Fantastic Ideas and Where to Find Them (STPS #5)

People on Quora and other discussion boards are constantly asking where they can sell their movie ideas, and people like me are constantly explaining that’s not a thing.

Yes, Joe Eszterhas once sold a script pitch written on the back of a cocktail napkin for $4.7 million, but he wasn’t just selling the bare idea – he was selling his services as a hugely successful screenwriter to go with it.

If any mere mortal (i.e., non-screenwriter) has managed to sell an “idea” to a movie or TV producer, I haven’t heard of it.

Yet the belief that bare “ideas” have commercial value persists. And, like with many other things connected with screenwriting, there’s an industry that takes advantage of this fantasy.

For example, there are sites like this one, where for “only” $7,000, the team will help you  develop your TV series idea.

Commas and Shit

Sites like Craigslist are full of non-writers who have “great ideas” for movies and “just” need a little help with the details. For example, here’s a recent ad:

Just need someone to translate my ideas into a script form and fill in the gaps with strong dialogue, characterization, pacing, etc.

“Fill in the gaps…”

In other words, DO ALL THE ACTUAL FUCKING WRITING.

Usually, the people with the “ideas” think those ideas are worth at least as much as the labor the writer would contribute. As Damien Owens describes the pitches he gets from wannabe “co-authors”:

I have loads of ideas for books. How about you do all the commas and shit and we’ll split the profits 50-50?

Also, the ideas usually suck, because if you’ve never written a script you have no idea what kind of idea is solid enough to support a full-length screenplay.

Collaboration

I raised this issue for discussion on the Done Deal Forum, and one person commented:

[the belief that] them bringing “the idea” and someone else bringing “the writing” somehow amounts to equal weight on the creative scales is monumentally delusional.

And as someone else noted,

In the real world, collaboration should be between two people who can each bring equal (or nearly equal) value to the table.

In short, no one is likely to take your great idea and turn it into a script for free.

If you want to do something with that idea, you’re either going to have to pay someone real money to write a script (which is a terrible investment), or you’re going to have to learn to write for yourself.

Finding Ideas

If you’re paying any attention to the news, or if you read books or magazines, you’re constantly bombarded by interesting screenplay ideas. You just have to recognize them when you see them.

The Scriptnotes podcast has a great recurring feature called “How Would This Be a Movie?”  A recent installment is here.

One point that the hosts make is that some news stories are more suited to features, some are more suited to TV, and some might make for great documentaries. Some news stories might be interesting in themselves, but not necessarily dramatic in structure, or they might lack a viable point-of-view character.

I’m always seeing stuff in the news that I think would make for a great movie or at least a story element or plot device. I can’t possibly write up all these stories, so I often share them on Twitter under the hashtag #plotdevice.

For example, here are a few recent ones:

The ones I keep to myself I save in a Word doc that now has more than 100 entries – including potential titles and loglines and links to source material.

If you build your own idea/story collection, you’ll never run out of stuff to write, and you’ll always have something new to pitch if the occasion arises.

High Concept

There’s a lot of disagreement about what “high concept” means.

Here are a few definitions:

  • High-concept is a type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. It can be contrasted with low-concept, which is more concerned with character development and other subtleties that are not as easily summarized.
    High-concept narratives are typically characterized by an overarching “what if?” scenario that acts as a catalyst for the following events. Often, the most popular summer blockbuster movies are built on a high-concept idea, such as “what if we could clone dinosaurs?”, as in Jurassic Park.
    Extreme examples of high-concept films are Snakes on a Plane and Hobo with a Shotgun, which describe their entire premises in their titles. (Wikipedia)
  • “High concept” is sometimes described in terms of [Successful Movie #1] meets [Successful Movie #2]. For example, my script Orbit could be described as Gravity meets Armageddon.
  • A “high concept” can involve putting a successful movie concept in a new setting: “Die Hard on a bus/train/boat/elevator/etc.”
  • “High concept” movies often involve gimmicks – often of a magical nature. For example, “What if a man had to live the same day over and over?” “What if a successful woman was transformed into a little girl?”
  • A “high concept” can also involve irony – “Brothers rob banks in order to pay off a loan to a bank and save the family farm.” (Hell or High Water)

A high concept can, in theory, make it easier for a script to get read. Once a movie’s been made, a high concept certainly makes it easier to market.

However, having a “high concept” is neither necessary nor sufficient in order to write a great script.

Low Concepts, Great Stories

Look at the recent nominees for the Best Picture Oscar. Most aren’t what I’d call high concept, but a few of them are.

For example, I think the following movies are at least arguably high-concept:

  • A Black police officer infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. (BlacKkKlansman)
  • A man falls in love with an AI operating system. (Her)
  • A CIA agent pretends to be making a making a cheesy science fiction movie in order to get American hostages out of Iran. (Argo)

However, a lot of my favorite recent movies (and Best Picture nominees) aren’t high concept at all. For example,

  • Two ladies-in-waiting vie for the affections of an ailing queen. (The Favourite)
  • A small-town woman seeks justice for her murdered daughter by putting up billboards. (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
  • A high school girl has romantic relationships with two boys and longs to escape from Sacramento. (Lady Bird)

New Stories and True Stories

I’m a big fan of true stories. They’re also popular with big-time professional screenwriters and often do well at Oscar time. In 2018, six out of eight of the Best Picture nominees were based on true stories.

If you just start with an “idea,” you’re starting with a blank page. There’s a ton of work involved in turning that idea into a story.

If you start with a story from the news or history, then the characters and basic plot points get handed to you. Of course, many dramatic true stories have been turned into deadly-dull movies – like the $120 million snooze-fest I watched last night.

Some people love the freedom and challenge of a blank page; others find it intimidating.

Some people (like me) love doing research. Others find research boring, and just want to make shit up.

Making shit up can work fine when you’re inventing your own fantastical world or situation – if you’re writing an Avatar or a Get Out.

However, it’s usually not a good idea to make shit up when you’re writing about a real environment (the military, a hospital, a submarine, etc.) with which you’re not familiar. Making shit up in that context often results in scripts that ring false and recycle movie clichés about those worlds.

One reason I love doing research is that the details I find are often cooler than anything I could have invented. For example, I could never have imagined the pickled corpses featured in my script Treasure Road.

Adaptations

When you adapt something that already exists in dramatic form (such as a play or novel), you know it already “works” as a story, and often it already has a large audience.

This is why adaptations of comic books and best-selling novels, and remakes and reboots of movies and TV shows, are so popular with big-time Hollywood – they’re considered “safe bets” (even if that sometimes turns out to be wrong).

If you’re a small-time screenwriter, you probably can’t afford the rights to a big-time piece of IP, but there’s a planet-full of literary works in the public domain.

As of January 1, 2019, works published in 1923 and earlier are in the public domain in the US. Every January 1 from now until 2073, another year’s works will become available for screenwriters to freely adapt.

However, doing a literal adaptation of a piece of literature can be a bit like paint-by-numbers. Yes, you still have to decide what to include and what to leave out, but when you get TOO much handed to you there may not be enough room left for your own voice and originality.

One compromise is to take elements from existing IP and update them. For example, my script First Lady is inspired by Macbeth, and Two Pair is loosely based on The Comedy of Errors.

Which idea to pick?

So you’ve got a bunch of ideas and/or stories. Which one do you turn into a script first (or next)?

Lots of people ask whether they should write for “the market” or for themselves.

This article lists some reasons not to try to write “high concept” or for “the market.” For example:

  • You don’t know where “the market” will be by the time you finish your script.
  • Your heart might not be in it, and that will show in the writing.
  • High-concept premises are often just one-joke ideas or gimmicks that can’t keep a reader engaged.

Also, this script probably isn’t going to sell, no matter how “commercial” it is. (See STPS #2, Tell Me the Odds.)

If you’re writing for the sheer love of writing, write something you’ll love to write – whether or not you think it’s “commercial.”

Writing a script is hard. Most people give up before they finish their first one.

If you write something that’s fun for you, and/or that you’re passionate about, you’re more likely to:

  1. finish the script, and stick with it throughout all the necessary rewrites;
  2. produce a strong writing sample that could get you small-time screenwriting gigs; and
  3. do well in the few contests that matter, which will look good on your resume when you pursue those small-time gigs.