Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer
There is an adage often bandied about by those people who work in the entertainment industry that there are no new ideas, and the best a “creative” person can hope for is an angle that will offer an illusion of freshness. When I first started working in television, I scoffed at this notion; surely I am an exception to that rule, and would set the world on fire with my new ideas! I was then asked to develop ideas for a new cooking show. I brainstormed with (read: stole the ideas of) my friend (and co-CC2K writer) Lance Carmichael, and together we came up with, in all modesty, a TERRIFIC idea. Our concept was called Dinner Date, and it was a cooking/dating show. In each episode, there would be two “contestants” trying to win the affections of an attractive single person. The catch was that these people would never meet. Instead, each contestant would get to learn something of their intended target, and then (with the help of a renowned chef) prepare a meal that they hope will suit their palate and personality. At the end, the single person would sample both meals, and ultimately pick who they want to date using the food as their sole criterion. The new couple, as a prize, would win dinner for two at the restaurant of the winning team’s chef.
I was STOKED about this idea, and I might have even gone so far as to think up what to do with the bonus money I was sure to receive, when I learned the single most valuable lesson of television development: when you come up with an idea, the first thing to do is channel surf, to see what else is out there. In our case, there was Date Plate, a cooking show on The Food Network that was EXACTLY THE SAME AS OURS IN EVERY WAY! You know what they say: there are no new ideas.
Of course, we abandoned the idea, and I have since gone on to develop many more shows that have never been made. What can I say, I’m terrific at coming up with no one has ever thought up before, except ONLY the people who have thought them up before.
However, while my company might possess the morals and integrity to abandon concepts once they have been proven to already, in a word, exist, this is by no means the only way to proceed. Networks and production companies are ALWAYS slapping a new coat of paint on an old idea, and passing it off as new. And no one hides this fact! (I would bet a million dollars that ABC’s soon-to-be-cancelled new series Day Break was pitched as “Groundhog Day meets 24.” I am certain of this.)
The Fox Network takes this phenomenon to the next level, by going so far as to actively steal other network’s ideas, change them slightly, and rush them onto the air either before, or just after, their competition. It was this business practice which led to Trading Spouses: Meet your New Mommy appearing months before ABC’s Wife Swap (which itself was a concept purchased from England, as is much of our television these days), and Skating With Celebrities showing up mere weeks after audiences shockingly tuned in for Dancing with the Stars. Even this year, nobody watched Fox’s Vanished LONG before nobody watched Kidnapped, on whatever network aired that one.
Fox’s business strategy was front and center in my mind last week, when I decided to go see a movie. There are two theaters in walking distance from my apartment, and it occurred to me that if I went to the first theater, I would probably opt to see a period costume drama about magicians, starring a well-respected character actor and featuring Esquire Magazine’s 2005 Sexiest Woman Alive. However, if I decided to go to the other theater, I would instead opt to see…a period costume drama about magicians, starring a well-respected character actor and featuring Esquire Magazine’s 2006 Sexiest Woman Alive. How in the HELL does that happen?
The fact that similar concepts end up on television at the same time can at least be attributable to the fact that television viewing, at least NETWORK television viewing, is by and large free. Therefore, if production companies get wind of a cultural phenomenon, say crime scene investigation, or watching B-level celebrities attempt to do a fox trot, they can try to cash in on it relatively quickly. If they can get something on air before the craze dies down (or in Fox’s case, before the competition has a chance to get the craze started), they can cash in on the pre-made popularity with lucrative ad deals, and hope to either retain or steal the audience that already made the idea a hit. If it works, they have a revenue stream that was practically generated for them. If it fails, it only cost them a few million dollars in development and production. There’s very little downside to this.
Movies, however, are a much different endeavor. We all know how long it takes for an idea to become a finished film. Scripts have to be written (and re-written, and “polished,” and updated, etc.) Entire staffs have to be built to do everything from designing costumes and sets to taking coffee orders. Casts need to be created, and directors need to be chosen. Then, after months of filming, the long and tedious process of editing, scoring, mixing, rendering, and finishing can begin. Months and/or years later, and with costs that now routinely go into nine figures, you got yourself a film that could just as easily as not appear in theaters for one week, and then disappear for lack of interest.
With all that prep time before, heavy lifting during, and high risk after filmmaking, how is it possible to have The Prestige and The Illusionist come out at the same time? How would either company want to risk diluting their potential audiences that much? And this phenomenon happens ALL THE TIME!
When I sat down to think about it, off the top of my head I remembered many similar occurrences in the near past. We had the volcano disaster craze of 1997 (I did look up the years; I’m not Rain Man) with Volcano and Dante’s Peak, the giant-asteroid-hurtling-toward-Earth series of 1998, featuring Deep Impact and Armageddon, and even the animated-insects-deal-with-people-problems movies, also of 1998, with Antz and A Bug’s Life.
I then found THIS Wikipedia entry that discusses this very thing, and lists dozens of other examples. Mission to Mars and Red Planet, The Truman Show and EdTV, Turner and Hooch and K-9, and Vice Versa, Big, 18 Again, and Like Father, Like Son represent a partial list of just the ones that I recognized immediately. No WONDER it’s so hard to break into Hollywood as a writer: with this, plus comic book adaptations and re-hashed sequels, it’s clear that no one’s even LOOKING for original ideas anymore!
That’s when the floodgates opened:
The new hit shows on television:
1. Heroes – Unbreakable meets The Stand
2. Ugly Betty – something like 10 previous iterations throughout the world
3. Studio 60* – West Wing meets SportsNight
4. Friday Night Lights – Adaptation of a movie that was an adaptation of a book
Current Hit shows on television:
1. Lost – Gilligan’s Island meets The X-Files
2. Grey’s Anatomy – ER meets Melrose Place**
3. American Idol – British import, which itself is The Gong Show meets Survivor (ITSELF an imported show)
4. The Office – British import
Recent Hit Movies
1. Borat – Da Ali G Show meets Trigger Happy TV
2. Mission Impossible 3 – Sequel to a movie that was a TV adaptation
3. Talladega Nights – Days of Thunder meets Will Ferrell jackassery
4. Pirates of the Caribbean – Sequel to an adaptation of an amusement park ride
Presumptive future hit movies
1. Casino Royale – Remake of a book adaptation; film number 21 in the series
2. The Dark Knight – Sequel to a re-launch of a franchise, based on a comic book.
3. Spiderman 3 – Sequel to a sequel of a comic book adaptation
4. Pirates of the Caribbean – Sequel to a sequel of an adaptation of a ride.
I think the message is clear here: there are no new ideas in Hollywood, no one’s looking for new ideas in Hollywood, and the key to creative success is a complete lack of creativity.
So, for all those out there hoping to one day write a hit movie or TV show, start by watching the things that inspired you to be a storyteller in the first place. Then, just write THOSE scripts. Your success is assured, as long as someone ELSE doesn’t get the idea to steal that idea too. THEN what would we do?
*Okay, I know it might not be a HIT, per se, but cut me some slack; I'm in mourning here.
**At least, I think so. I find this show completely unwatchable, and before I ask, I guess it's only me.