The Evolution of Storytelling
Before launching WatchMojo, I wanted to produce scripted stories: comedy and drama. When WatchMojo turned ten in 2016, I revisited those plans. Admittedly, given WatchMojo’s success, I could do nothing else and be content with reaching 150 million viewers in 170 countries and counting major studios and media companies as clients and partners.
But while some creatives tend to stick to a given formula (Bon Jovi), others are always looking to experiment and expand (Prince). If I’m guilty of one thing, it’s having way too many ideas, concepts, show and feature film ideas. If I wasn’t focused on managing WatchMojo and helping out the next generation of entrepreneurs, I’d probably be working on such projects now.
What this isn’t about
Before proceeding, I want to point out that I don’t have a sense of entitlement other than common courtesy and a modicum of integrity and candor.
When Viacom invites me to discuss the evolution of web video and YouTube at Vidcon and discuss WatchMojo’s part in it throughout, I modestly say that “hey, we didn’t invent top 10s – Letterman, Wayne’s World, the OG of lists Moses and his Ten Commandments.”
Unlike The Fine Bros, we don’t foolishly claim to own a monopoly on a format/genre (in their case React videos) that would naturally be greeted with disdain and ridicule.
When in early 2020 we met Endemol, Fremantle, ITV and Mark Burnett/MGM to pitch (what went on to become) What the List?!, the pandemic struck so most shut shelved all development and production decisions until they got more clarity on the full impact on Covid. Fremantle of note passed citing a possible conflict with Family Feud (though expressing an interest to collaborate on something else), it made sense and that was a professional and sincere response. To show the world that we could pull off such a show during a pandemic in a work-from-home formation, we proceeded to produce a full 20 episodes by ourselves and launched an entire channel dedicated to gameshows.
Of course, gameshows are in our wheelhouse and factual trivia is in our DNA. As are documentaries, which we were producing before focusing on top 10s. We pitched the How Geek Culture Became Pop Culture documentary to a production company who passed citing a lack of interest. Yet when we sent it to them afterwards to show them what it ended up becoming, another employee there noted that they “are working on other projects with similar themes.” FML! But even then, I wasn’t all that flustered. I didn’t say anything.
What this is about
What I am describing in this series and want to highlight are those who not only steal ideas and take your concepts, but who then also pay you lip service, hide behind lawyers, gaslight you and then try to intimidate you with legal threats. Harvey Weinstein didn’t just sexually assault one person, Scott Rudin didn’t verbally abuse and throw telephones at just one person. These are repeat offenders. These people think they are untouchable, but as we see: no one truly is. If you want to share your experience or contact me, you can do so using this form.
Catch-22: Moving Away From Your Core
If I proceed now to mention – on the World Wide Web for all people to see – an idea or concept and someone reads it and proceeds to develop it… well that’s fair game. This series is more about private and bilateral conversations between two parties to explore a collaboration, then one party violating the “implied contract” between them (more on that concept in the next part in this series).
As I alluded to in the previous part, victims of Idea Theft are exposed, and sometimes expose themselves to such a phenomenon when earnestly looking for partners in genres and formats that are away from their core, or whenever they need a partner to finance a project (which for 99.9% of creators means all the time).
In that vein, if we ever wanted to expand into scripted storytelling, the buyers at the networks and streamers would require us to partner with a proven production company.
For example, after publishing a book on Alexander the Great in 2004, I’ve searched far and wide, looking for partners to produce a myriad of Alexander-related projects. Oliver Stone’s 2004 movie starring Colin Farrell and Angelina Jolie fell for the low-hanging traps and covered the greatest secular figure in history without actually distilling the most compelling aspects of Alexander’s life and character. The critical reception tempered interest for most historical adaptations, so to gauge a prospective producer’s interest, I tend to propose one of many adaptations to avoid people dismissing a more pure, historical production. The book – which is told from Alexander’s perspective and reads how his diary would have been written – is broken up into 33 themes that captures his life (he died one month short of his 33rd birthday).
These days, I’m also looking at adapting my third book The 10-Year Overnight Success (published in 2016) on my experience building WatchMojo on YouTube while fighting for the media’s freedom of expression into a feature film like The Founder or The Social Network, and/or a comedy series like Ricky Gervais’ brainchild “The Office” (which was produced by Ben Silverman and starred Steve Carell) – I know, very J. Peterman-esque.
To pursue these projects, I would need to open up about them, and therein lies the risk of Idea Theft.
I understand why Hollywood is cagey about these things: when you are successful and wealthy, you draw a target on your back. But character and credibility ought to matter, and the way Hollywood’s establishment handles Idea Theft is by gaslighting those who feel aggrieved.
Indeed, as Jeff Grosso observed in his experience:
“It’s a small group of people that have all the juice, and if you’re not in that crowd, you’re really at their mercy. There’s a real lack of moral compass on the issue in Hollywood. And there’s an ego-driven arrogance about it, like how dare you challenge this producer, this director, this studio?”
At the onset, victims don’t tend to ask for anything, they are in shock. They certainly aren’t expecting an acknowledgment or attribution, let alone an apology. But eventually, if they don’t just move on and keep seeking answers, what they tend to get is gaslighting.
During Donald Trump regime and reign of terror, I’d hear the media use that term, which is defined as:
“where a person or group makes someone question their sanity, perception of reality, or memories. People experiencing gaslighting often feel confused, anxious, and unable to trust themselves.”
I understood the definition but didn’t quite relate to it. But when reading some of the testimonials from those affected, it all made sense. You almost think you’re taking crazy pills!
John A. Marder is a legendary lawyer who worked on many of these cases. While at Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez, he noted:
“The people I deal with are emotionally scarred by the fact that something was stolen from them. It means a piece of yourself was stolen. I’ll fight to the death for writers, and I know this part of the law better than anybody.
“It’s like having your soul ripped out,” continued Jeff Grosso, who paid his way through film school by playing Texas Hold ’Em, wrote a screenplay about it, then sued Miramax over its poker movie “Rounders.” “All they would have had to do was give me a ’story-by’ credit. They could have gotten me for nothing. They’ll spend $10 million fighting a case where the demand is $100,000.”
In part 6, we will look at nearly ten such instances that made their way to trial. Meanwhile, if you want to share your experience or contact me, you can do so using this form.