Screenwriting : Is there room for more than one movie telling the same story? by Richard Willett

Richard Willett

Is there room for more than one movie telling the same story?

I'm wondering if anyone else has experienced this "writer's worst nightmare" and might have advice: A while back I spent more than two years researching, writing, and then trying to sell a screenplay about Franklin Roosevelt's struggle with polio called WARM SPRINGS. It came within 25 scripts of being a Nicholl quarterfinalist, second-rounded in Austin, and was a Slamdance semifinalist and a finalist for the Chesterfield Writer's Film Project at Paramount. And then . . . HBO filmed the same story, and even used my title! It wasn't a steal. In fact, the scripts are very different. SO . . . after it had spent years in a drawer, I recently dusted off my version, retitled it AFTER THE STORM, and sent it back out into the world. And today I got this valentine from the Black List: "Few writers or films have accurately tackled the plague and ravages of polio in such a frank and honest way. While there have been many films and TV programs that have explored Roosevelt's struggle with the disease, none have gone into quite so much detail or done such an excellent job showing how the politician was empowered by his time at the rehabilitation facility. In this piece FDR's experiences at Warm Springs absolutely feel as though they are the catalyst for his political run, a great origins story for such a storied political figure." What do you think my chances are of selling my version of this story?

Jean-Pierre Chapoteau

At the end of the day HBO's version was "only" a "tv movie". So I say go for it.

Regina Lee

It's an HBO Film that won 5 Emmy Awards. The perception of HBO Films has changed from "only a TV movie" to the best, most prestigious version of nonfiction film. Their movies win Emmy Awards every single year. Thus, from a "Hollywood" producer's perspective, "What do you think my chances are of selling my version of this story?"... It would be very hard to sell. The default answer will be "no," so you have to turn that "no" into a "yes," likely with a big name director or star. Also: - Another reason you have to bust your butt to turn that "no" into a "yes." Not impossible, but "what are the chances?" They are not the best odds.

Richard Willett

Thanks, Regina. I know, I know! I have plenty of other scripts. I just can't forget that so many people have told me this is the best version of the story they've seen.

William Martell

Probably mentioned this before, but I had a true story that took place in my home town (worst stateside casualties in WW2 which ended up ending segregation in the armed forces... FDR's wife was involved) and after signing the contract with TBS... NBC announced a version of the same story that had a director attached. TBS ditched my project, and I own it again. It went on the shelf... and whenever I have a meeting and they want to know what else I have, I'll mention it if it seems like something the company might be interested in. It's a long shot. But it's already a tough sell, so it's not what I lead with. The great thing about writing is: “When the last dime is gone, I'll sit on the curb outside with a pencil and a ten cent notebook and start the whole thing over again,” Preston Sturges. We can just write something else.

Bill Costantini

It's not totally impossible. There were two similar movies about Truman Capote's trip to Kansas not too long ago. "The Cave" and "The Descent" came out around the same time. "Olympus Has Fallen" and "White House Down" were both about the same topic and both came out in the same year. "Happy Feet" and the other penguin movie whose name escapes me both came out around the same time. "After Earth" and "Oblivion" both dealt with humans moving to another planet, and both came out around the same time. There's many more "pair movies" like this, but I can't recall any "pair movies" being about a historical figure, except for the Truman Capote movies.

Richard Willett

I actually thought of a couple, Bill. THE IMITATION GAME told the story of Alan Turing, which had already been told in the TV movie BREAKING THE CODE. MILK told the story of Harvey Milk, which had already been told in the Oscar-winning documentary THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK. I got an even bigger rave from the Black List this morning so we'll see.

Phillip "The Gent" Hardy

Richard: Consider this; there were three, count em, three TV movies made about the Long Island Lolita. Therefore, I certainly think there should be room for a thoughtful rendering of FDR's struggle to overcome polio. I have a Hatfield-McCoy feud script that I believe is a way better rendering than the version the History Channel aired in 2012. I wrote my original manuscript years before. I would love to see my version come to the big screen and I still haven't seen a version of this famous American saga that by my estimation is worth a damn. So, in marketing your "After The Storm" you need to delineate a unique selling proposition (USP) for your version to sell people on why someone would want to film your script. In Marketing my JD Salinger biopic, my USP is Salinger's interaction with his characters like Holden Caulfield and Seymour Glass.

David Levy

Armageddon and Deep Impact, two moves about a meteor ending our existance came out the same year.Keep writing!

Regina Lee

To hone in on the question that Richard posed... Respectfully, the question isn't "Can two movies be made with a similar concept"? The question is, "What do you think my chances are of selling my version of this story?" The chances are increased with packaging. And please keep in mind that Armageddon and Deep Impact are summer blockbusters, while Roosevelt/polio is not in that category. So packaging! Which, more importantly, is key for any movie that isn't overtly commercial. The "how" is by packaging, as I discussed in my earlier comment.

John Charnay

Yes! Packaging is key. Also, think broadly! It is also a question of timing...and where it goes. A lot of outlets need new content.

JD Glasscock

also tombstone and wyat earp came out at same time.....

Suzanne Lutas

I'm confident your handling of Roosvelt's struggle will find the right audience and the right success!

John Charnay

I agree with Suzanne’s assessment!

Richard Willett

Thanks, everyone, for the encouragement and advice. Onward! I have nothing to fear but fear itself. ;)

Michael Eddy

I'd say slim and none. Not telling you to throw in the towel - because there's always slim. But the way Hollywood works - if a movie (TV or otherwise) gets made and tanks - you're dead in the water. Nobody's going to follow up a stiff with ANOTHER movie about the same subject. Bill Murray had an FDR film out in the last year or so - and it bombed. And if it's a hit - same thing - it's already sucked all the oxygen out of the room. If multiple movies about the same thing are loose in the Hollywood ozone (boys trading bodies with their Dads, gallant farmers trying to save the family farm from a flood etc.) - it's usually the first film to get the green light that gets made - and the rest are canceled. Hollywood likes ideas that are recognizable - that can be condensed to a TV Guide blurb in a pitch - that can be compared to something SIMILAR (but not exactly the same) that were BIG hits at the box office - and they'll make them til the cows come home - or until the string is played out and the grosses drop like a rock. I wrote a script way back when - about a real life gangster - and a major studio grabbed it in a bidding war and paid me lots of dough. Then the studio dragged their feet and got played by a big Star - who wanted to make that story - but NOT for that studio - so he had a competing script written for him and got THAT made ahead of mine. The studio bought my script outright. They own it. The other movie was made - did OK at the b.o. (although it was costly to make - so no big hit) - and mine lays gathering dust in the vault. It's been 25 years since the other movie was made - and trust me - this gangster could definitely be done again - by a new younger star - but I'm not holding my breath. So Richard - it sounds as if you wrote a terrific script - take that and the Black List rave - and package it as a writing sample to get other work - because I don't think your Warm Springs has much of a chance to be made on its own.

John Charnay

Perhaps not as a feature but as a movie on HBO or similar outlet???

Dawn Murrell

@Sherry Blackwell I could not agree with you more! I have written a TV series pilot and a feature screenplay about people with disabilities. Too often it is a taboo subject or the people are seen as subjects of pity. I specifically want to see a story on how a person kicks ass... and they just happen to have a disability. Richard I hope you feel that your project is revitalized enough to put it out there again. The Black list seems to believe in the potential of it and it looks like a lot of us do too! :) Your twist on the concept involving FDR and the execution of it will stand out differently than the previous movie. Good luck!

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