer dialogue, and plot twists.
Another common remixing technique is to set your story in a different historical era than you’ve been working in. If your script about a lawyer who falls in love with her criminal client shows up in the “Coming Soon” trailers on HBO, consider taking your story a hundred years into the future. Shifting to a different moment in history gives stories a new context that removes obvious similarities when being compared to scripts that have already been produced.
2. BURY IT
While it requires patience, sometimes putting a script in your desk drawer is the best career move you can make. The film that stole your idea might go by relatively unnoticed at the box office. In a few years, it’s completely possible that few will even remember it was made. There could be renewed interest in your script. Many historical figures and events have had numerous films made about them, some even within a few months of each other. This can be an especially helpful strategy when your take on the material is through a significantly different lens, though the subject itself is being given the current spotlight. Reboots of material have become a standard, and the period between reboots has gotten shorter and shorter thanks to our friends working in the superhero genre. Just because the film about vampire high school students just snatched your premise and tanked at the box office does not mean that Hollywood won’t be ready to try that idea again in a few years. Hold on to your script. Its time may still be yet to come.
3. BURN IT
Sometimes, a story is so similar that the only option is to send it to that old script farm where stories go to die. My NWA script lives there now. Straight Outta Compton was well done, successful, and crafted by those who experienced the story in real life. It is highly unlikely anyone will be looking for my take on that material in the future. It would be a waste of time to continue trying to make anything of the script.
This should always be a last resort, but an option that every writer is willing to take for their own sanity. Most commonly, this happens with historical biopics and stories based around a singular event from history. Before abandoning an idea completely, make sure that it cannot be remixed or shouldn’t instead be buried, as discussed above. If there are simply no better options, move on to developing other projects in your arsenal of scripts. Having a wide repertoire of stories is the most effective way to avoid stalling your writing career when a great idea gets snatched.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.