Picture found at monologuedb.com
“Give me the same thing… only different.”
Guess what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a film that has a similar concept to another, existing movie. Hollywood does it all of the time. Why? Because it sells. It works. It puts butts in theater seats, that’s why. So why should you, as an indie filmmaker, be afraid to use the same basic concept as a successful film you’ve seen and liked?
Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not suggesting that you copy a films plot or scenario. Not even close. What I am saying, is that I want you to look at successful films and study their themes. What is the moral of the story? How can you change things to keep true to that film’s theme without blatantly copying its premise and plot?
Let’s look at a few films that are very similar, yet find a creative way to tell the same basic story - in a different way or format. The movies, Groundhog Day, Liar, Liar, and Freaky Friday share a lot of the same story elements. They’re basically them same film - just told in three very distinctive ways, times, and places. Right? They all start with characters who have flaws (but have the potential to be nice), something magical happens to catapult the protagonist into a really impossible situation with no real way back. Then, once the hero learns his or her lesson - they can then discover a way back to the normal life with the lesson learned.
How about Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, and Back to the Future? All pretty much the same story - just different worlds and individual scenarios. But, still the same basic story. The hero is discontent with the status quo and must go out on the road and collect things. And finally in the end - they end up discovering themselves.
These are just a couple of quick examples. But it works and is a very effective way of taking the the theme or heart of a great movie and making it work for you and your new, creative scenario. This is the only element of these big movies that I suggest you “steal”. Don’t copy the shark from Jaws. Copy the theme: An average man looking for his place in the world and trying to make a difference to society, but mostly to himself and his family. Now that’s a story worth telling! The shark just happens to be something that delivers scenarios and ways to make our protagonist grow. But in reality, its just the same story as Alien, or even The Exorcist. It’s just told in a different way and different venue. All of these films have to defeat the “monster” in order to complete that inner growth.
Now, being an independent filmmaker usually means that you are dealing with a low (or nonexistent) budget. It also means that minor details, like actors or crew members - are harder to come by. But that doesn’t mean that you should further handicap yourself by choosing the wrong concept or story for your film. There are some types of films that actually lend themselves to a smaller budget, fewer locations, and fewer actors. Here are just a few concept ideas: Coming of age films, romance, underdog stories, documentaries, horror films, and local sports or inspirational films.
All of these sub-genres will help you from having to delve into the expensive world of visual effects, stunts, and large groups of actors to pay. Remember, it’s the heart or theme of the story that needs to shine - not gadgets, cars, or battle scenes. Once you’ve proven yourself as a great storyteller, then the money for these somewhat extravagant things will flow naturally to you.
Just remember, it’s not about spaceships that makes Star Wars a great movie (although they definitely add a lot of fun). Its the universal themes of friendship, good versus evil, standing up for what’s right - that make it an all-time great film.