New writers are often paranoid that someone will steal their ideas - so they do everything possible to keep their screenplay idea top secret... leaving it out of their query letters and going out of their way to make sure no one can read their script. The obvious problem with that is no one will want to read your script if you don't tell them what it's about... and nobody *can* read your script if you don't let them. Your logline is all about the high concept, and that's what gets a producer interested enough to read your screenplay. You can't keep your idea secret!

But does that mean you just let people steal it?

Let's look at this from a business perspective - is stealing your idea good business? If a producer steals your idea, they must then HIRE A PROFESSIONAL WRITER to script it. That costs them money. In fact, it costs them more money than if they were to buy your script, because it's just a job to the pro hired to write the script. It's not their personal idea, so they don't care... they're in it for the cash. If they steal your idea and hire me to write the script, they have to pay my rate - and it's much more expensive than what it would cost the producer to buy a script from a new writer. If someone comes to me with an idea that is not my own and wants me to script it, it's gonna cost them. I have plenty of my own ideas, and plenty of my own scripts that I'm trying to find the time to write. I don't want to write anybody else's ideas... unless they pay me so much that I'd be a fool not to.

You are not a pro writer - they don't have to pay you what they pay me or David Koepp or Terry & Ted. So from a business standpoint it's cheaper to buy your script, than to steal your idea.


But *ideas* are not protected under copyright. Only the execution of the idea. So anyone can legally steal your idea... and then pay big bucks for an established professional to script it. So the best protection against idea theft is to write a great script. That way, they won't want just the idea, they'll want the whole damned script - and they'll buy it.

See, it's not just the idea that's important - it's the *execution* of that idea. There are piles of completely unreadable scripts that have great ideas buried in them - but no one is ever going to find them, because reading the script will cause brain damage. I've read some of those scripts - my head hurt afterwards. Though ideas are important, they are also a dime a dozen. You could give 5 people the same great idea and only one of them might write a great script from it. The writing part is probably more important than the idea part - but you need *both* if you want to succeed. Hell, I *give away* ideas all the time - the first year of my website I had an "Idea Of The Day" feature where I gave away a high concept idea every single day, 5 days a week. I did it to prove there was no shortage of great ideas out there. I could give away a couple hundred in a year and *still* have enough left over to make a living. Those who worry about Hollywood stealing their ideas should instead worry about writing a great script... When it comes down to it, *writing* is what matters.

Though this is a generalization, most people who worry about someone stealing their idea only have one or two scripts, which makes them care too much about them. It's like having only one child - you can be overprotective. You can worry too much about all of the bad things that might happen to that only child, and screw the kid up for life. But if you have a dozen kids, you care for them all but you don't worry so much about them. You have kids to spare. When one kid skins their knee on the playground, you don't have time to worry about all of the strange infections that might happen, you have eleven other kids with skinned knees! Just spray on some Bactine, kiss the boo-boo, and send them back to the playground!

One way to stop worrying about someone stealing your idea - have a lot of scripts and a lot of ideas. Work those creative muscles and come up with a bunch of great ideas. Not only will you worry less, you will also come up with so many great ideas that you can afford to have a few stolen. Another generalization is that people who worry about having their ideas stolen are often new writers with ideas that aren't worth stealing. I often see this on message boards, Frequently they are okay ideas, but not the *great ideas* you come up with when you practice coming up with ideas every day and have enough good ideas to throw a bunch away. So worrying about idea theft doesn't make much sense - instead worry about writing a great script and coming up with hundreds of good ideas..

And your script isn't just the idea, right? I'll bet I can name 2 films with the same idea as your script. There is nothing new under the sun. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH? Very similar to HEAD (starring Victor Mature as himself... it's his head the protagonists have adventures on... his hair is like a forest!). So what really matters isn't the idea - but the EXECUTION of the idea (the writing part). That's why the idea part can't be copyrighted but the writing part can. So if you've done all of this work, the writing is going to be the thing that attracts the producers, right?

Give your script to anyone who wants to read it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.


Register your script with the WGA - you can do that online and instantly get a registration number. WGA registration lasts 5 years. Copyright lasts your lifetime plus 70 years, which makes it a better deal. Copyright registration also allows you to recover more money when you get to court. The only drawback with copyright is that it's the government, and moves about as fast as that line at the DMV. If you have someone that wants to read your script *tomorrow* you probably don't want to make them wait until the copyright office sends you the registration number. That's usually when I do the instant WGA online registration - you're protected for 5 years in about 5 minutes. Then I copyright for long term protection.

But what if someone makes a film just like your script? Since you can't copyright an idea, only the execution of the idea, if they lifted your idea, you can't really do anything about it. If they lifted your execution and you can prove it (lines of dialogue verbatum, etc.) you may have a case. What you will need to prove is that they had access to your script - you must provide a paper trail that proves they had a copy of your screenplay and read it. There are people who think Spielberg stole their idea... but they never gave their script to Spielberg. To me, that sounds more like synchronicity - when two or more people come up with the same idea at the same time. That's very common, because we all live in the same world and watch the same news and read the same books and watch the same TV shows... and when you simmer all of those things together in the minds of thousands of creative people, it's no surprise when a bunch of people come up with the same idea as you. It's so common there's that word for it - Synchronicity.

I'm not a lawyer, and I don't even play one on TV - so if you can prove that someone had access to your screenplay and then made a film with the same idea, many of the same lines of dialogue and many of the same scenes and characters, you should hire a lawyer. The lawyer will probably warn you that these cases are difficult to prove, and tend to end any screenwriting career you might have had. Suing makes sense if the film was a big hit, doesn't make much sense if the film was a flop.

Hey, what if you prevent any of this idea theft stuff with a confidentially agreement? Make the producer sign a contract saying they won't tell anyone about your idea! Great idea... Not! No one will sign a confidentiality agreement with a non-name writer... and oddly enough, all of the "name" writers I know never use them (that includes Oscar winners and nominees and just guys who have written movies that made a couple hundred million). What those guys do is write great scripts - that is their protection. See, it always comes back to good writing!


How do you prevent coming up with a used idea? Well, the first thing you need to do is be a film fan - so that you've seen a bunch of movies and know about a bunch of other movies. When I was starting out I bought the Leonard Maltin Guide and began crossing off the movies I had seen, and reading the descriptions of all of the films to see what movies I might want to seek out. Probably the better books for me ended up being the genre books - as a fan of everything criminal on screen, from noir to detective to gangster - I would read books on the genres and subgenres I was interested in. Not as some kind of idea research, just because I was interested in that kind of film. Though there aren't enough hours in the day to see every movie ever made (I'm still trying), you can read some books and be interested enough in film to have a pretty good idea of what has been done before. Plus, there's the "20 Year Rule" - that any basic idea from a film over 20 years old can probably be done again with enough new twists. So "Jaws" is about a giant shark attacking people, and "Deep Blue Sea" is about a giant shark attacking people. Note that the only thing that is the same in both of those movies is the giant shark part... everything else is different.

And that's the key to similar ideas. It never fails: I come up with a completely crazy original idea that as far as I know has never been done before... and halfway through the first draft read about a script with the same wild idea that just sold for a bunch of money and Tom Hanks has just signed on to star. I'm screwed, right? Why even finish the script? It's a used idea - much like used toilet paper.

But wait a minute - they made two of those asteroid movies, didn't they? ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT were made at the same time! And HBO made one three years earlier called WITHIN THE ROCK.

Asteroids hitting earth is a pretty good idea. The problem is with the bland ideas - where there are a hundred scripts with the exact same idea that was lifted from something in the soup without going through the imagination machine at all. So you get something too bland to make a mark. The basic generic idea that we have seen a hundred times before. I'm never surprised when I'm at a pitch clinic and hear a couple of scripts based on the same news event from two years ago. You need to run every idea through the imagination machine to twist it into something unique. *Your* imagination is likely to make the idea different than someone else's imagination.

The HBO version of the giant asteroid hurtling toward earth, we're all doomed story has that rag-tag team of oil drillers sent on the shuttle to drill and plant nukes to blow up the asteroid... only they hit metal. Not any sort of earth metal - some alien metal within the rock... and they discover this isn't an asteroid, it's an *invasion*. So now it's oil guys vs. aliens. That was a really good twist on the idea... that came 3 years before ARMAGEDDON.

So, the first step is to use your imagination to come up with some amazing idea that only a very few people could have come up with - because it goes through whatever odd filters and circuits are in your personal imagination.

The other thing to do is personalize your ideas - find the ideas and elements of ideas that are unique to you. You want to leave your fingerprint on the story. I usually begin with some element of my life and grow a story from it. For my NIGHT HUNTER movie, I had gone through a period in my life where my best friend back stabbed me for his career... then all of my other friends kissed *his* butt because he was successful (at my expense). I felt betrayed and isolated and angry... at people I liked. So I spun that into a story about the last vampire hunter (this was 3 years before BLADE) who feels isolated, and once those he trusts get bitten - they fall in league with the vampire king. My personal story, scenes lifted from my life that no one else could have written, but in a horror-action story that HBO viewers would tune in to see. But the personal aspect made it unique to me. Other writers - if they use their personal stories as a basis - would have written *different* vampire stories. (Or not written a vampire story at all.)

If you find out there is another script with the same idea as yours, what you need to do is change your idea a little. First, find out everything you can about the specifics of this other script - read it if you can get your hands on a copy. Then find the ways that your script is different and accentuate those differences. Look at the elements of *your life* that are in your script, and accentuate those as well. Fine what is different and focus on those elements, doing a page one rewrite on your script that makes it different than the one that just sold. Now you have the VOLCANO to their DANTE'S PEAK or the OUTBREAK to their PANIC IN THE HOT ZONE or the BUG'S LIFE to their ANTZ a MILK to their MAYOR OF CASTRO STREET. There is always parallel development in Hollywood, and if one studio has a hot high concept script, another studio may want something similar to compete with it... and maybe kill it. Both MILK and OUTBREAK were the johnny-come-lately projects created to duke it out with the other studio's established scripts... only the scripts that got there first died on the vine. Only around 10% of scripts bought get made, so there is always the chance that your script that got there second will be the one that ends up on screen, while the biog script bought will all of the fanfare crashes and burns on the way to the screen.

One way to make sure your script is different is to take a page from WITHIN THE ROCK (which got there first) and add a *second* high concept to your script. Or maybe just boost the concept you have to make it more unique.


When I had my day job working in the warehouse for a decade, I wrote a good page a day - and that's 3 scripts a year for a grand total of 30 scripts. One of my current spare time projects (like I have spare time) is to rewrite all of these old scripts. One that I have been working on was about a bodyguard and a woman pregnant with the President's kid - and the President's people want her dead so that he can be re-elected. THE BODYGUARD meets what's in Bill Clinton's pants. This was pre-Clinton though, and was kind of a JFK-like Prez and a Marilyn Monroe type. There always seemed to be some movie with a similar idea, just as I prepared to send it out. First we had THE BODYGUARD, then we had all of those Clinton scandal movies like ABSOLUTE POWER and MURDER AT 1600 where the President is having an affair and kills the girl himself. Not exactly my script, but kind of the same idea. Just when those had run their course we got a half dozen Bodyguard-Protects-Pregnant-Babe movies, at least two of which starred Clive Owen. My script needed something that really made it different! I wrote this back when I didn't understand that high concept isn't just doing search and replace to make it The President or make the bad guys into Vampires or have the story take place In Outer Space. I had a weak concept - one that was obvious instead of inventive. The more unique your concept is, the less likely someone else will come up with it and the more likely it will be something personal.

What I needed was *more* imagination to make it more unique (and more personal).

So, what I needed to do was give this old script a high concept injection that would change the core of the story. To take the basic plotting and characters and overlay a new high concept. Add a new weird element. The bodyguard protecting the pregnant babe is still there - but instead of her pregnant with the President's kid, I raised the stakes and changed the genre by having the father be someone even more powerful. So the story is *now* about the Vatican's version of Indiana Jones who unearths the key to cracking a code in the missing Dead Sea Scroll... and discovers that the second coming is about to take place - the Second Son will be born in a certain hospital on September 29th... So the archeologist jets to the hospital to find and protect the pregnant woman from Satan's minions - who want to kill her before she gives birth. Various forms of demons attack (instead of The President's handler's secret hit squad) and each form of demon is some cool kind of monster. I tried to make the demons all kind of high concept. Coming up with them was fun. And the new end twist - she gives birth, and it's *Satan's* son! Okay - kinda RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK meets THE BODYGUARD meets DAVINCI CODE meets CONSTANTINE meets THE OMEN... but much better than the stale script it began life as... and it examines faith and responsibility, a couple of things I've been thinking about lately. I'm hoping they hire Clive Owen as the lead.

A year ago I had a project where I needed to come up with a bunch of pitches for sequels to movies in a studio's library. After selecting some movies, my next step was to let my imagination run wild and find interesting and unusual story ideas for a sequel - to take the unique idea from the original and add another unique idea. More high concept injection. While doing this, I looked for stories that were personal to me - things the protagonist could wrestle with that were things that I have wrestled with. Some of the ideas I came up with are really cool - personal and completely wild.

So, if you use your imagination and stay away from bland stories, that puts your script in a small stack - there may be another script in there that has the same idea as yours, but there aren't hundreds of them. Then, if you make it personal, you have a script that may have the same idea as another script, but is still a *unique* take on that idea. And we get ARMAGEDDON and DEEP IMPACT. And if there is still a script in the stack that has the same general idea as yours, find all of the ways that your idea is different and do a major rewrite focusing on those elements... and if that doesn't do it, twist the concept even more the way I did with SECOND SON and do a page one rewrite. If someone just sold a script with a similar idea as yours - just make yours different.

So if you finish your script only to find a similar script just sold, all is not lost!

An expanded version of this tip is a chapter in the IDEAS BLUE BOOK.

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bluebook E BOOKS: New Blue Books and Novelettes!
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Seventeen Blue Books now available!

THE SECRETS OF ACTION SCREENWRITING The Best Nuts & Bolts Screenwriting Book On The Market!


My nineteen produced films, interviews with me in magazines, several sample scripts, my available scripts list... And MORE!
...............................BILL'S CORNER

Available Scripts


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