screenwriting

Screenwriting 101: What Plagiarism Is, What It Isn’t, and How to Protect Yourself From It

Plagiarism is rare — at least when we’re talking about the screenwriting industry.

The only reason it seems so prevalent is that the few occasions in which it does occur at the top level — cases like Shia LaBeouf’s fall from grace, for instance — and usually result in huge amounts of press and gigantic court settlements.

The harsh reality, however, is you’ll be fighting hard to get your script noticed by anyone in the industry, meaning that plagiarism is likely to be the least of your worries. That’s the bad news. On the bright side, the incentive for a production company to steal work that lands on their desk and erase the writer’s name is virtually zero. The nature of the screenwriting business somewhat automatically protects your work: there’s no shortage of people with a screenplay to sell; the risk of being caught out with plagiarism is high; and the financial penalties for plagiarism can be crippling.

That all said, just because being struck by lightning is a very rare event doesn’t mean it never happens — and it is marginally more likely to occur when entering into less-than-reputable screenwriting competitions. So be careful, and do your due diligence in research ahead of time.

We thought we’d compile some tips on how to deal with the situation should you ever be unlucky enough to find your screenwriting work has been plagiarized.

And first up, we’ll start with something that gets to the root of the issue:

Busting the “Poor Man’s Copyright” Myth

It’s an old and enduring token of wisdom: If you want to copyright your screenplay, mail a physical copy to yourself.

The idea here is that the US postal mark will prove ownership of the mail inside and provide a certifiable date which will defend against any accusations of plagiarism from works after this date.

Problem is, it’s flawed on every level.

We’ll put aside the fact that the system is less than failsafe — it’s not hard to manipulate an envelope — or that this defense has never been successfully employed in court to win a copyright case. The reason mailing yourself your script doesn’t copyright your work is that there’s absolutely no need to: anything you create is already copyrighted to you.

You don’t even need to put the © symbol anywhere on your script — and it’s often seen as a sign of an amateur to do so — because your copyright is already inherent. All adding the symbol does is remind anyone viewing your script that it’s the intellectual property of someone else. Anyone in the industry will take this as a given anyway, while an intentional plagiarist isn’t going to be deterred by a symbol.

But let’s assume you’ve become aware of someone who hasn’t just taken your idea (more on that later), but has copied whole chunks of your text. Now what?

Protecting Yourself Against Screenplay Plagiarism

Really, the best cure here is prevention.

Many networks or corporations won’t even look at screenplays or concepts by unknown writers without an agent. This is not because it’s some kind of closed cabal, but simply because they’re covering their own backs. In copyright cases, it nearly always comes down not to how similar the screenplays are, but whether or not it can be established that the defendant was aware of the other person’s work — or had contact with them along the way.

So, many networks and corporations won’t look at unsolicited ideas or manuscripts in the first place because this reduces the chances of their being successfully sued further down the line to virtually zero.

What this means for you in the writer’s seat is that not only will finding a good agent improve your marketability, but it’ll also offer you the same protection that the corporations enjoy. When dealing through an agent, everything gets recorded. Which is just the way it should be — and the way you want it.

But if you have identified a real case of suspected plagiarism and are writing solo, here’s a very helpful flowchart detailing the best approach at responding to the person whose work you find under their name (it’s intended for authors, but the advice is fairly universal).

Afraid of Accidental Plagiarism?

As a writer, you’ll no doubt recognize this very common scenario: you describe the brilliant screenplay you’re working on to a friend, only for her to reply with, “Hmmm, that sounds just like Movie X.”

Horrified, you look it up on IMDB or Wikipedia. You’ve never even seen the movie in question, but sure enough, you find it does indeed follow a pretty similar plot to your idea.

So, should you be worried about being sued for plagiarism?

Nope. Because you can’t actually be sued for plagiarism; that’s an ethical issue, not a legal one.

What you can be sued for is copyright violation, and it’s very difficult to commit this crime accidentally; this covers ripping off character names and entire passages of text, not expressing the same idea in a different way. Ideas, after all, are not copyrightable.

Simply having a similar plot (or even the same plot in most circumstances) does not constitute copyright violation. As we’ve covered previously, just as there are only seven notes with which to make songs, there are only so many plot archetypes and tropes with which to create a satisfying story. Every writer is inspired by works that have gone before their pen hit the page, and being inspired is far from violating copyrighted works. Think of the overt similarities between the TV show “House” and the “Sherlock Holmes” canon, for instance.

In fact, if you’re genuinely worried about mistakenly violating copyright, you’re precisely the type of person who’s least likely to do it.

So go forth and write! Strive for originality, but be aware that we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

And that’s not a bad thing.

 

5 Brilliant Screenplays That Were Rejected … Repeatedly

In an industry dominated with rejection, sometimes a single “yes” is all it takes to change the face of cinema forever. Here are five truly groundbreaking movies that, for some studios, were a little too groundbreaking…

1. “Pulp Fiction” (1994)

Despite being a quickly rising star in Hollywood at the time, Quentin Tarrantino had a lengthy battle in trying to get any studio interested in his follow up to “Reservoir Dogs.”

Why “Pulp Fiction” was Rejected: According to Columbia TriStar executive Mike Medavoy, the script was “too demented.” TriStar initially optioned the film and was even in talks to produce it, but then did a 180 by declaring, “This is the worst thing ever written. It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive. It’s too long, violent, and unfilmable.”

Very few studios were willing to touch a movie featuring heavy heroin use, and the search for a new backer was extensive before Miramax picked it up.

2. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981)

Initially dubbed “The Adventures of Indiana Smith,” even the attachment of industry superstars George Lucas and Steven Spielberg wasn’t enough to garner significant studio interest.

Why Indiana Jones was Rejected: It wasn’t actually Lucas’ screenplay that lead to it being rejected by every single studio in Hollywood, but more the fact that he was asking $20 million to make it. Paramount ended up footing the bill and Lucas shrewdly negotiated a five-film contract; it ended up grossing nearly $400 million at gross and is frequently heralded as the best action-adventure movie of all time.

3. “Back to the Future” (1985)

Another ‘80s classic that nearly got passed up entirely (incidentally, “Back to the Future” ended up sharing the same budget and box office gross as “Raiders of the Lost Ark”).

Why “Back to the Future” was Rejected: It was either too family-friendly or not family-friendly enough, depending on who you asked. Pretty much every major studio rejected the screenplay, with Disney advising that a film alluding to mother-son incest was not “appropriate under the Disney banner,” while Columbia thought it was a “really nice, cute, warm film, but not sexual enough.”

The great Steven Spielberg always loved the script, however, and committed it to Amblin Entertainment as soon as he was able. The rest, as they say, is history — but it nearly got titled “Spaceman from Pluto.”

Naturally, Spielberg replied to the memo and told Sid Sheinberg that he had to be joking. The suggestion was never mentioned again.

4. “The Usual Suspects” (1995)

Now listed by the Writer’s Guild of America as the 35th greatest screenplay of all time, the ultimate mystery crime thriller nearly became as elusive as Keyser Söze.

Why “The Usual Suspects” was Rejected: Much like “Pulp Fiction,” the non-linear plotline of this screenplay completely baffled studios. After numerous rejections (and nine different drafts), the only company who would touch it was a European financing company. Somewhat surprisingly, director Bryan Singer managed to make the movie a masterpiece despite only having a $6 million budget.

5. “Casablanca” (1943)

The curious case of “Casablanca”: a screenplay rejected by numerous agencies 30 years after it had already become one of the world’s finest movies.

Why “Casablanca” was Rejected: It wasn’t rejected the first time around. But in 1982, freelance writer Chuck Ross wanted to see whether movie agents would recognize the screenplay if he sent it out again … and if not, would they recognize its greatness?

It was a clever experiment. Ross retitled the script “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” (the title of the original play on which “Casablanca” was based) and sent it out to 217 different Hollywood agencies.

The results?

  • 90 returned the screenplay because they weren’t looking for submissions.
  • 33 agents recognized the script immediately.
  • 8 spotted a similarity with the 1943 classic, but didn’t spot that it was exactly the same.

However, 38 of the 217 read and rejected the classic script. Among the feedback Ross received, agents claimed there was “too much dialogue” and that the storyline was “too weak.” One even suggested it needed “a professional polish.”

But funnier still is that three agencies loved it and wanted to turn it into a movie.

It just goes to show: even the best screenplays on the planet get rejected. All it takes is just one “yes.”

Do you have an interesting experience of taking a project through many rejections to find success? Let us know in the comments below!

4 Seth Rogen Quotes Aspiring Artists Should Live By

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Seth Rogen might be your spirit animal if you’re an aspiring actor who enjoys making people laugh. Before the numerous awards and nominations, he was only a teenager performing stand-up comedy at small clubs and bar mitzvahs. Then he was starring successful films like “Knocked Up” and “Superbad.” Maybe — just maybe — aspiring artists could learn a thing or two by taking a page out of his playbook.

During an evening screening of “Sausage Party” hosted by NYFA Los Angeles, Rogen offered several nuggets of wisdom that all future filmmakers, actors, writers, and producers should heed. Whether you’re worried about finding a job after graduation or have trouble dealing with rejection, find solace in knowing that Seth Rogen faced the same and still followed his dreams.

Check out some of the exclusive insights Rogen offered to our audience of NYFA students.

1. On artistic collaboration and building a career: “Link up with someone who has a job you can’t do.”

Like in most other industries, finding success in show business is almost impossible when you go at it alone. There are few things more important than networking to start building relationships and getting your name out there. If it wasn’t for his early collaborations with Judd Apatow, perhaps Seth Rogen wouldn’t have found the same success he has today.

Of course, the best people to stick with are those who have different talents than you. If you’re a strong actor but have no directing or scriptwriting skills, partner up with someone who does. There are plenty of aspiring filmmakers out there who love working the camera but freeze up in front of it. That’s where you come in to star in their pilot — that will hopefully be greenlight by a big film studio.

2. On confidence and surviving rejection in the biz: “Just never stop. F-’em. That’s the idea, I guess.”

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Never give up. It’s the theme we love seeing in our favorite shows, movies, and even video games. Of course, not everyone comes out of the starting gate with confidence oozing from every pore. And those who do are often crushed when they face cold, hard rejection for the first time.

Imagine if Seth Rogen had given up when “Freaks and Geeks” — which served as his professional acting debut — was cancelled after one season due to terrible ratings. He was then rejected by NBC when Apatow chose him as the lead for his next show “Undeclared.” Despite all this, he kept going and was determined to make it … and make it, he did.

3. On being inspired to do your own thing: “Oh wow, movies could be so much more than I thought they could be. It was one of the most shocking things I ever – I could not believe what I was seeing.”

During his talk with us, Seth Rogen spoke about some of the films that moved him while growing up. Aside from his love for Pixar movies, which is one of the reasons he made “Sausage Party,” he also enjoyed raunchy comedy films. Among his favorites include “South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut” and “There’s Something About Mary.”

Don’t be afraid to find inspiration from other great works, but be mindful that you tell your own stories. Strive to be unique. There’s nothing more satisfying than giving viewers something fresh and enjoying their response. Do your own thing and take risks, even if you end up needing a bodyguard for your work like Seth Rogen. 

4. If he had to give advice to his 13-year-old self: “I wouldn’t say anything just in case I (screwed) it up man. As a fan of time-travel movies,  I know that that would change things. So I would hide and just try not to sit on anything or step on anything that would adversely affect the future version of me. That’s what I would do. And I would kill baby Hitler.”

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As expected, Seth Rogen had us laughing all evening during his stay with us at NYFA Los Angeles. And even in his hilarious time-travel-phobia, there is wisdom; you can’t change the past, and maybe it’s better that way. Don’t waste time with regret or what might have been. All successful actors and filmmakers learn from their mistakes and failures in order to come back better than before. Despite plenty of challenges — including needing 10 years to find someone that would finance “Sausage Party” — Seth Rogen wouldn’t change a thing.

And neither would we.

How to Write a Killer Spec Script That Sells

Write first, sell later.

That’s the mantra of a spec scriptwriter.

The practice of writing a spec – or “speculative” – screenplay in the hopes that it’ll later become optioned has quite the precedent; and at certain points in cinema history, it even drove the entire industry.

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” was one of the first instances of an original spec script sale, going for $40,000 in the 1960s. That’s equal to $2.7 million in today’s money.

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“Good Will Hunting” earned $675,000 for then-unknown Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. “American Beauty” and “Thelma & Louise” picked up $250,000 and $500,000 respectively.

While the market for spec scripts is in a slight trough at the moment, it’s predicted to return in force — so it pays to get ahead of the game.

The Benefits of Working Spec

Spec scripts can be a quick way to a substantial payday. Generally, the script will be forwarded to a number of buyers who are likely to be interested (usually handled by an agent), and if all goes well a bidding war ensues. This is the best possible scenario, because the amounts of money slung around can get insane.

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Widely circulating the script can be a double-edged sword, though; if it fails to garner interest, it’ll be on record as a script that the entire industry passed on. As you can imagine, it’s then very difficult to do anything with it at that point.

But not all is lost! If the script is good but just not quite marketable enough, it could lead on to some lucrative assignment work.

In short, even if your spec script doesn’t get optioned, there’s no finer way of getting your name out there. So let’s focus on how to maximize your chances of nailing it.

1. Presentation

Needless to say, it’s the substance of your script that’ll attract a sale. But it’s the presentation that can kill that sale before a studio even flips the cover.

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Nothing screams “novice” more than a fancy binder, non-standard font, a writer’s Twitter handle and copyright notices all over the title page, and a multitude of pictures and artwork. Refrain from using anything other than 12-point courier and include only the title, your name, and email address on the title page.

If you really can’t quell the burning desire to jazz it up, print it on heavy weight paper. That’s as far from standard as you should venture.

2. It’s ALL About Page One

Conventional wisdom tells us we need to grab our readers within the first few pages of a script.

With a speculative script, it’s more like page one.

As mentioned in our previous post on Billy Wilder’s screenwriting tips, you not only need to “grab ‘em by the throat and not let go,” but you also need to do the following before you get to the bottom of the first page:

  • Establish genre.
  • Set the tone.
  • Introduce your protagonist.
  • Convey their problem and/or objective.
  • Describe the time and place of the journey’s start.

Not only does all of that need to happen in the opening page, but also each and every element needs to be established in an enticing way.

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How this is achieved entirely depends on your individual story, but it’s worth saving the above checklist and referring to it often. If you miss any of those beats, then revisit, rewrite and revise.

3. Don’t Chase Trends

Ask any producer what their biggest bugbear is when it comes to vetting unsolicited scripts, and it’s likely to be the weary feeling of getting yet another vampire script.

Replace vampire with zombie, superhero, young adult, space noir or whatever else might be the trend du jour.

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There’s a big difference between keeping your eye on the market (which you should definitely do as a writer) and trying to rehash whatever was big last summer. There are two very good reasons why you shouldn’t do this: first, it will put you in a huge slush pile with competitors who are doing the same thing, and secondly, if something’s already big you’re probably too late to the game. Executives are planning for what’s going to be big in a couple of years (which is how long it takes to move from optioning a screenplay to getting it into a theater), not what was popular in the last couple of years.

Plus, chasing trends is soul destroying for most of us. And that brings us onto the last, and possibly most important, point:

4. Focus on Writing, Not Selling

Just because the end goal is to get the script optioned (ideally for a decent chunk of change) doesn’t mean that you should put the cart before the horse.

A good script is a sellable script, and everything you learned at screenwriting school is still true; avoid lengthy exposition, define clear character motives, establish strong tone and plot, and make sure your structure is tight.

Writing a great story and making sure it displays your heart and soul is its own reward, but also makes it infinitely more sellable by its very nature.

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In short, never forget the spec script mantra:

Write first, sell later.

Unpacking Billy Wilder’s 10 Screenwriting Tips

Few screenwriters have the pedigree of Billy Wilder, renowned as one of the most creatively gifted filmmakers of American cinema’s Golden Age.

As well as being the first person in history to win an Oscar as a producer, director, and writer for the same movie (“The Apartment”), he’s also the mind behind film noir classics such as “Double Indemnity” and “Sunset Boulevard,” as well as the iconic comedies “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like it Hot.

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Clearly it’s worth listening when he imparts advice on screenwriting.

Luckily for us, in Cameron Crowe’s book “Conversations With Wilder,” the legendary filmmaker gave a list of ten tips on screenwriting that we think everyone should not only learn, but memorize.

His tips are short, sweet, and profound, so let’s take a deeper look!

Billy Wilder’s Ten Screenwriting Tips Examined


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1. “The audience is fickle.”

Here Wilder was referring to the practice of chasing trends, or what you think the audience wants. But you’ll never be able to successfully predict this, and will probably drive yourself mad trying.

It’s much easier to simply write the story you are interested in. If you do so with heart and soul, audiences will be attracted to your work — and you get the satisfaction of knowing you did it your way (to coin Sinatra).

2. “Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.”

Pick five of your favorite movies, and we can guarantee they’ve all got killer opening scenes that make you want to stick around to see how the rest of the story plays out.

You should approach your own script in the same way. Don’t spend 19 minutes building up to an explosive scene on page 20 – put it right there on page one. You’ve got the rest of the script to drip feed exposition!

3. “Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.”

We’re talking about arguably the most important part of a script: motivation (which also inspires conflict).

If your leading character doesn’t have a very apparent objective and a plan for attaining it, it’s difficult to expect the audience to care about their actions. And we’ll take the liberty of extending Wilder’s tip to say that, ideally, every character you introduce should have a clean line of action.

4. “Know where you’re going.”

An extension of the previous point: the concept of “mapping” your plot is crucial to avoid your characters wandering off their clear lines of action. If the characters appear to forget their purpose, chances are the audience will too.

No matter how you map your intended journey – whether on note cards or just doodling all your ideas in one place — make sure that you do it.

5. “The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.”

As any screenwriter knows, there are a very finite number of story types (some say seven). And all fiction is based on these.

Whatever the precise number of story types, it is true that you’ll frequently rely on formula while crafting your screenplay — whether it’s the hero’s journey, a Faustian debt that must be paid, or some other trope.

Counterintuitively, the audience actually wants to see these stories played out in a uniform way (that is why we’ve been telling beat-for-beat identical tales for generations), but they don’t want to be made aware of it. This is why it’s essential that, although the rhythm of the plot may be predictable, the notes themselves often come as a surprise.

6. “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.”

This is one of the most valuable of Wilder’s tips because it’s one that even experienced writers struggle to identify and fix.

The third act almost always features the resolution of key story points, and brings character arcs to their natural conclusion. If strong foundations aren’t set in the first two acts (and particularly, as noted, the first), then this resolution will feel either contrived or unsatisfying.

Once again, solid mapping during the writing process is a great defense against this all-too-common problem.

7. “A tip from Lubitsch: let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you for it.”

A simple concept, but a tricky one to master on the page. Think Christopher Nolan, and you’re on the right track!

8. “In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.”

Love them or hate them, but sometimes a voice-over is the perfect choice for moving the plot forward … as long as it does just that.

If you get stuck, try using the voice-over describe the emotional states of characters or hint at upcoming events. These are both things that are tricky to communicate via other methods, but which add greatly to the audience’s immersion.

9. “The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.”

Ideally: the more explosive the event (figuratively or literally), the better. The audience is often in a lull at this point of the movie, so a large, crucial event that acts as a catalyst for the satisfying conclusion can help “grab ‘em by the throat” once more.

10. “The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.”

Very, very few good movies have multiple or non-distinct endings. The Coen brothers have turned it into something of a hallmark for their work, but it’s not wholly advisable to try and follow in their footsteps.

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When you arrive at the end, stop.

Now get out there and put Wilder’s gold into practice.

Cinequest Screenwriting Competition

Cinequest Screenplay Submission

 

Calling all screenwriters! Have a screenplay that you think could be the next big thing? Then submit it to Cinequest’s Screenwriting Competition and not only compete to win the $5,000 cash prize if you win best feature-length script, but also have your screenplay read by a panel of established industry professionals. In addition, there are also categories in Short and Teleplays, with the winners of each receiving a $1,000 cash prize.

Interested parties can choose to submit their script today, October 17 and enter the code STUDENT15 to receive a $15 discount. You can submit your script here.

In addition, there is an Extra Late deadline that closes November 7. Entrants must submit via WithoutABox and are unable to use the promo code.

Cinequest creates global connectivity between screenwriters, filmmakers, and innovators. Cinequest welcomes writers of all genres for Features, Short-films, and Teleplays to submit for a chance at $7,000 in cash prizes and opportunity to be read by industry pros. The annual Writers Celebration in March 2015 features innovative writing forums and inspiring Maverick Spirit event honoring legends like Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, and J.J. Abrams! For more info, visit Cinequest Screenwriting Competition.

Vail Film Festival 2015

Vail Film FestivalThe Vail Film Festival, held annually in the small ski resort town of Vail, Colorado, fosters independent film and filmmakers through film screenings, panels, workshops, networking events, and educational projects.

Filmmakers who submit will have their films viewed and selected by VFF’s Programming Committee.

The Official Selection films will screen in Vail, CO, March 26 – 29, 2015. Filmmakers are invited to attend all screenings, festival parties and award ceremony.

Prizes will be given to the winners of the following categories:

  • Best Feature Film
  • Best Documentary Film
  • Audience Award
  • Best Short Film
  • Best Student Film
  • Best Environmental Film
  • Best Feature Screenplay
  • Best Short Screenplay

If you’re interested in submitting or would like to know more about the Vail Film Festival, CLICK HERE.