Randall Girdner is a screenwriter living in Shanghai who wrote in with a question that became a conversation. I asked him to share his experience as a First Person post.
This morning, I was listening to both John and Craig’s comments in regard to the billion dollar lawsuit against Tom Cruise and the general legal entanglements in regard to theft of ideas. As a whole, I agree with all of their points. I am forever astounded at the frivolous lawsuits that get bandied about and the inflated self-importance of the people that pursue them.
But something happened to me last year that was a very weird coincidence.
I have been writing for many, many years, but I’ve never sold a script, nor had an agent (and have only really tried in a half-hearted manner). I’m sure I’ve sent a couple of my scripts around at some point, but considering I’ve lived overseas for a good deal of my adult life, it’s never been a high priority.
Last summer, I learned of a thriller that was about to come out that had an idea that was similar to a script I had written in the past. Very similar.
It wasn’t “two-guys-and-a-girl-move-into-an-apartment-together” similar, or “an-asteroid-is-going-to-crash-into-the-planet” similar. The idea for this new film was unique and was almost exactly the same as mine.
I had registered my original script with the Writers Guild in 1995 and had forgotten about it until this movie came out. Suddenly, news of this movie was everywhere. I felt somewhat ill at the notion that my idea might have been stolen.
Worse but related: the premise of the movie is so unique that this particular movie has rendered my original script dead in the water.
I contacted an entertainment lawyer through friends, who advised me to watch the movie and compare plot points. I never did, partially because I lived in mortal fear that the movie actually would be similar to mine and would make my brain explode.
I wrote to John, and told him basically what I wrote above.
While I was waiting (hoping) for a reply, I ended up watching the movie.
Similar yet entirely different
Aside from the initial premise and some general, large-scale ideas, it turns out that my script is pretty much unlike the this movie at all. The execution is very different.
While I was pondering how this could be, John wrote back:1
I know it’s hard to wrap your head around that there are probably four other guys who saw this movie and said, “Hey wait a second! That’s almost exactly like the script I wrote!” But I guarantee there were. I bet some hardcore googling would find them bitching in message boards, and that might give you some solace.
Can you remember when you got the idea? My hunch is that there was a moment of inspiration/inception…And it’s a goodish idea. But that bare idea doesn’t have characters and story and detail. It has nothing protectable.
This was true and I needed to hear something like that to help calm my brain.
But those feelings are still there. Partly because there’s a sequel coming.
As a writer, my uncontrollable imagination can envision nine thousand elaborate scenarios in which someone (a studio, a producer, a writer/director) could have conspired to screw me over, but the truth of the matter is that I cannot conceive of any possible way in which my script could have been stolen.
Even if it was, the planning and execution of that theft would have to be so incredibly elaborate and dastardly that someone should have just bought it from me in the first place. Nothing is worth that much thought and energy.
Hmm…there’s an idea for a movie.
When I encounter this with projects I’ve written — or have on the drawing board — I try to remind myself, “This means I have commercial taste! People make movies like mine!” It’s small comfort, but it’s something.
- I save most questions for the podcast. In this case, I had a hunch there was a First Person post possibility, which is why I wrote Randall directly. ↩