Rewind two hours and twenty minutes before my cheeks were swept by a tide of waterworks at the Les Miserables movie showing: I'm leaning back, twentieth row or so, relieved I haven't missed a single downward glance of Jean Valjean and Co, when a trailer pops on. It shows a shrimpy-but-noble kid being punched by a bully snarling "nobody likes you", with the next scene leading to some wonderment-music and a guy with a top hat on TV crooning 'everyone loves a magician!' So true, I think. I do love me some magic. But then the trailer takes a weird turn and suddenly it's Steve Carrell dressed in maroon deep-V lined with sparkles and he's a magician and this is a screwball comedy and my interest is lost. I do love me some magic, but alas, it does not translate to Steve Carrell. No matter, let's move on. Next trailer: city lights--Vegas--a stage: dark, mysterious. Morgan Freeman's unmistakable wiser-than-thou voice murmurs something about seeing and believing. A bubble emerges from Jesse Eisenberg's hands as he performs on stage to thousands of adulating fans. Wait, another movie about magicians? Coming out within two month of each other?
I am suddenly swept back to the summer of 2006, when the Illusionist and the Prestige roared into theaters with their dark tales of brooding nineteenth century magicians wearing top hats. How random, I had thought at the time. I mean, a delighted, couldn't-be-happier-to-pencil-these-opening-weekends-on-my-calendar kind of random, but still, out of all the possible movie concepts in the world (building igloos! comedy of errors with triplets! hamster and gerbil as sworn enemies!) it seemed strange that two studios would choose to release two conceptually-similar movies at around the same time. I mean, is there a shared fountain of creative juices that they're both drinking from?
Now, this is the point at which I confess I know very little of how Hollywood works. Perhaps these coincidences are not random at all but a rule of sorts, blockbuster concepts ordained to go out in twos, like animals in Noah's Ark (Armageddon and Deep Impact, Antz and A Bug's Life, Snow White and Mirror Mirror—see how uniformly they march onto the boat!) Perhaps that kind of competition is good for business. Perhaps there is a robust spy network inside each of the production studios, encrypted missives lighting up the cell phones of executives hourly (20th Century Fox considering script about whaleshark that wears a top hat: greenlight our own script about the gentlemanly sea serpent NOWNOWNOW). Or perhaps there is a monthly board game that all the bigwigs in Hollywood play, kind of like pictionary except instead of constructing a doodle of whatever term you select, you have to make a movie with it. (Shit, this month's prompt is "big fish with big hearts").
I have no idea, really, how intentional it all is. I can only guess.
Regardless of how the movie business operates, this 'similar concepts at similar times' phenomenon seems to pop up everywhere. Like, two eminent biographies of Charles Dickens (him? he funny or something?) land at around the same time, making it extremely convenient for book reviewers. Or like how at pretty much every fashion show, multiple designers decree that The Time is Right for some new trend like hot pink leather bat wings to become the new black. Or like when my dear husband was building a pet-collections iPhone game, and while none existed on the platform prior to him starting, by the time he was done there were half a dozen. Or like baby names, and how people pride themselves on selecting a unique name imbued with meaning, say Vesuvius, thinking how unique! nobody would name their kid after that volcano that erupted and wiped out a city, i mean it's kind of morbid, but the name is so cool-sounding, and we can call him Vivi for short!. Then two years later Vesuvius is the top baby name in all the country because there was a PBS special that everyone watched (which is how you thought of the name in the first place) and poor Vivi's teachers henceforth have to distinguish him from the other seven Vivi's in his class.
Of course, trends are trends because of fast-following, one good idea sparking countless imitations and remixes. No reasonable writer/artist/director/entrepreneur assumes her work won't be 'borrowed for inspiration' once it's out in the wild (particularly if it's successful.) But before your brilliant idea gets out there, before it's been absorbed by millions, it can feel like such a small, thrilling thing—yours completely, fuzzy in its specifics but endless in its possibilities. Secrecy feels vital—show anybody and they'd steal it away, those black-hearted, greedy bastards! Because your idea is so good, so genius, so god-damned novel, it will change the world.
I'm not going to dash your dreams, not completely. Of course there are new and mind-blowing ideas being generated as we speak (read?). Maybe yours is one of them. Probably not, though. At least, it's better to assume not. There are seven billion people on this earth—what are the chances that none of them has ever thought that exact thing before?
I mean, just spend time Googling anything you think is unique. Seven or eight years ago, I found out my name wasn't (growing up I was led to believe otherwise, with how often it's been misspelled). There is somebody else out there with a dog who looks exactly like mine who also decided to name him Kupo (thanks, Youtube, for that nugget.) There are scores of others, like me, who would swear off alcohol for life for Benedict Cumberbatch's coat with that red buttonhole. I can't count how many times I've worked on a product or a design only to have some other company launch something eerily similar a few weeks before we ship. Hell, there's probably somebody else who wrote this same blog entry, except they used some other analogies, like kittens or space needles or something. (In fact, the theme of this post exists in one well-known pithy maxim—but, like Dickens, why use 8 words when you can use 1250?)
It's cool though. It's fine. Somebody else will have the same idea as you, and that's not the end of the world. That's not even something to sweat a single bead over. Why? Because ideas are cheap. You can buy thirty for a round of drinks at your neighborhood bar. Unless it is that rare, giant-squid-footage of an idea (which—again—yours probably isn't), don't drag it onto an altar and pray to it every morning. Save that praise for the product at the end of the road—the thing you built and tweaked and fiddled with your hands. Save that for the story you crafted in its entirety, each word extracted from you like teeth because that's how personal it was. Save the glory—the pride—for the art that comes from the blood and sweat and time and tears. There is no clearer way to say it. 99 times out of 100, it's the execution that counts. It's the idea scrawled and captured and coded and edited and made frightfully real. It's your work, and hopefully it's your best work. And if somebody else made something similar, if they also happened to sip or bathe from that same fountain of creative juices, so be it. Because no matter how many movies there are of magician-inspiring sea creatures named Vesuvius with delightfully good manners, I can assure you this: one of them is bound to be the best.
(TOPHAT WHALESHARK and THE GENTLEMANLY SEA SERPENT will be out in theaters in late 2013.)