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Notions, Concepts, and Ideas

Posted by on January 5, 2017

In “Annie Hall,” when they go to LA, at a party at Paul Simon’s house, one “Hollywood player” is heard saying to another, “Right now it’s just a notion, but I think I can get the money to make it a concept, and later turn it into an idea.”  We know that the recent Star Wars movie “Rogue One” was greenlit by Disney based on John Knoll pitching them on “a movie about the spies who steal the Death Star plans.”  Well, “a movie about the spies who steal the Death Star plans” isn’t an idea.  It isn’t even a concept; it’s a notion.  If an outsider had this notion and tried to present it to studio executives, first, he’d be turned away at the gate, he’d never even have the opportunity to deliver the pitch (and a single sentence isn’t even substantial enough to qualify as a pitch).  But if he did, they’d be like, “And?”  They’d immediately recognize that this phrase in no way constitutes an “idea,” at least not in the context of movie-making.  They’d go, “What’s the story?  What are the characters?”

Here are some notions:

A movie about the Boxer Rebellion

A movie about the Cambridge Five

A movie about the Tupac/Biggie murders

A movie about Garrett Lisi

A movie about snakeheads (Chinese people smugglers)

Any of these could be good, or bad.  But good luck getting a studio to cut a check to fund your life while you write the scripts for these movies.  You can’t even evaluate them, because there’s nothing to evaluate.  If you had a treatment, that is, five pages or so describing what happens in the movie, who the characters are, the twists and turns along the way, etc., or, better yet, a script, then you can make a decision about which would make the better movie, but just a single line “a movie about…” tells you nothing.

That the phrase “a movie about” appears in all these notions is the giveaway.  Obviously if you’re pitching a movie to studio executives, you’re going to be talking about a movie you want to make; saying “a movie about…” shouldn’t be necessary.  What else would you be pitching to them, a book, a card game, a restaurant?  Yet it is necessary, because the phrase, “the Boxer Rebellion” by itself is, well, nothing at all.  Not even a notion.  It’s just a thing that happened a long time ago.

When you’re an insider, “a movie about the spies who steal the Death Star plans” is all you need to get the studio to cut a check.  Then the insider’s ability to live off the studio’s money while writing the script is lauded as persistence, whereas outsiders must write the script first and even then, usually, bupkis.  It should be no surprise that the former are more productive than the latter.  Economic advantages are hidden by calling them mental advantages, but isn’t it weird how those who have the most external advantages also turn out to have the most internal advantages?

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