Having sat in the halls of development for decades, and having been in the trenches of making movies and records since 1985, I can confidently say that every piece of material I’ve seen do well was original.
I used to say that for every hundred reels, one or two would have something good. Now it takes a thousand reels to find the one or two good ones that have something we haven’t seen before. Every time something new becomes popular, a hundred ripoffs pop up to try and cash in on the success. (I’m looking at you, vampire romances.)
If you’re a young filmmaker, writer, director or actor who doesn’t have firm footing in Hollywood, you’ll get noticed by being unique. If you aren’t original, you may as well be invisible.If you aren’t original, you may as well be invisible. Click To Tweet
Development Executives are Jaded
Producers, development executives, executive producers, and studio executives (across the whole spectrum of film, TV, OTTs, etc.) spend their days looking for material that’s different. They want unique stuff they can package and sell. They want stuff that blows their minds. And they’ll know right away if your stuff is a lame retelling of something else because they’ve seen it all before.
How do they get so jaded?
A good development executive will plow through 60+ screenplays and 20+ manuscripts a month. They don’t read every word, of course, but they’ll know in the first five pages of a screenplay or 25 pages of a manuscript whether they can do anything with it.
If you want to get these people interested, you need to show them a unique voice. You need to show them something they haven’t seen a thousand times before. You have to show them something they haven’t seen 20 or 30 times in the last six months.
This is especially important if you are trying to work with someone who’s been in the business for a while. That person will compare your work to everything they’ve seen in their whole damn career!
If you want to work with these kinds of people, you have to assume they’ve seen everything. They are students of film. You won’t find success if your is suspiciously similar to last year’s surprise blockbuster.
It’s okay to pull from other content. Audiences often like when they can connect new ideas to ideas they already know. But you can’t base your entire project on it. Show development executives how you’ll introduce new ideas, frame something differently, or make the performance unique. Do it in the first few pages.
Consumers Don’t Want Derivative Either
Development executives aren’t the only ones who demand originally. Consumers expect new stuff all the time.
There’s a pattern in film consumption: As you get older, you watch less content.
People give lots of excuses for why they reduce consumption. Some say they’re too busy with work or that their kids prevent them from seeing adult movies. If those excuses were true, media consumption would go up once they retire and the kids grow up. But that doesn’t happen.
I think people stop consuming film because they start to see the repetition. They struggle to find interesting ideas. They’ve seen the same simple three-act structures since they were three or four years old. They’ve seen the same complex three-act structures since they were eight or ten. They’re hip to overused concepts and plot devices.
So instead of watching the same storylines over and over, they seek other sources of entertainment.
This means if you want to create content that appeals to everyone, you have to appease people who are tired of the familiar. You have to find your own voice and give them something that breaks out of the routine.
Being Unique in Television
Television (cable, the networks, or the OTTs) is an odd duck. In some sense, you’re supposed to be derivative. As a new writer or director, you need to come up with your own ideas while staying within the context of someone’s show.
Let’s say you want to write for TV. You get hired by a writing team, which has one or two people at the top. Those showrunners don’t want you to be completely original. They want you to come up with your own ideas, but stay within the arc, voice and tone of the series and episodes they plan out.
Showrunners can’t pump out 12 to 26 episodes themselves in nine months. They will have their ideas fleshed out before it’s time to start writing individual episodes. In most cases, the head writer will work on three to five episodes at a time, each in various stages of pre-production, production, and post. They need a writing team they can slot in to create material that they canedit and mold into their vision (unless they’re Aaron Sorkin, who famously writes every word himself, but he’s a very skilled mutant).
As a TV writer, someone would hand you A, B, and (sometimes) C storylines and let you fill in the details. They’ll expect you to write in their voice to recreate what they’ve already sketched out. They want to spend no more than three hours fixing your work. If they have to spend a day fixing it, they may as well write it themselves.
Your job, therefore, is to figure out how to replicate their voice while simultaneously introducing new ideas. If you can demonstrate that you can be original, stay within the context of their show, and deliver clean, easy-to-edit work, you will be monstrously successful in TV.
The same applies to other creatives. A director who slots in for an episode has to make it their own, but she can’t stray too far from the pattern. An actor needs to make the character their own, but they’re still bound by the show’s past.
Are There Exceptions?
Yeah, there are always exceptions. Right now you’re probably thinking, “I’ve seen plenty of copies and ripoffs. Some make shit loads of money.”
Derivative works can be successful, but those projects are supported by executives who have experience, money, and access to distribution. They can push projects into the market that newcomers can’t.
The TV movie of the week, for example, is the same sappy plot of a divorcee moving on with her life that they showed last week. But they have a captive audience and infrastructure in place to make money off that kind of content.
Established creatives with a history of success get the leeway to openly pay homage to other work in their own. Tarantino, the Wachowskies, and Brian DePalma are great examples. They like to reference their favorite directors, but you wouldn’t call their whole projects copies. if you go back and look at their earlier works, you’ll notice lots of originality and unique ideas.
Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s first version of South Park, “The Spirit of Christmas,” avoided being derivative by taking a familiar format and flipping it on its head. Yeah, it’s an animated Christmas short. That’s been dozen a million times. But they put their own voice on it by filling it with violent, foul-mouthed second graders.
(It was so unique that George Clooney, of all people, made hundreds of VHS copies and gave them out as Christmas cards. This literally launched South Park.)
So What Do You Do?
Derivative stuff can make money for the right people, but it doesn’t get you noticed unless you inject your own voice. If you’re a new creative looking to break into the industry, you have to be unique. That’s the only way to rise to the top.