Of course you want to be original when you’re writing your screenplay. But don’t be too original. While saying it out loud sounds like a terrible idea, consider what’s going on in Hollywood.
Think about the prequels, sequels, remakes of older films, remakes of TV shows, and movies based on comic strips. How many Star Wars movies are there now? How many Star Trek movies? How many Alien, Terminator, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, James Bond, Mission Impossible, Batman and Hunger Games movies?
What do the screenplays have in common? For one thing they have built-in audiences. And the reason they do is, if you liked one film in the franchise, you’re bound to like the others, provided, they involve the same characters, in similar situations, often crafted by the same writers and directors.
Hollywood has become very risk-averse in the last fifty years. When it comes to business, the way the Hollywood mind works is, minimize risk, maximize profits.
Imagine you’re a studio executive, and you’re judged by the money you make, not the creativity of the films you produce. You’re thinking, “what if I greenlight this film, it costs a fortune, and it tanks. Think about expensive films that bombed, like Kevin Costner’s Waterworld, or Ron Howard’s recent film about the true story behind Moby Dick.
Nobody wants to lose money, especially 100 million dollars. As a result, executives are nervous about which films they greenlight. The smart executive is looking for the J.J. Abrams Star War. It’ll probably make a billion dollars world-wide.
What if a film fails at the box office? What if a film loses 100 million dollars? What happens then? Well, Hollywood likes to point fingers. The studio bosses will blame the executives who greenlit the huge flops, and they’ll be looking for new jobs.
Executives want to make films that make money. They move up if they do, they might lose their jobs if they don’t.
For example, recently there have been at least three hit film franchises that involve young adults in a dystopian world who take it on themselves to compete, or fight for the benefit of others – The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, and the Maze Runner series. They all got made, and they all made huge profits.
Again, these franchises use the same formula, young adult tries to save the dystopian world, basically. All three are thriving franchises. The screenplays all feature elements that are similar, but with a twist. The framework is bankable, but there are significant differences. And the differences work.
Obviously you want some originality in the scripts you buy, but within the sought after framework. You don’t want too many similarities; or it’ll seem like you’re just copying. You want just the right amount.
Another sucessful framework that spawned huge box office hits is the buddy cop movie. Think about Lethal Weapon, with Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, Rush Hour, with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, The Heat with Sandra Bullock and Mellissa Mc Carthy. In each one, the buddy cops have personality differences, don’t get along, and come closer as they solve the crime.
The framework is tried and true. As the writer, you just need to be original with your buddy cop’s personalities. For example, one cop’s a perfectionist, one’s a risk-taker, an intuitive. Another example; one’s certifiably nuts, one’s ready to retire.
A lot of movies have borrowed plots from older films. Star Wars has a similar plot to Kurasowa’s The Hidden Fortress. Indiana Jones has strong similarities to a Charlton Heston film called “Secrets of the Incas.” Reservoir Dogs takes place after a diamond heist goes wrong. So does City on Fire with Chow Yun-Fat.
Romantic comedies all seem similar in many ways. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy get her back. Sometimes it’s girl meets boy, instead. Or Girl meets girl.
Some of the best Romantic films are based or a love triangle. In The Graduate, it’s the college boy who’s engaged to the daughter of the third love interest, Mrs. Robinson. In Twilight, the three are a vampire, a werewolf, and a girl who likes them both.
This can even give ideas about creating new plot lines; do a love triangle with two girls and a boy, or two lesbians and a boy. You have Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Make one a cyborg and set it in the future. A lot of great movie ideas have come from playing with ideas like that.
What about filmmakers like Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malcovich), or David Lynch (Wild at Heart)? It’s true they come up with movies that are almost too original, but do well at the box office. Nowhere near the box office of Star Wars, of course.
You can make the offbeat film once you’ve proven yourself a big moneymaker to the studios. Think about Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu. He made critical and box office successes, Babel, Amores Perros, and Biutiful, before they let him make a really off-beat film like Birdman: Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance.
In past decades, there was more of an audience for experimental and surrealist film. Luis Bunuel made completely surrealistic films like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Ingmar Bergman, made the Seventh Seal, and Terry Gilliam made Brazil.
I don’t want to stop people from making films like these. Those are among my favorite films ever. I would suggest, however, the best route for those types of films is in Independent film.
People do still make some films like that, and they do get shown at film festivals. It’s possible, if you’re a writer-director with funding, to start at film festivals, and develop a cult following, like John Waters, with films like Pink Flamingos.
I’m just saying that if you want to sell films that studios are looking for, you’re better off sticking to a framework that has a history of making money. Make the framework accessible, and be creative with the characters and details within the framework. Be similar but different. Whatever you do, don’t be too original.