When you’ve been part of the Hollywood development world for as long as I have (going on ten years now—yay me), you inevitably get asked a lot of the same questions. Mostly from young writers at the beginning of their careers, but also from friends, family, and mole people living in the sewers. You laugh, but living in the City of Angels guarantees you’ll see some shit …
Anyway, after people ask me for advice on breaking in, how to get an agent, and the most important things they should not do when submitting something to me, the conversation almost always turns to the same question. Like a hot dog at Dodgers Stadium, I can smell this one coming a mile away …
“Spike, my premise is sooooo great. I just know it’s going to be a big hit! How do I make sure nobody steals my million-dollar idea?”
I get asked this question more than any other. It’s at the forefront of every baby writer’s mind, and they just can’t help but seek my advice on protecting their intellectual property. I always have the exact same answer for them, too. And guess what? Today is the lucky day where I get to share that answer with all of you.
Are you ready for the secret, young padawans? For the long-hidden, master trick to make sure that a Loki-esque deceiver never runs off with your blessed concept, walks it straight to the office of Jerry Bruckheimer, before cashing the golden seven-figure check at the nearest Bank of America? Here, I’ll tell you. Lean in close so I can whisper it in your ear …
NOBODY IS GOING TO STEAL YOUR IDEA.
DO NOT PASS GO. DO NOT COLLECT $200.
Look, I’m not going to stand here and tell you that this has never happened in the entire history of showbusiness, because of course it has.
But these instances get so blown out of proportion, receive such outsized levels of attention, that it creates a false narrative to where everyday writers who are just starting out somehow believe that idea thieves are lurking around the street signs on Rodeo Drive. It’s just not reality.
No one is stealing your idea. So stop worrying about it and get writing.
I have news for all of you young scribes out there: nothing in Hollywood is wholly original. That precious premise you’ve been slaving over for weeks, months, or maybe even years … the one you’re downright sure is going to be the thing that breaks you out of the unknown and into the spotlight … someone else is slaving over the same thing, too. Probably right now as you’re reading this article. It might not have all the same window dressing in exactly the same way, but your script is out there, being worked on by somebody else.
How do I know this? Let me take you back around five years ago, when I worked for a well-known production company that had an office on the Fox lot (this was before Fox’s motion picture side got bought out by Disney). On this auspicious day in 2015, we got a submission from a highly regarded talent agent out with a new spec. The exact logline eludes me, but the screenplay had to do with a second Noah’s ark, this one carrying all the mythical creatures of yore (unicorns, dragons, cyclops, etc), being suddenly discovered by a group of intrepid explorers and the monsters unleashed on our world. Objectively, it’s a decent idea, and could have had legs if the execution was right. I was legitimately excited to read it. But you want to know what happened mere hours later, when an entirely different Hollywood agent who repped an entirely different client called us up?
We were submitted a second script dealing with an evil Noah’s ark, which was suddenly discovered by a group of intrepid explorers and the monsters unleashed on our world.
What are the chances? Two scripts, from two completely different sources, based on the exact same concept! There must have been foul play, right? Someone must have overheard an oblivious scribe blabbing about his work at some coffee shop on Pico, ran back home, and popped out an amazing draft in three days. That’s the only logical explanation! It’s theft, I tell you! Theft!
Except … it isn’t. It’s not what happened at all. The fact of the matter is that this is a town made up of creative, intelligent, and ambitious people, who all fantasize of making it big. We’re all trying to think of great stories that will captivate audiences, intrigue studio executives, and get us paid. This is a town where everyone is dreaming all the time. And it’s likely, in fact, inevitable, that some of us are going to have the same dreams. The same ideas. The same concepts.
Now that’s not to say both of these evil Noah’s ark scripts were identical. Far from it. One of them had the evil ark frozen in ice, unearthed both by climate change and human curiosity. The other had the ship hidden away in the Himalayan mountains, trapped through some plot MacGuffin. One had an intrepid male lead as the head explorer. The other had a badass lady in charge. One ended with the heroes successfully putting Pandora back in its box; the other concluded with dragons taking over all of South America.
While they were each based off the same general idea, their executions were entirely different. And this, more than anything else, is what I want all of you reading this to walk away knowing. This is the lesson that needs to be learned. A concept on its own is entirely worthless to Hollywood executives and producers these days. The execution is what really matters to people in my position.
Do you want to know why you haven’t seen an evil Noah’s ark movie on Netflix or in theaters yet (at least one based off the aforementioned scripts)? It’s because they both sucked. I hated them. They were boring to read, with forgettable characters, and lackluster plots (the only reason I can reference them years later is because I have an outrageous memory for these sorts of things—seriously, just ask my girlfriend). The scripts themselves were mediocre, which is why (as far as I know) they never got made.
Studios and networks do not, for the most part, pay for ideas anymore. They pay for well-executed ideas. They pay for good scripts. And good scripts are increasingly hard to come by in today’s Hollywood landscape.
Let’s imagine for just a moment that someone did happen to overhear you talking about your movie or TV show idea in a coffee shop, decided they wanted to steal it, and ran home to begin writing. Who’s to say their execution of your idea would be any good? In all likelihood, it wouldn’t be. You know why? Cause writing a screenplay is really, REALLY hard. It takes years of practice, complete dedication to your craft, and endless passion in order to get it right. It takes dozens and dozens and dozens of bad drafts in order to learn how to tell a story really well.
Do you really think that some rando off the street is going to care about your idea as much as you do? That they’re going to spend the same amount of weeks and months or maybe years that you have developing this idea? That they aren’t going to get frustrated hammering out every single plot point? Developing each individual character and giving them unique traits, flaws, and feelings? That’s a whole hell of a lot of work without any guarantee of a return.
But let’s dive even deeper into this … don’t you think, maybe, just maybe, these idea thieves have their own concepts that they are in love with and want to see on the screen? That maybe they are hard at work on their own passion projects they’ve been desperately trying to finish for years and can’t be bothered taking on yours as well? The thought that your idea is so great people will want to steal it doesn’t take into account that other people have great ideas they are in love with. And neither of you would be wrong. Because any idea can be awesome with the right execution. Literally, any idea can be stellar if you do it right. Trust me, I’ve read enough scripts to know.
But this is simply not the way Hollywood works anymore. It used to be possible to sell a script based on an idea, or a logline, or hell, even a title, but Los Angeles has become too financially focused to take these sorts of risks anymore.
Now, before some smart ass starts tweeting about the one time they heard of this dude selling his idea to XYZ production company, let me lay out a few caveats. I’m not saying that it’s impossible to sell pitches anymore (this is when an agent/manager sets up a meeting between a writer and a studio for the writer to pitch a story the executives may want to buy) … selling pitches happens all the time. However, what’s really happening here is that the buyer is prepaying for a script. They are not buying an idea which someone else will then go and write for them. They are buying your execution of the concept before you have written it. And this only happens to a) people with relevant credits, or b) people with connections. This does not apply to baby writers just starting out (DO NOT leave this article thinking that it does). When a writer has heat (aka attention and perceived value to the studio), buyers will want to lock them up as soon as possible, because there are very few people like them on the market. Additionally, this does not apply to people selling books, graphic novels, or true stories. There, the studio is buying IP (intellectual property) and not someone’s amorphous “idea” that they have not successfully executed on yet.
The real scoop of this article: Great writers are exceedingly rare.
And people are paid handsomely for possessing unique skills that others do not. It’s the reason Aaron Rodgers makes $30 million a year to throw a football. Or Lionel Messi makes however much money he makes to kick a soccer ball around. Both of these men possess a skill set the average person does not. The demand for their abilities is high, and the supply of people like them is low. Just like how Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, Joel and Ethan Cohen (etc.) all are paid not for the ideas they generate, but for the consistent, exemplary execution of the scripts they write, and films they make. They are paid because they are amazing storytellers who deliver quality work to the people who hire them (aka the studios and networks) time and time again. And because people who deliver quality work time and time again are really, seriously, legitimately hard to find.
So if you’re coming to me worried someone is going to hear about your concept, steal it, and retire to the Cayman Islands with money that is rightfully yours, I have news for you: you’re worrying about the wrong thing. You’re fantasizing about the results of years of hard work, and not doing the things that are actually going to get you that dream result. Focus on learning how to be a great writer. How to craft compelling characters who the reader actually cares about and invests in. How to create plots that the audience never sees coming. This isn’t the 1980s or ‘90s … Hollywood doesn’t pay for “idea men,” anymore. Those days are largely over. They pay for content creators. Fully developed, well-rounded storytellers.
No one is going to love your idea as much as you do. No one is going to put the same amount of passion into a premise you love, and you find awesome, as you are. Instead of prioritizing protecting your baby, I want to encourage you to share your brain child with others. Not on Twitter or Facebook (legit, that’s just dumb), but tell your family, your friends, and your fellow writers about it. Get feedback. Ask for their opinions. Sometimes what they say might not be helpful, but oftentimes, your idea will change and grow stronger with input from people who are outside your brain.
And please don’t hear what I’m not saying. There are definitely steps you should take to protect your work after all is said and done. Once you’ve completed what you think is a final draft of a script (or something pretty close to final), you should always (repeat: always) get it registered and copyrighted. This is a standard level of protection that every writer should go through (yes, it costs money—get over it).
However, a common misnomer that I’ve heard many times before is that people think this protects their concept. That somehow registration makes their idea “unstealable.” This is simply not the case. This protects your work, your words, your execution of said idea from plagiarism or theft. No one can take the actual words you have written and masquerade them as their own. But it does not give you sole rights to a particular premise or idea.
Neil Gaiman said it best: “Writers are not paid for their writing, but for how they tell their stories.”
If you can master your craft, gain a rare skill, and become consistent in your output of material, you will become a sought after commodity on the market. Believe me when I tell you that if you have the ability, producers will find you. It may not be tomorrow, but we will.
And look, if you’re really, absolutely, unequivocally certain your idea is so killer, so flat-out undeniably awesome that someone is going to have no choice but to steal it out from under you, then you better hurry up and finish the damn script …
Cause I guarantee someone else is working on the same thing right flipping now, as we speak.
Godspeed, and happy writing.
*Feature image by Graham Sisk