IDEA GIFIs the “idea” a storyteller’s gold nugget, to be protected from those would seize it for their own, to be respected by guilds and others as the sin qua non of the script? Or is an “idea” simply the blurting out of a passing thought, no more valuable than any other extemporaneous gaseous expulsion. There are two opposing schools of thought on this, and each of them is ascribed to by writers much better than I.

The first is exemplified by this quote from none other than screenwriter Terry Rossio, who says:

It gets frustrating. There I would sit, reading a screenplay in which the structure, characters, dialogue, and descriptions were all passable… even, in some cases, very good. And yet, in my heart, I knew that there was virtually no way the screenplay would ever sell, let alone get made. It was doubly frustrating because it was hard to explain exactly why it wouldn’t sell. All I could say was that the original idea for the film was lacking in some way.

And the second is exemplified by screenwriter Craig Mazin, who says:

Having an idea doesn’t take effort, nor does it earn you any spiritual or professional regard. Ideas are worthless. Literally. They are not intellectual property. They are not possessable. They are not creditable.

So, who is right?

Well…They both are. The answer to this riddle depends upon why and when you are asking. The question comes up in a number of contexts. Here are some of them:

“Hey, he stole my idea!”

So what? Did you write a script? Did he steal a protectible part of the script? Or was this just a free-floating idea that you knew would be the script of a lifetime when you eventually wrote it.

In this latter context, ideas are essentially worthless. At any given time, there are many, many writers or aspiring writers running around with virtually the same idea. It is formless and it is not a story. It is a free-floating “ort” that likely came to you as an inspiration and has very little development. Anyone can happen to have a similar “ort”. The process of taking that first “ort” and turning it into something with movement, structure and theme in a way that works as a motion picture is a huge undertaking that forges the so-called “idea” into the eventual script – and the “idea” that started it will have been developed and changed through substantial sweat and creativity. At the end of the process, if you state your script as an idea (which you will have to do frequently), it will likely be very different than the “ort” you started with. Even if it sounds the same – it will not be.

“Idea” in this sense is not protectible by copyright and, unless you have a record as someone who can turn orts into completed scripts suitable to be made into motion pictures, it has no value to the studios or other filmmakers. It is not unique; it is not much of anything.

“Hey, why didn’t I get credit when it was my idea?”

Because when your script was rewritten, other writers put in a ton of work. They left very little of your original script except, perhaps, the “idea”. If the idea alone is worth next to nothing, so is the idea in an inferior script. In this context, as far as the industry is concerned, your “idea” is worth next to nothing. So, too, the WGA and the law of most American jurisdictions take this tack, offering very little protection for the idea itself, opting instead to protect the expression of those ideas. You can argue what “should” be, but in the world of what is – your ideas just don’t count for much, at least not in this context.

So where do ideas count? In this last context, for many aspiring writers – the most important context:

“Hey, why did my script with flawless execution fail to sell?”

Here’s where ideas are critical. If you can execute scripts well – in other words, if you know your craft – then the only thing holding you back is the quality of your idea. Sparkling, sexy, attractive ideas sell – they get you breaks, they start careers – that is, if you can actually embody them in a well crafted script. In this context, ideas are the sin qua non.

So next time someone tells you ideas are worthless, explain to them that you’re still trying to get your first break and, for you, the unsung writer who actually knows his or her craft, ideas count a lot.

16 thoughts on “WHAT IS AN IDEA WORTH?”

  1. Picky, picky: in your paragraph “Hey, why didn’t I get credit when it was my idea?”, it’s ‘tack,’ not ‘tact’. It’s a common error, an error you might find around the house…

    That out of the way, I think you did great job of differentiating between the relative values of an unelaborated idea and an idea embodied in a work of art. I run into the same thing in songwriting, where someone has “an idea” for a song, but lacks the verbal ability to expand it into a coherent lyric, the musical ability to set it properly, and/or the talent to actually perform the song and get it across. Movies in miniature, without the visuals.

  2. Great post.

    I know plenty of brilliant people who have great potential but never realize it. They get passed up by people who may not have the same genius, but they consistently put in the work and get results. Potential is worth zip. Results are everything.

    On the other hand, when someone with enormous potential knuckles down and produces results, they really stand out. But it only stands out because they put in the work.

    Ideas are the same. There are millions of great ideas, but work is the only thing that makes them worthwhile, and work is what should consistently be rewarded.

  3. If I write a script about urban youths, and then have a friend (who was at one time and urban youth) go over it, and adjust the language and ebonics to make it sound more realistic, how do I portion out that credit?

  4. You won’t be the one portioning it out. You will be fighting with either the WGA or, if an independent film, the producer for your own credit. Your friend won’t even be considered for a writing credit. A minor dialogue polish is normally not the kind of contribution that earns a writer credit. (Quentin Tarantino has brushed up dialogue on many films – never credited for it.) Very rarely, a particularly important writer gets an “additional dialogue by” credit, but even this is very, very unusual. Your friend should do it on the basis of being your friend or, at most, for a small percentage of anything you make on the picture.

  5. Regarding the word usage of “tack,” you were actually correct is using it to mean a new direction or course. “Tack” is a nautical term as the direction of a ship with respect to the trim of her sails .

    “Tact” has more to do with the adroitness, sensitivity, or dexterity one applies to an action.

    Perhaps the other reader inferred “tactic?”

    Just getting picky over their pickiness.

  6. Ideas are all we have. An idea for a script will be its impetus, a la Rossio, but then the script itself will be made up of hundreds of ideas – every beat, every scene needs an idea, to turn it, to make it interesting, to surprise us, to avoid cliche.
    Not every idea will be a good idea, but we only know a good idea in comparison to the bad ones. Ideas are gold dust, even the shit ones.

  7. I came up with an idea three years prior to sharing it with anyone. It is a safety device. During a training session I shared my idea with my now business partner, who has fabrication knowledge and financial strength. Those are his two key contributions to the company. My contributions are the idea and all required contacts to help us succeed. We are about to develop a shareholders agreement and have just recently incorporated. I have put us in contact with key people in our industry, which have now started to create sales.
    My questions are:
    Just what is my idea worth now that it is becoming sucessful?

    How do I capture this in our shareholders agreement?

    At what value level would my idea plus all of our industry contacts be worth?

    Thank you for all your leading responses

    Todd Knechtel

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