First I saw a post on ScriptFaze called, "How to Spot an Amateur," which made a point that I try to emphasize again and again to my screenwriting students a USC.
"Writers are smart people, and it is generally hard to tell the difference between someone who’s pretending, and someone who has an actual career. HOWEVER, there is one very-common point of conversation that immediately blows the top off any writer’s cover, and exposes him for the amateur he really is:
The fear of having his script STOLEN. Yup. That’s right.
If you complain to others about having your spec script ripped off, YOU ARE AN AMATEUR. Why, you ask? Because working writers know that IDEAS DON’T MEAN SHIT. Everyone has great ideas—sellable, fresh, genius, spicy, new, amazing ideas. What makes a writer a writer is how they ACTUALIZE these ideas on the page." [You can read the entire post here]
Perhaps you think that we cynical, bitter veterans are overstating things. We're not.
Here's an idea for a movie!
While working for a greedy corporation, our young, handsome hero takes on a new shape and enters an alien world filled with strange, exotic life-threatening creatures. Our hero is rescued by a sexy native and brought to her tribe where he must gain the tribe's acceptance. This sexy native's mentor is at one with mother nature. Our hero is confronted with a jealous rival for the attention of this sexy native. At the heart of the tribe's power is a tree with its own life force that affects all of the splendor and wonders of this exotic world. When the evil corporation seeks to destroy the tree without regards to the indigenous people, the hero must decide between his growing love of the indigenous people and his ties to the corporation. In the end the hero rallies the locals, including his rival, and saves the day. (Synopsis stolen from Michael Dean)
What you say you've seen that movie already? It's not original at all. It's exactly the same plot as Avatar!
Actually, I stole that story idea from Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. This animated children's film has a story that is so close to Avatar that people have done hilarious trailer mash-ups.
If you throw Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves into the mix, Avatar becomes one of the least original "ideas" in recent memory. Yet the film has made billions and billions of dollars worldwide. It did so because of its execution.
"Your idea means nothing" is a concept echoed throughout other domains. In the startup and technology world the "Fergullies" are endless.
Idea: Search the web.
Execution: Altavista v. Google.
Idea: Build a social network.
Execution: Myspace v. Facebook
Idea: Build a portable MP3 Player
Execution: Creative Nomad Jukebox v. i-pod
A hilarious description by Michael Wolf of why Dropbox has succeeded, executing an idea that had been around forever and had seemingly already been done better, can be found here: Why is Dropbox more popular than other programs with similar functionality?
But here's the twist on the concept of "your idea means nothing."
Your idea means everything.
Said Michael Wolf in answer to Which is more crucial to success: the idea or the execution?, "I've never met a VC who told an entrepreneur, 'don't tell me about your idea since it doesn't matter!'"
Likewise, I've never met a producer or studio executive who told a screenwriter, "Don't bother pitching me your story. Ideas don't matter. It's all about execution!" When you walk into an office to pitch a great idea, what you are really pitching is your execution of that great idea; you are convincing the person listening that you in particular can tell this story in a unique and fabulous way. But, the idea itself still has to be great.
It is astounding how many bad ideas are pitched in Hollywood. I once had someone pitch me an idea for a horror movie that involved genetically modified goats with shark teeth. The eager and excited exec asked me if I thought his idea was scary. "Is it just the one goat?" I asked, as delicately as possible. He went on to describe a story idea that involved lots of goats, and lots of shark teeth, and he asked again if it was a really scary idea. I responded as honestly as I could, "It's definitely scarier than an ordinary goat."
If your idea sucks, you're dead.
Every great script, like every great startup or great gadget, began with a great idea. If you start out with a bad idea or even a mediocre idea, your project is doomed to fail. The point in all this is that you shouldn't be scared of someone stealing your idea. You should be pitching and testing your idea (movie, starup, gadget) to as many people as possible in as many ways as possible. Once you have gotten plenty of feedback, and you have confirmed that your idea is a great one...
Get to work and execute it! What are you doing reading this blog when you should be writing!