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06/08/2002 - A Day Late and A Dollar Short

A few years ago several movies seemed to come out in nearly identical pairs: DEEP IMPACT and ARMAGEDDON came out in the same year, both concerning deadly meteors, while ANTZ and A BUG'S LIFE both focused on the travails and triumphs of lovable insects. Remember DANTE'S PEAK and VOLCANO? Then came THE TRUMAN SHOW, followed relatively soon by EDTV, both examining ominous "reality television" shows that were all too real.

When this happened I took heart. Maybe writers could stop fearing a rival project beating them to the marketplace. Maybe it was okay, even fiscally beneficial to have competing projects. Just because one project about the secret life of cooking utensils was going to be made didn't mean that there was no room for a similar project with a different slant. Audiences seemed to flock to similar movies, if only to decide which was better.

Parallel development occurs all the time and not necessarily because one studio wants to slap another. Sometimes writers come up with the same ideas because they're good ideas. But what happens today when a script about crime-fighting beekeepers crosses my desk the same day that Colossal Pictures announces the option of a beekeeper script? Can bad timing doom the project a writer has slaved over for years?

Several years ago I read a script about a woman who had her face "stolen" via radical plastic surgery. Another evil woman took her place, fooling her husband and children until the heroine tricked the evil interloper into a reversal of the surgery. Ludicrous, but marketable I guess, for lo and behold John Woo's FACE OFF flourished the next year. By the time the female-driven spec appeared on my desk, the other movie was in pre-production. Ouch.

In the above instance an earlier project ruined the chances of the latecomer. The main reason is because Woo's project was definitely getting made, whereas the female-driven spec was just being handed out for feedback. If both projects were tentative, perhaps both could have been developed simultaneously by different studios.

The same thing happened last month. A boffo spec about a planetary weather transformation splashed across the trades while a spec bearing significant similarities was still out to producers. For all I know both projects will be made, but the timing was awkward.

A development director I know recently found himself in a quandary when his writer friend's new script dealt with the same subject matter as a current submission, which already had money invested. What's worse, the friend's script was better! But the development director couldn't help overtly without compromising professional protocol. The better script must now be discretely found a home - and fast, if it's going to make it to the market first.

Parallel development occurs most commonly when you work with high-concepts. If you want to do something like "a haunted house in outer space", then EVENT HORIZON beat you to the punch. Perhaps your feel your script is better, but once someone else has pitched the "haunted house in outer space" idea the dew is off the concept. You'd be better off nudging your idea into "TEN LITTLE INDIANS in outer space" or "THE EXORCIST in outer space". Maybe that's not what you want to do, but your chances of having a sellable script that shows off your creative acumen will increase.

A good script is a good script, and can always be a writing sample. Your agent however, may not wish to send out something that has lost the minimal prestige of being somewhat original. Almost every writer will tell you his sob story about the concept that got away. The smartest way to safeguard your idea is to avoid relying solely on a "sure-fire" concept, because that won't be enough if there's competition. Give your concept compelling characters with depth, a vividly painted world and above-average plot development. Then, even if you're beaten to the punch, your work will survive as a dignified sample, instead of reading like a ripoff.


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