Life’s A Pitch: Paranoia and Submission!
On the day after the 2010 Oscars, the lead story in my newspaper wasn’t about the winners. It was about a local restaurant guy named Emil Malak who announced he was going to sue James Cameron. He claimed Cameron lifted ideas from his spec script Terra Incognita and used them in a little movie you may have heard of called Avatar.
Malak said he first registered his script with the Writers Guild of Canada in 1998. In 2002, he mailed his screenplay and concept art to a bunch of production companies, Cameron’s included. Unfortunately for Malak, Avatar is famously based on an 80-page “scriptment” Cameron wrote in 1994 which got leaked to the internet. (I read it on Wikipedia, so it must be true.)
But hold your six-legged Na’vi horses! Before you say there’s no way a Hollywood big-shot like Cameron would ever copy someone else’s idea, consider this. After Cameron let it be known that his screenplay for The Terminator was inspired by two Harlan Ellison-penned Outer Limits episodes, Ellison threatened to sue. In an out-of-court agreement, he received acknowledgement and compensation. (I also read this on Wikipedia.)
Which leads me to the topic of pitching paranoia. A pitch (also called a story idea, springboard, premise) – is a precious thing. It’s like a seed that can bear fruit in the form of a tasty writing contract. Some pitches are barren and destined to rot on the cold rocky floor of a story meeting conference room. But have you ever suspected that someone has rejected your perfectly good seed, then gone on to plant it in their own garden to reap a script assignment harvest?
Long, long ago…when I could print my resume on a standard-sized Post-it Note and still have room left over…I submitted a dozen pitches for “Series A.” I was thrilled when two ideas got the green light. The next year the same production company invited me to pitch on “Series B” and I wrote more scripts for them.
Around that time, websites began to pop up to promote TV shows, often listing episode titles and loglines. About a year after I wrote for Series A, I checked its website to see if my two episodes were listed there. They were. Then another episode caught my eye. Why? Cuz I’d pitched it!
The title was exactly the same; the logline had my story idea! Another writer had been given my premise! Was it a mistake? Had my name become separated from my pitch in some fluke cut-and-paste accident? Had someone overhauled the premise so much, they felt I no longer deserved to write the episode? Or was it out-and-out theft?
Even though I felt hard done by, I kept my discovery to myself. Why? Because one of the Series B scripts I’d just written was based on a premise that had been given to me – not one I’d pitched myself. At the time I figured…well, now we’re even! But after I saw my purloined premise on that Series A website, I got to wondering, what if the pitch I had been given was another writer’s idea…or was “inspired by” it in a James Cameronian-fashion? Well, I gave the company the benefit of the doubt and assumed a story editor or a director or producer had come up with the idea at a story meeting. But the incident left me a bit paranoid about pitching. Probably not a bad thing.
A writer should be wary of pitching, especially to someone at a newly-formed animation company who may not know copyright law or who may choose to ignore it. If you write a pitch down – in an email, in your diary, on a napkin – you automatically own the copyright. A production company can only use your pitch if they contract you for it. If your pitch isn’t bang on but it sparks a different take on the same idea, a fair-minded story editor or producer should give you a shot at revising and resubmitting it.
If you’re new to the business and you’re pitching to a story editor or production company you’ve never heard of, it’s a good idea to ask around and see what kind of reputation they have. Check with the Writers Guild of Canada to find out if there are any grievances against them. If you’re still feeling doubtful, you may want to cc your agent on your pitches so everyone knows your ideas are on record with a third party. If you don’t have an agent, copy a friend. If you don’t have a friend, that’s really sad. Make up an alias and copy yourself. No one has to know that Legalshark@gmail.com is your goldfish.
Could an unscrupulous person re-jig your idea slightly and pass it off as their own, or hand it off to their writer buddy in lieu of paying off a poker debt? Well, it would be tough to catch and hard to prove. Animated episodes can take a year or longer to go from script to broadcast. You’d have to watch every episode of a series to see if an idea of yours was lifted. Complicating the process is that on any show, freelance writers are going to come up with similar pitch ideas. If you’re going to be paranoid about pitching, I’d say worry more about having an idea scooped than stolen.
The above-mentioned Mr. Malak can’t believe that James Cameron didn’t lift ideas from his “hero teams up with natives on a planet defending themselves against a military working on behalf of a mining company to tear down a sacred tree” plot. I know he’s thinking: what are the odds? But there’s an awful lot of sci-fi out there (and a lot of awful sci-fi, for that matter). The interplanetary resource exploitation idea is already, er, well-mined. There are only so many plots to go around. So when you’re asked to pitch on a show, pitch early and pitch often so you get that unique and original Surprise Birthday Party plot in first!