Thursday, March 22, 2007

Oh noes, they has stolened my ideaz

I didn't get to watch Spacehopper in the end, as I had to get a very early flight back to the UK, but hopefully it'll get repeated, and also - Stu-pot has a blog. Although it looks like it might not last. So go and say hello while it exists.

In response to the previous post, cello said:

Isn't there a fourth version where they say, "We have something very similar in development" and then they pinch your idea and give it to a staff writer to work up?

and then sylvia said:

yes - how do you protect yourself against that? threats of violence? bribery with curly-wurlies?

The thing is - this has never happened to me. Or to anyone I know. Admittedly, I have an agent, whose job it is to hunt to the end of the earth anyone who even looks at my scripts funny,but most producers would give their eye teeth (or that attractive receptionist) to have access to a script so blimmin' good, there were bits worth stealing. And of course, if they did find a script that good, it makes rather more sense to just pay the writer some actual money instead.

This isn't to say that similar ideas don't bob to the surface at similar times. The first script I ever had in development was a beast called 'Skiffy', about a couple of guys who worked in a comic shop. The script had won a Channel 4 sitcom-writing competition, and there was some interest in taking it further. The humour would be character-based, but there'd be a lot of drawing on film references as the common cultural reference point for both characters and viewers. The project had a producer and script editor attached, and went through a couple of (unpaid) rewrites until C4 eventually told us they had 'something very similar in development' (you see, I do slightly know whereof I write) - and were going to go with that one instead.

So when Spaced* finally came out, I watched it with arms folded and a general sense of 'Harrumph', which dissolved after about thirty seconds, because, er, it was much much better that what I'd written. And much better than what pretty much anyone else was writing at the time as well.

But there were probably ten, twelve, thirty scripts out there about people who worked in comic shops, and whose cultural references were films like Evil Dead, and The Terminator because.... there were lots of us about at the time. Didn't mean more than one of them were actually going to be any good.

I once went to a Bob the Builder story meeting, at which we were encouraged to come up with a variety of plotlines that would be fun for the animators and directors to bring to life. We all went home, and the next day, completely independently, all sent in stories about a windmill. The editor was most confused, and asked if we'd all seen a windmill on the way back on the train or something. But we hadn't. It remains a mystery.

And thinking about it, look at the setups for any of the most successful television comedies: people bickering in an office environment, some losers hanging around in a bar in Boston, a hotelier in Torquay; they're not particularly astonishing ideas in and of themselves - what makes them successful is the depth of character, the voice of the writer and of course the quality of the performances, which is something you can only 'steal' by being really talented and original yourself. In which case, you tend not to steal stuff, because it's more satisfying to come up with something that's truly yours rather than a pale imitation of someone else's.

Of course this isn't to say your script/student film/website won't get out there and instantly be nicked by unscrupulous television advertising executives, but that's why it's perfectly legal to wander into their minimalist offices with a length of two by four and humanely dispatch the feckers (not cello though, she's one of us).

UPDATE: experts have pointed out that cello is not in fact a television advertising executive, nor has ever been one. But if she was, that would be okay, and she'd be a good one as well, I reckon.


* Weirdly enough, I've just remembered that when potential casting notes came up, I said 'Ooh there's this bloke called Simon Pegg who does standup and a bit of acting, and this guy called Bill Bailey I think would be good as well'. I think they did all right for themselves in the end.

UPDATE: the same expert has cast doubt on this one, but it is in fact true, so she can SHUT UP.

20 comments:

hotzappa11 said...

Spaced, huzzah! Bestest sitcom ever.

Spacemonkey said...

I do find it constantly bizarre how the same ideas arise at the same time. It does make you wonder if there's some Jungian-collective-unconscious-pink-custard-mist connecting all our brains together. I guess we're all reacting unconsciously to what's out there in the world, and you shape it as story in a maybe-quite-predictable set of ways - but it's the SPECIFICITY of it that unhinges me jaw. I once came up with the Phillip Pullman novels. Pretty much in their entirety. Ten years before they came out. Which was actually quite annoying.

Sylvia said...

fame at last - a mention in a blog! You've made my day. I have heard stories of writers having their material filched by TV companies, but you a too much of a 'name' for it to happen to you.

I made my husband switch over from the Newsnight Budget Special with Jazza in full flow to watch Spacehopper. It was very interesting and certainly better than Tittywhatnot. Is it a series or a pilot? I'll certainly be watching again. Good miner/balletdancer/rolereversal sketch. We enjoyed that one. And Jazza was still at it afterwards so we didn't miss anything. Toryboy was in his element.

Oh, and my job isn't anything interesting, in fact it's not a job at all - I'm a housewife!

Gabriella said...

Loving the photos on Stuart's site of you in a topmiler James!

dinahmow said...

So...who's going to be first off the keyboard with a pilot (and six more episodes should it be picked up!)with a sit-com about a blogging tv writer?
Psst...could you flick some viewable stuff to the colonies, please?

james henry said...

Well I tried a blogging hitman, and they didn't go for that, and then a blogging Jack Baur(ish) secret agent, and they didn't go for that, so I tried a blogger who works in a record shop that only sells scandinavian electronica, and that's on Channel 4's desk at the moment. I suppose if I get really desperate, I might redo it as a blogging tv writer, but it's a bit too close to home, and I think there's probably enough telly about telly, to be honest. I dunno, I'll see how it goes.
I'm sure writers do sometimes get ripped off by producers, but as far as I know, it's far more likely to be via a rubbish contract than direct theft of work. Kind of Sylvie to refer to me as a 'name', but I'm really not - remember that a lot of people outside Green Wing fandom haven't even heard of the show, let alone know the name of the writers. And there are still a few people within television who are under the impression the actors improvised the whole thing (some of them worryingly high up in well-known production companies).
I guess the point of the post was that I regularly come across starting-out writers who have written stuff, but are too afraid to send their scripts out 'in case the ideas get stolen. The truth is, this rarely happens (and the BBC will find all sorts of ways to screw you, but that's unlikely to be one - they have a reputation to uphold, and as I said, most producers would love to come across a script so good it was worth stealing), and to be honest, when you're starting out, most of your work is unlikely to be anywhere near as original or startling as you think it is. I know mine wasn't...

Sylvia said...

you must stop with these compliments, James - So I'm a member of a select group, now, nay, a clique! I've always been an individual in search of a clique - I can die happy now, even without a snog from the Biondo Tiziano.
As for the improvisation v scriptwriting debate regarding GW - I found it rather amusing at the NFT event in January when the actors were upping their contribution to the storyline, I could hear murmuring and shuffling from the writers sitting behind me, and the organ grinder (VP)herself was trying to pacify both parties. And as for the actors having a say in the ending! What a cheek! They're there to do the writers bidding - that's their motivation in all this! (My favourite, for what it's worth, is Guy and Mac running off together and Caroline joining the staff of House and running off with Hugh Laurie!)
And James - you are a 'name' and that's the end of it! My tales of woe have originated from dealing with ITV so hopefully the BBC has a better record!

flossie said...

I know this isn't relevant to the post, but I saw Mark Heap on Old Compton St yesterday. He looked rather lost and backed into my umbrella, whereupon we both apologised in a British way and went on our ways. Then I regretted not telling him that him rubbing his bare bottom on Lyndon's desk is in my top 5 favourite tv moments. Oh well.

belladona said...

I had a dream about Mark Heap, in which I bumped into him, then was so surprised I didn't do the english 'pretend I haven't seen him' thing and instead stared at him in incredulous delight, grinning manically and sidling closer and closer. He looked horrified and scuttled away. It was a dream for God's sake, could I have not have had an interesting conversation with him about existentialism or sandwiches, during which we would have bonded and become life-long friends?
I really should start practising lucid dreaming.
In other news, I thought of dementors before J.K.Rowling. They were one of the baddies in my never-to-be-written novel about elves. They also made you forget everything about yourself that was creative or interesting until you became so boring you were pretty much someone else. Ah well. Serves me right for going out on the piss instead of getting down the the actual typing part.
P.S hope patroclus is doing well.

patroclus said...

I'm fine thank you bella, just about getting back to normal. Thank you for your email, too.

My brother invented TVGoHome before Charlie Brooker did. Although Brooker had the good sense to put it on the internet where other people could see it, rather than in a scrapbook in an isolated farmhouse in the north of Scotland, some years before the world wide web was invented. That was never going to work as a distribution strategy.

Jen said...

Just browsing Stuart's site, and came across 'Squirrel Napkin'. BWAH HAHAHAHA!!!

Loving the topmiler poses too, James. And Julian R-T would make a crap addition to the Queen's Guard.

Stacie said...

I have the "pleasure" of studying copyright and all the stuff that comes with it at the moment. Funny enough today my lecturer, who for what its worth used to be a producer, said the best way to protect an idea is to type it all up, date it and post it to yourself.

Delboy's Daughter said...

Sigh Spaced. Such a good series. Of course Green Wing rocked too. The precursor to all those culturally contextual and corking shows was surely that one with Samantha Janus in it. Game on was it?

cello said...

Thanks for trying to save my corrupt neck, James. But, let's be honest, there's no hope for me. I am up to my chin(s) in the full, stinking ordure.

My fervently held belief is that you can't object to advertising in total, unless you really are so purist that ads for Oxfam, Hot Fuzz, Innocent, the Co-operative Bank and Kill Your Speed get you riled. It's an amoral medium certainly but not intrinsically immoral.

And my other flimsy excuse is that it pays for lots of good free TV - and a lot of shit free Tv too. I won't bother to try and list what's good and what's shit because we would disagree, apart from GW and Spaces of course.

james henry said...

I completely agree - there's nothing forcing the majority of adverts to be so unpleasant and grossly manipulative other than those are the ones that seem to work. But mmm, imagine if inbetween programmes there were only adverts for Eating Apples, and The Being Polite Council and Hooray For Hospitals.

One utterly immoral set of advertising: huge corporations spending millions of pounds to flog junk food to poor kids, has finally been reigned in, which I don't think the goverment is getting anywhere near enough credit for. And it's had a direct affect on my livelihood - much less kid's telly to write for. I know many agents aren't looking to take on new kid's writers anymore, as there simply isn't a market for them.

So yes, advertising itself is like those huge corporations: amoral rather than immoral. But they can be kicked around a bit more by the regulatory bodies (which isn't to say they don't already do an excellent job comparing their size and total finances to just one of the advertising agencies they're up against). And they're going to have to evolve anyway, as spend some time away from television advertising, and it's very hard to go back to it without feeling physically repelled by most of it. I just hope the whole product placement thing doesn't replace it (unless the products are things like apples, or compost bins, or hospitals, or Being Polite, which would all be fine).

patroclus said...

NB: In case cello thinks I've gone quite mad, what I meant to say was that she's never (as far as I know) been responsible for actually making TV advertisements. I could be wrong about that, though.

cello said...

Mmm, sadly not quite true. Though my defence would be that the ones I have had a hand in have been very nearly beyond reproach. Please say you'll still speak to me...

cello said...

...er, and TV programmes for brands. That's it, isn't it? I've pushed you over the edge now.

james henry said...

Cellos are always wecome here, whatever their terrible crimes may have been in the past.

Skeadugenga said...

It is possible to enjoy adverts; there are some I've been very fond of. I may even have bought the product from sheer gratitude, because the ad was intelligent and funny. Sadly, very few of them around at the moment though.

Cello, re brands, I don't believe this subliminal stuff works. If you like the programme then you might buy the product, but you'd do it consciously.