For all those who took America to the cleaners this year, you can be pretty sure if anyone of them end up in court, there will be a high paid attorney pleading... coincidence. Sure, Bernie Madoff looked like he was running a Ponzi scheme, but the facts against him can be explained away easily... coincidence. Oh, they'll call it "circumstantial," but in reality, it just means that everything that happened to their client was a matter of happenstance. Bad luck. Or good luck, depending on how much profit Madoff was able to get away with for how many years.
Speaking of coincidence. Last night I rented Kevin Costner's Swing Vote. All of a sudden coincidence came flying my way, literally. Or literary-ly.
Costner's film told the fictional story of a single slacker whose one vote could decide a presidential election. Don't know if you saw it. Not all that many did, but it just happens that coincidentally one of the most popular names in satire -- National Lampoon -- offered Swing Voter, almost the same exact concept (lead character younger and slackier) in October of 2004 lampooning the Kerry-Bush race.
The author of the piece? Moi.
Okay, it's not all that national a story, but as comic Glenn Hirsch once when people told him his stolen wallet was just full of "things." "Yes, but they were my things."
The film wasn't much of a cinematic success, but that didn't make it any less of a coincidence. I've since seen the actual shooting script and found a frightening amount of similarities. Keep in mind, the original draft is where most of any coincidence of similar words and phrases would have been. I can't afford to go head-to-head with Costner's studio but as the year ends I needed to get it out of my system.
For years, I've heard of stories from writer friends about their ideas being stolen. At lunch with another writer it's the second topic brought up right after, "Did you see that piece of shit so-and-so got made/printed/paid for?" Many believe that getting your idea stolen is one of the most integral parts of the Hollywood dream machine. Your dream. Someone else's machine.
Now I am not saying Costner or the film's writers or producers stole my concept. That could be libelous. But it sure looks like Kevin and I coincidentally came up with something really, really...coincidental.
Ideas are a dime a dozen, that is if you can talk someone into paying you a dime for your twelve. I've always thought that people could have come up with similar ideas. Hey, I understand that even my Gone With The Wind idea was already done by someone else. But if you're not Art Buchwald (see Coming To America: The Court's Version), to nail someone for stealing your idea you better have some pretty damn on-the-money documentation that shows more than a passing similarity to your work. And even if you do you had better be willing to go to the extremely expensive mat with a bevy of studio attorneys just waiting to chop you up in "see you in court, kid" pieces.
When I first started writing TV, I pitched an idea for a Fox sketch show. They even called me in to discuss working on the show. A few weeks later I saw my sketch, much of the dialogue word-for-word from my script, on their show. They didn't pay me. They didn't hire me. They said they already had someone who wrote like me. Sure they did. Me.
My agent said the show was notorious for "having similar" stealing ideas and he still had to work with them so it didn't pay to make a big deal of it. At least not for him. I let it slide. I was new and there were plenty of opportunities that lied ahead.
Well, I'm not new any more and my TV and film career has evolved into books and columns. In the real literary world, using similar ideas coincidentally is considered a sign of respect.
But the other day I rented Kevin Costner's Swing Vote film and world of TV/film larceny came rushing back.
Am I just a paranoid writer or was I the victim of...
Grand Theft Film Script!
If you have the time, you can be the jury. Here's the details...
Swing Voter vs Swing Vote
Costner's Swing Vote is about a single voter who can decide the presidency.
My "Swing Voter" is about a single voter who can decide the presidency.
Costner's Swing Vote is about a 40 something drunk loser.
My "Swing Voter" is about a loser 30 something druggie loser
Costner's Swing Vote candidates and media invade lead character Bud's home town.
My "Swing Voter" candidates and media invade lead character Podarsky's home town.
Costner's Swing Vote's Bud doesn't know who's running
My "Swing Voter"'s Podarsky doesn't know who's running
Costner's Swing Vote candidates consider paying Bud off.
My "Swing Voter" candidates consider paying Podarsky off.
Costner's Swing Vote candidates explain first how their positions are good for Bud.
My "Swing Voter" candidates explain first how they're positions are good for Podarsky.
Costner's Swing Vote candidates say anything they think Bud wants to hear to get him to vote for them including reversing long held positions like gay marriage.
My "Swing Voter" candidates say anything they think Podarsky wants to hear to get him to vote for them including reversing long held positions like gay marriage.
Costner's Swing Vote creates a debate held just for Bud where Bud will ask the questions.
My "Swing Voter" creates a debate held just for Podarksy where Podarsky will ask the questions.
Costner's Swing Vote ends with no winner decided.
My "Swing Voter" ends with no winner decided.
Pretty coincidental, huh?
Now I have three questions for you:
1. Was this more than a coincidence?
2. Are you an entertainment attorney?
3. Do you work on contingency?
Happy New Year...unless, coincidentally, Kevin Costner already wished you it.
Award-winning TV writer and author of Great Failures of the Extremely Successful, Steve Young blogs at steveyoungonpolitics.com