Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Will Hollywood Steal From You?

Will a movie company rob you?  Of course they will!

They will tell you that your net points have value when they know the reverse is true.  But will they steal your idea?  I am less certain of that.

I have been a little discreet on this blog about some of my more high-concept ideas.  That's because it's easy to steal a high-concept idea.  I feel it is reasonably safe to post the loglines for scripts like "Judy" and "West Rhodes" because the pleasure comes from the execution, not the originality of the ideas.  (If you think originality is highly-valued in Hollywood, you obviously haven't looked at the list of films coming to your local multiplex this summer.)  No one is going to read those loglines and steal those ideas.  It would be easier to buy those scripts than to try to recreate them from scratch.  I do worry about posting high-concept ideas -- where the idea is cool enough to make someone want to write their own version.  I have written a few scripts along those lines which include "Then The Judgement," "Mr. Inside," and "I, John."  Anyone could read those loglines and write a new script and I would have no recourse since you can't copyright ideas, only executions.

Will someone actually steal your finished scripts?  Unlikely.  Think about it.  You wrote the next big action epic.  You sent it to Jerry Bruckheimer.  He wants it.  But why would he steal it?  You're an unknown.  It'd be cheaper for him to buy the spec script from you than to hire an established writer to adapt a new version of it.  Still, don't even think about sending your script out to Hollywood without copyrighting it and registering it with the Writers Guild of America, west.  Better safe than sorry, but don't be paranoid.

Tim Ratajczak and I were approached last year by a filmmaker we respect about the possibility of writing a Christmas movie for him based on a true life story that the production company had already contractually acquired.  Tim and I were very interested.   They wanted to get our thoughts on the concept.  We wanted to give them our thoughts.  Unfortunately, it never happened.

The production company wanted us to sign an non-disclosure agreement before they would send us the treatment.  The agreement was very onerous.  We were liable to pay $100,000 in damages if we discussed the idea with anyone outside of the production company -- even if they hadn't suffered any damages as a result of our leak.  Tim sent the contract to our lawyer.  He said we'd be crazy to sign it and offered some alterations to the contract.  We sent our notes on the contract back to them.  They said they would make the alterations.  Many emails were exchanged.  No contracts were ever signed.  No thoughts were shared.  The project slowly died -- as far as we were concerned.  I thought it was quite absurd.  The project was based on a true life story.  They already had a contract with the subject.  What were we going to do?  Steal his life?  Trust me, we already have too many projects to write now.  We don't need to steal any.

So, I'm not too afraid about being robbed by a motion picture company.

Television, or should I say Cable, is another thing.

David Butler and I had an idea for a basic cable television series about writing for the movies.  (That's about as much as I can say.  I have to be very discreet.  I can't afford to alienate any cable network, even a thieving one.)  We did our research and put together a very nice package.  We detailed every episode for the first season.  We even visually described how the show would open, and the various transitions we would use.  Very nice.  Then we sent it off to a cable network that you've watched.  We didn't hear anything from them for about two months.  Then David got a call from the executive, who had been out on maternity leave.  She went through her waist deep pile of submissions and found our show.  She liked it.  There was only one problem.  The network to which we sent the show was about to change its focus.  She wanted us to rework the pitch to suit their new parameters.  Obviously, we were more than happy to do so.

We sent it out.  Then waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Nothing.

Until one evening I saw a promo on a sister network, owned by the same corporation, for the premiere of a show just like ours.  The title was only altered by one word.  No, no, no.  It couldn't be.  But it was.  They even opened the show with the same visual sequences we described.

What could we do?  Nothing.  You can't copyright an idea.  Only executions.  Even if we had a case, we couldn't afford to sue.  And, even if we could afford to sue, we would alienate a giant media conglomerate that would undoubtably blackball us.

So we had to give them a pass.   What choice did we have?

The show didn't last that long anyway.

I've seen this happen again with other producers I know.  One producer went to this big convention down in DC where producers get the opportunity to meet anyone who is anyone at the cable networks.  He had a great idea.  Pitched it to a network.  Their response?  Definitely not interested.  A couple months later he reads in the trades that they are working on exactly the same show.

Why would they do that?  Part of me thinks that they simply won't buy a show from a company that hasn't already produced a weekly show.   Shows aren't like scripts.  When you finish a script, that's it.  In fact, by the time the producer reads it, it is already done.  A show is different.  They need to know that you will be able to deliver on a weekly basis.  I think they must think it's safer to just take your idea and have it executed by a company who has a proven track record.

That bums me out because David and I both had basic cable production credits.  I would have thought we would have been considered reliable.  I guess we weren't.  My advice?  If you have an idea for a cable show, don't go directly to one of the networks.  Pitch it instead to a reputable cable production company.  You'll have a better shot with their clout behind you.

Or not.

Actually, the real question is:  Do you really want to have a basic cable show?  I've worked on a few of them and I feel that the only thing worse than not having a cable show is actually having one.  You'll never get rich on what they pay, and you'll end up working eighteen hours a day.

That said, I currently have two series in development.  A sitcom on one basic cable network, and a hunting show on another one.

What am I thinking?

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