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.
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.
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.
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.