Thursday, June 3, 2010

Zeitgeist Inspiration

Post by Trai

The single most-asked question I get as a screenwriting teacher is How do I protect my idea from theft?

As writers, we all want that big idea, the sure fire ride to the big time. And we’re afraid that once we hit on that golden ticket, someone is going to take it from us. In Hollywood, there are thousands of screenwriters breaking a sweat to break in, and over the years we’ve developed a superstitious behavior: we tell no one what we’re working on. In the novel-writing world, that tendency seems to be about “retaining the writerly energy” so we can finish our marathon run to the final page.

In Hollywood, it’s about not launching our million dollar idea into the zeitgeist to be poached by another.

Here’s what I mean: a fun experiment was tried by some bored MIT students. They got several thousand NY Times crossword puzzlers to agree to work on a puzzle at a specific time that day and track the results. Those in the morning took as long as they always seemed to; those working at lunch completed it faster than usual, and so on and so forth until those in the late evening zoomed through the puzzle – with almost all right answers.
According to the MIT students, the late-night puzzlers were able to solve it the faster and easier because they were tapping into the psychic energy already generated by the previous puzzlers. The answers were “out there” … these folks merely plugged in to that mental dimension and plucked them out.

Hokum? Maybe. But go ask a Buddhist what “om” is about on a global scale, and they’ll give you an answer that might rock your boat.

After reading scripts for HBO for eight years, I noticed some patterns. For example, one person would submit a screenplay about, say, the very first computer hacker to be put to work by the FBI. Within six months, four or five more scripts about that topic would cross my desk. The very same topic!

Had that first writer flapped his lips at the wrong cocktail party and got his brilliant idea passed around town like news of Paris Hilton’s latest boytoy?

No way. It was in the zeitgeist, man. One writer starts thinking about it, and somehow, some way, some of the 25,000 other writers constantly reaching out for ideas, thinking really hard about ideas, arrived at the same concept.

It’s pretty cool, actually, and it happens all the time.

It doesn’t seem to happen in the novel-writing world unless everyone’s just chasing a trend (and good on trends – they keep the lights on at the publishing houses). I think it happens in LA so much because we all live in the same physical space, generating all that creative force. Even if we never spoke to a soul about our ideas… they are still out there.

But here’s the good news: every one of those scripts about the very first computer hacker working for the FBI were completely different. Different sensibilities, different voices, different genres. Which is what I tell my students: don’t sweat getting ripped off; get your copyright registration and that’s that.

If a mystery thief should take your idea, he’s going to come up with a take completely different from yours; all you have to do is write yours better. And secondly, if that other script ends up getting made and yours doesn’t – well, that’s a free paycheck. Hollywood is wildly creative and apparently somewhat psychic (we have to be – have you seen us drive??). But we are above all else litigious.

And that’s the real reason no one steals in LA.


Eric W. Trant said...

Earlier this year I started blogging, and in the back of my mind was that fear: Someone will steal my ideas!

You mentioned one key point about that fear, which is that the tone, voice, plot, characters, and overall feel of the story will be different as told by different authors.

For example, the cartoon films The Wild and Madagascar released close together and with identical themes: Zoo animals escape.

While similar in concept -- comedic giraffe, New York setting -- the films were mechanically very different.

One film flopped. The other rocked.

One film set a serious tone. The other remained flippant throughout.

So if the idea had in fact been stolen, the idea-thieves wrote it from a unique angle.

A Bug's Life and Antz show the same overlapping stories.

Books-to-movie rewrites and remakes highlight your point beyond argument.

As Chong said to Cheech: "Man, I wrote a song just like yours! It's exactly the same, only different."

The other problem with worrying over someone stealing your story is this: You assume your idea is good enough to steal!

Which is somewhat arrogant.

As for psychic energy, I don't rule out anything.

- Eric

Trai said...

Interesting that you raise the Antz and Bugs Life box office collision.

Animated movies take twice as long (if not longer) to make than a live action, and there's great transparency in Hollywood, which is to say, once something is bought or green-lit, we all know about it... and yet these two companies ignored each other and went on with what they were doing.

Guess they decided there was enough grass to chew for the both of them.

Jenny S. said...

What a fascinating concept. But now I'm wondering if I've ever had an original idea...

Patricia Stoltey said...

I believe in that psychic energy thingie. We definitely see it in the blogging world when a bunch of us post on the same topic on the same day. Eerie.

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