questionmarkLately I’ve been adapting novels and shorts stories that are in the public domain and I’m worried that some producer I query could just forget about me and hire someone else to adapt the same novel after my query letter puts it in their head it would make a good movie.

Now I know stealing ideas rarely happens and there isn’t anything I can do to protect my rights on a story in the public domain, but if a producer I query decides to adapt the same novel I have, without using my script, well then my script is pretty much dead in the water, right?

Basically I was curious to find out if you think I should stop worrying and pitch these adaptation, or should I focus on pitching the other two scripts I’ve written (which are based on true stories I control the rights to) and then pull out my adaptations once I forge a working relationship with a producer?

— Rob

Would it suck if a producer, upon reading your query letter (or hearing your pitch), decided to go off and use the same public domain material as the basis for a different writer’s script? Yes.

Is it likely? Not really.

Let’s say you wrote an adaptation of some lesser-known Christopher Marlowe work. Say, “Dido, Queen of Carthage.” The producer is unlikely to know anything about the story, so if your pitch (or query) is interesting enough that he wants to know more, he’ll read your script. At that point, you’ve succeeded in getting a producer to read your material, and that’s the whole point of pitches and queries at this stage in your career.

Sure, you hope he loves it and wants to produce it. But that’s all dependent on his reaction to your writing. If he likes your writing, and he likes the idea, you’re golden. If he doesn’t like your writing, his loss.1

Either way, I think it’s unlikely that your script would suddenly kindle an interest in a long-ignored literary property. I’m sure there are cases where that’s happened, but it feels like the exception, rather than the rule. So if the best script you have available is an adaptation of a public domain piece, by all means show it around.

  1. As a reminder, I assume that everyone writing in with a question is a fantastic screenwriter. This is an absurd postulate, but lets me sleep better at night.