Is 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.