If you work in Hollywood, or if you’re simply a casual movie fan, it’s no secret that the vast majority of major films are adaptations of popular franchises or other works of art.
It makes sense to do business this way. Movies cost a lot of money to make. Studios need to be sure they can make a return on their initial investment. Thus, it helps to bet on properties that already have a built-in audience. Obviously, if you adapt a popular book, TV show, or comic, fans of the original are more likely to pay and see it. On top of that, the original success of a story demonstrates its appeal, and even casual fans are eager to see their favorite characters again in a new situation.
Obviously, adaptations can be extremely effective movies. The Wizard of Oz. The Godfather. The Avengers. All are tremendously successful movies, and all are based on narratives that already existed before they were turned into films.
That being said, there’s still enormous value in finding a spec script that tells a new story. The following films demonstrate why studios shouldn’t overlook original ideas when developing projects.
Out of the Furnace
This 2013 thriller has its roots in real life. Its director read about a failing steel town in Pennsylvania, and believed it would make the ideal setting to tell a story about America’s desperate, dying blue collar class. Director Scott Cooper found a relevant spec script, and used it as the basis for the new story.
Out of the Furnace is unique because it is timely. Recent events have made it clear that there are many people in America who, having relied on one industry to provide them with a job their entire life, now feel angry, disillusioned, and eager for something they believe resembles justice. The film taps into a cultural experience that most viewers didn’t even know existed until a couple of years after its release.
That’s relatively rare for a film, because so many are based on other works of art—a novel, a play, or even a video game, for example. Thus, by the time a film adaptation of a timely story is released, the societal implications of the story may not be quite as fresh or poignant. Movies like Out of the Furnace can capture the zeitgeist with a genuine sense of urgency and relevance.
Romantic comedies are typically paint-by-number affairs. Filmmakers understand what kind of formula viewers expect from these movies, and they hire writers to adapt existing properties accordingly.
This formula can be pleasing in its familiarity. However, when the other elements are sub-par—like when the cast just isn’t right—the result is a forgettable movie that will not stand the test of time.
Don Jon, on the other hand, actively subverts the typical rom-com formula and does so with a winning cast. It delivers real laughs without speaking down to viewers. Instead, it actively confronts the audience’s expectations to tell a more genuine and authentic story about what love can actually be like in the real world, instead of the dream world that dominates movie screens.
It can be hard to tell this type of story when adapting an existing one. Typically, a studio will select a safe novel or TV show that conforms to the typical rom-com formula, or they’ll hire a writer to adapt an unconventional story that offers something new, but no real emotional connection.
The best rom-coms work because the people behind the scenes want to make real, personal statements about romance. Spec scripts often result in truly effective rom-coms because they are written from the heart. No one hired anyone to develop them. The people who write these movies without any guarantee they’ll get made do so because they have something to say.
One of the smartest ways to make a funny movie is deceptively simple: take an existing, popular film genre, and satirize it. Audiences love seeing clever filmmakers and actors poke fun at genres that have begun to take themselves too seriously.
However, satire can be tricky. The film has to be smart and actually say something, or audiences won’t be impressed—or they won’t recognize the film as satire at all. However, the satire can’t be too smart, or it will come across as smug and mean-spirited to the people who enjoy the genre. Films that satirize a particular genre must therefore walk a line between making fun of the genre, while also being fun to watch.
Zombieland achieves this; it’s clear that the writers of the film enjoy the zombie genre, while also recognizing its ridiculousness. In addition, the film has a good dose of just plain goofy, oddball plot points and details—the heroes go to a certain real-life celebrity’s mansion and end up accidentally killing him, for example. These and other irreverent details point to the effectiveness of the spec script model in developing truly original stories.
Although these three films are merely examples, they prove that there’s still plenty of value in original ideas. They also prove there are still filmmakers and studios out there willing to cultivate those ideas.