A report from the trenches
Many years ago, I wrote and produced a series pilot for ABC based on a box of dusty papers a hotelier named John Egan had stuffed under his bed. It was the book he’d never shown anyone about his life as a blue-eyed boy from Cincinnati who fought reverse discrimination in a sea of brown. He pitched me the idea over lunch at his family’s fabulous hotel, Rancho Encantado, in New Mexico. There were a number of producers on that junket from Hollywood and we were being treated to an all-expense paid weekend by the State’s new Film Commission. The late Governor, Bruce King, hoped to bring some revenue into his state, and what better way to do it than lure a Hollywood movie or a television series?
Those dusty papers became a two-hour movie pilot based on the adventures of John’s family as they turned a run-down church retreat into a five-star hotel in the wilds of a strange land. It aired successfully as a movie but never made it onto a weekly schedule. As designed, it brought millions of dollars into New Mexico, and John and I became life-long friends.
What happened next blew my mind. My entire premise, painstakingly crafted from that box of papers, was used again by a rival network, who we had originally pitched it to and who had passed on the idea! They turned it into a comedy, changed the names to protect the innocent, but there was no disguising it. It was John’s story set in New Mexico! And even though I made a big stink, there was really no way I could prove it was our material and not a “coincidence”.
My agent at CAA was sympathetic saying, “Linda, if you get mad over every upset this business offers, you might as well throw yourself out a window now.” So much for my touchy-feely agent.
There have been many similar cases over the years. Art Buchwald’s “Coming To America” suit being the most memorable, but they all underscore one of the most prevalent myths about show biz: Hollywood steals your ideas.
Ian Gurvitz, contributing author to the Huffington Post and author of “Hello, Lied the Agent, And Other Bullshit You Hear as a Hollywood TV Writer”, writes this is nonsense.
“ Hollywood does not steal,” Gurvitz says, “ Hollywood copies, imitates, panders, plagiarizes, rips off and robs, but Hollywood does not steal ideas — because ideas are worthless.”
He and I agree. It’s how that idea is executed that makes it work or not: how it is written, cast, directed, edited, where it is placed on the schedule – or not, and how much money the network or studio pays to market it. You could write the best thing ever and if no one sees it, it goes straight to DVD.
Every year there are millions of ideas bandied about in Hollywood and there is bound to be some concept overlap in the ethers at all times. It’s as if an idea comes out of one mind and sinks into the Zeitgeist and then creatives everywhere pick it up. Each programmer feeling as if it is original and their very own.
This year there were thousands of projects developed among hundreds of television outlets: comedies, dramas, cop shows, lawyer shows, medical shows, serial killer shows, event shows, cooking shows, vampire shows, shows about America’s no-talent, shows about America’s big talent, shows made from British hits, shows made from Canadian hits. It’s exhausting.
It is my contention that most executives don’t steal on purpose. It’s that they hear and read so many ideas, that when pressed to the wall by their bosses for something fresh, they grab what comes to mind and they totally forget where that idea came from. They assign a hot writer and producer and, voila! Rip-off city.
On the upside. And there is an upside. You may be assigned to work on an idea that an executive gives you and under your aegis, it works like magic! Without the written word, no one else gets hired. Your take on that idea can bring millions of dollars to a community and many thousands to your own bank account. You will feel emotion like no other as actors you admire become your characters and put your words on their feet. You get to hang out with amazingly creative people and feel pride as you gather family and friends to see the finished product and your name on TV or the big screen.
So, if you feel your idea has been ripped off, don’t throw yourself out a window. Get to work and come up with something else! Don’t waste too much time on the heartache, just move on. As those of us in the trenches know for sure:
“Hollywood cannot steal your ideas. It can only steal your soul.”
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Linda Bergman has worked for every major Hollywood film studio and all the top television networks. She has been paid to write 21 film and TV scripts and even produced 5 of them. In both of her books “So You Think Your Life’s a Movie: Ten Steps to a Script that Sells” and “So You Think Your Life’s a Movie: The Sequel,” Linda combines her knowledge of the craft with true stories from her experience to illustrate, inform and entertain. These books are a fun, must-read if you want to write a movie!