The Danger of Competing Projects and How to Protect Yourself

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Mirror Mirror vs. Snow White and the Hunstman. Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox and Universal Pictures

So you have an idea for a movie. Before you commit to doing any hard work, research what’s in development and production to make sure a competing project doesn’t already exist. Depending on where you’re at in your career, it’s likely the other project will take the wind out of your sails and render your screenplay dead in the water. The good news is that there are ways to protect yourself!

You may remember when two movies about Truman Capote were released within about a year of each other. Capote, the first to release, grossed $28.7 million. Infamous, which earned a measly $1.15 million, was released second with little fanfare. Usually the marketplace doesn’t have room for two projects about the same subject, however, they persist.

 

Capote vs. Infamous. Photo courtesy: Sony and Warner Bros.

In 2012, two Snow White films with very different tones released within a few months of each other. The child-friendly Mirror Mirror, starring Lily Collins and Julia Roberts, made $162 million worldwide. Snow White and the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron, captured the older, edgier Twilight audience, earning a whopping $396 worldwide, making it the clear victor.

Why does this happen? Some people theorize that when a studio gets wind of another studio’s project, they want to cash-in on its potential popularity by creating their own similar project.

This seems unlikely because it’s almost always a losing venture. No studio wants to come in second at the box office to its competitor and the inevitable critical comparisons rarely benefit both films. However, 1997 saw two natural disaster films about volcanoes and both made a profit. Dante’s Peak brought in $187 million worldwide, while Volcano brought in $122 million worldwide. But, because of their large production budgets ($116 million and $90 million, respectively), neither one made the profit they could have made if they didn’t have to split the audience.

Creation is the story of English naturalist Charles Darwin. Photo courtesy: BBC Films

One reason twin movies happen is because of an anniversary of some historical event or a significant birthday of someone famous. My first job out of film school was to write a biopic about Charles Darwin – the film would coincide with his 200th birthday in 2009. I did tons of research on both Charles and Emma Darwin, since the script would explore their strained marriage. I visited the Darwin home in Kent, England. I studied evolutionary development and learned why Darwin’s discoveries in the Galapagos were so important. Once I finished a draft that my producer liked, we started trying to get actors attached. That’s when we discovered there was a competing project already in production. It was the film Creation starring Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly.

Just like that, our project was dead. I was paid for my work, but as a beginning writer, it was heartbreaking. Creation made a measly $896,298 worldwide. Could my producer and I have done better if we had a star like Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role? I think so, but with Creation already happening, there was no way we’d ever get the funding.

This year saw Churchill, starring Brian Cox in the title role, release in June.  Darkest Hour, with Gary Oldman as Churchill, is set to release November 22, and is already getting Oscar buzz for Oldman. It seems these twins may be the result of two writers just attracted to the powerful leadership of a man facing the greatest crisis of the 20th century. World War 2 movies will continue to get made every year because the story is just that dramatic.

So what can you do to protect yourself from competing projects? You can do diligent market research in the trades and online. IMDb Pro lists projects in pre and post-production. But even a key word search (i.e.: Churchill biopic movie) in the free IMDb website can provide clues if another project is in the works. Also search The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and Deadline.com – or better yet, add the trades to your daily reading.

If you do find a competing project that’s in development, there’s no guarantee the other project will get made, but, if you’re planning to write a biopic about Spiro Agnew and you see that Steven Spielberg is developing a similar script with George Clooney to star, you should probably pick another subject and move on.

At the very least, keep your idea on hold and check the market in five years.

Friends with Benefits vs. No Strings Attached. Photo courtesy: Screen Gems and Paramount Pictures

If you absolutely must write a biopic about Spiro Agnew because you believe it’s your life’s calling, consider taking the Amadeus route. Amadeus, you probably remember, told the story of Mozart from the point of view of his rival, Antonio Salieri. Agnew’s rival in the 1972 presidential election was Sargent Shriver.  Perhaps Shriver’s point of view would differentiate the projects enough to move them both forward.

Have you ever run into a competing project? Tell us what it was and what you did when you found out.

author-avatar

Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera's Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards

16 Replies to "The Danger of Competing Projects and How to Protect Yourself"

  • comment-avatar
    David Anderson September 8, 2017 (11:04 am)

    Happened to me twice, dammit. First, on a script I absolutely loved about the relationship of Charles Dickens with the women in his life, particularly the very young actress Nell Ternan. I knew there was a damned good movie in there. And so there was, but not based on one of my many drafts, unfortunately. The successful movie was ‘The Invisible Woman’, based on the book by Clare Tomalin.

    Another epic fail was my attempt to script a film set against the infamous Gunpowder Plot. None of the many versions I sent for feedback from various paid readers seemed to ring any bells. But a 4-part mini-series based on the Gunpowder Plot is coming to our screens from the BBC this autumn.

    I’m not writing at the moment.

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee Edwards September 9, 2017 (10:54 am)

      Don’t give up, David! There are so many movie-worthy true stories to tell!

      • comment-avatar
        David Anderson September 14, 2017 (10:45 am)

        Many thanks, Shanee, for your kind and uplifting words.

  • comment-avatar
    Rory Veal September 8, 2017 (11:06 am)

    Years ago I was pitching an “end of the world” story when I was told by a studio exec at Warner Bros about a similar project in development. A script for the other project had already been written. I dropped that pitch and moved on to other ideas. The competing project never got made.

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee Edwards September 9, 2017 (10:53 am)

      Sounds about right, Rory. We’ve all been there.

  • comment-avatar
    Stan Nabors September 8, 2017 (1:19 pm)

    I had a co-production deal to develop and co-produce a TV series about the music business and then EMPIRE fast-tracked w Lee Daniels producing and directing… End of story.

  • comment-avatar
    Richard Willett September 8, 2017 (4:54 pm)

    Early in my screenwriting career I spent years researching a relatively unknown part of Franklin Roosevelt’s life during which he was recovering from polio at Warm Springs, Georgia. My finished script was a Nicholl quarterfinalist and a Slamdance semifinalist and was read favorably a number of places, including Showtime and Hallmark. Shortly after being feted at the Slamdance celebration, I heard that HBO was filming the same story, and under the same title, WARM SPRINGS. The resulting movie was very different from my script (I hewed much more closely to the facts and therefore satisfied fewer Hollywood script “requirements,” but the quirky, life-like quality of my version was part of its appeal, it seemed). Anyway, I still felt I had to put my script in a drawer (a HUGE blow at the time). Years have now passed, and I’m back on the market with it, under the title AFTER THE STORM. It recently placed in two different competitions (including top 20% two years in a row in the good ol’ Nicholl) and is being well received by producers also. Sometimes, I think, you just have to lay low and wait.

  • comment-avatar
    Matt Pacini September 9, 2017 (9:41 am)

    Many times, you’re pitching a story, and the person on the other side wants to cover their ass, by saying something like “I think someone’s working on something like that” even though they have no idea, JUST IN CASE IT’S TRUE, because they don’t want you coming back and suing them for ‘stealing your idea’. It happened to me: I pitched a script about Nicola Tesla to a major agent at CAA and he said he thought maybe one was in the works. Now it’s coming out – 20 years later! So obviously, that was not true.

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee Edwards September 9, 2017 (10:52 am)

      Matt,
      It might have been true. I’ve personally heard of several Tesla projects “in the works” over the last 15 years. With the rise of the Tesla cars, it seems now would be right time for one to finally get made.

  • comment-avatar
    TJ September 9, 2017 (11:01 am)

    I just tried to subscribe to your magazine and was told that that email address was already subscribed. I; however, did not do this. I would; nevertheless, like to subscribe, and download forty Oscar-nominated screenplays. Can you help?

    • comment-avatar
      Jenna Milly September 10, 2017 (1:25 pm)

      Hi! We’d love to get you the screenplays. Can you please send an email to this address. That way we can keep track of your request. Thanks! support@screenwritingu.com

  • comment-avatar
    Robin September 10, 2017 (12:59 pm)

    I began writing my version of a sci-fi feature from the 60’s, and then found that Wil Smith was developing it for himself. Six years later… His version is now (apparently) history. Would have been the same departure point, but I’m pretty sure a very diff script.

    Yes, do your take. Yes, also stay away from historical takes. Inevitably, someone else will be working in that zeitgeist.

  • comment-avatar
    Brian September 10, 2017 (5:53 pm)

    Hi, how do you check “the trades”? Cannot find such a publication online.

    How is Done Deal Pro in your opinion? Is it comprehensive enough to replace the other sources you mention?

    Thanks for the great article.

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee Edwards September 10, 2017 (6:31 pm)

      Hi Brian, “the trades” are the Hollywood trade publications: Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and Deadline.com. I’ve never used Done Deal Pro – anyone else have an opinion?

  • comment-avatar
    Richard September 11, 2017 (12:46 pm)

    Shanee
    I have two screenplays . May I send you one of them.

    Richard

    • comment-avatar
      Shanee September 11, 2017 (2:05 pm)

      Hi Richard, are you looking for notes and feedback? If so, we have a coverage service that is open to alumni students. So, perhaps there is a class you’d like to take. Check out the services and courses here.
      https://www.screenwritingu.com/services/
      Best!

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