How to Tackle an Idea That’s Already Been Done [While Still Making it Unique]
You’re in the middle of working on the best pilot script you’ve ever written. It’s fresh and unique, and you couldn’t be more excited about it. You even did your homework before beginning – you did lots of research to see what similar shows were out there and you were reassured that there was nothing quite like your concept.
Then a new show is announced or (worse) airs, only for you to discover that this is the very same idea you’ve been working on, just with a slightly different twist. You feel gut punched. You’ve heard the saying that there are no new stories out there, but still, what to do now?
Should you just abandon your script and move on?
Is there any way to stay true to your vision and the work you’ve already done while still making it unique? And what’s the point now anyway?
Well, don’t put down the keyboard just yet; a potential sale isn’t completely nixed, and in fact, you may be in luck and not even know it. Here are four reasons not to panic.
1) Why You, Why Now?
Before you begin writing you should consider two questions you’ll need to answer in every pitch: Why YOU, and why NOW? Why should you be the one to tell this story? What about your personal background, the things that have happened to you, the work you’ve done in the past or in preparation for writing, make you uniquely qualified to apply your experience to this project?
How does your main character channel your voice? How do your characters give life to your emotional truth? At the risk of sounding cliché, you’re a “special snowflake.”
Only you can tell your story.
Every idea has been done in some way, but your idea hasn’t been told in YOUR way, in YOUR voice. So focus on how you can ensure that your pilot capitalizes on your unique experiences and conveys your point of view on the story you’re trying to tell. See how those aspects help steer your script away from the “competing” pilot.
Is there something that happened to you, that you were perhaps going to omit, that isn’t in the other pilot? Put it in! Does your main character reflect something about your background? Make sure they have a distinctive voice in dialogue – nobody speaks quite like you do. Is there a unique supporting character that’s nothing like anyone in the competing project? Could you elevate or highlight them? Is your story tonally very different? Make sure the tone comes through loud and clear. Is the setting different? Make sure it plays a central role in how the story is told.
I’m sure you’ve noticed that there are many shows that are close in concept – what distinguishes them is the writer’s unique point of view and way into the story.
The “why now” question refers to why your story is relevant to the world right now. What about it will resonate with today’s audience thematically? What about it is in the zeitgeist now? Why will the audience want to watch it? For that matter, WILL they want to watch it? Hey, I’ve got excellent news! Your answer is yes! If the concept weren’t relevant, nobody else would be doing it. Shows inevitably come in batches of similar concepts, because things are “in the air.”
2) Themes Are Timeless
People are thinking about themes in the news, on social media, and playing out in our daily lives. Timeless themes gain new life in light of our experiences today. So whatever your concept, if it’s relevant, chances are a dozen different versions are in development at various companies right now.
That doesn’t necessarily mean yours won’t sell – in fact, people like to jump on bandwagons, and execs like to develop what’s “safe.” How many shows about the FBI are on the air? Particularly now, audiences find the inner workings of the FBI endlessly fascinating. So there’s always room for one more show with a new twist, because we know how to do it and we know it sells, so it’s a cinch to market.
Of course, it’s nice to be first on the scene with something totally fresh, but that doesn’t mean second, third and fourth won’t sell. Your job is to make sure your pilot feels of the moment – and of YOUR moment.
What drew you to this concept now? What themes resonate from your life? What have you heard or read or experienced that made you feel like people you know personally are thinking about the world of your script and would want to watch a show about that? Why is this story urgent for you? Make sure your characters experience and express the answers to these questions.
3) Time Heals All Pilot Fears
And then there’s this… even if your pilot were to be set up at a production company tomorrow, months will go by before it’s sold to a studio and then a network. Months more before it’s greenlit, and if it goes to pilot before it goes to series, a year or two could easily go by before it premieres.
A lot of water will flow under the bridge before then. Specifically, the show that just started airing that’s so similar to yours will have succeeded or failed by then. If it succeeded, there will be increased demand for similar concepts – hurray for you. If it failed, it will be off the air, and while you may have to do some persuading to explain why your idea will succeed where a similar one failed, at least the competition won’t be there anymore. (People may even have forgotten about it!)
4) Remember Your Goal
Finally, if you’re an up-and-coming writer, let’s be honest, your real goal isn’t a sale, It’s to get representation and get staffed.
Agents and managers love to sell projects, but what they love even more is collecting commissions on salaries. Their #1 goal is to sign writers who can get staffed. They need you to have samples that are relevant to current or upcoming shows, so they can demonstrate that you can write on those shows.
Showrunners want to read original material so see how you can contribute to their room. But their #1 goal is to hire writers who “get” their show and can easily start working on it. They want to read samples that are in some way relevant to their show. Not the exact same thing, but in the same ballpark in some way (concept, character, tone, setting).
Trying to get a job on a show set in the 70’s music scene? Have a pilot set in the 70’s fashion scene with similar characters and tone? Score! Trying to get a job on a show set among the urban youth of Chicago? Have a pilot about a legal-aid attorney working with inner-city youth in Chicago – because you’re born and raised there? Score!
Competition Doesn’t Hurt
So maybe you shouldn’t be “steering away” from the competition, maybe you should be steering right alongside it. Pray the show that was just announced gets picked up, because you can tell a manager that you’ll be perfect for it. Pray the show that just started airing is a hit, because when more episodes are ordered, they may need to bring on more writers, and you’ll be first in line.
And remember what I said about shows coming in batches? If there’s one for which your pilot is a “dead on sample,” chances are there will be more. When people say, “your pilot is so similar to that other show – why would you write that?” You might want to smile, “Oh, I totally meant to do that – it’s the perfect sample to get staffed!”
Of course, your “perfect sample” still has to hit it out of the ballpark to impress a manager, showrunner, producer or executive. I’m happy to help you accomplish that – just check out my consulting page.