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How To Find New Ways Into Old Stories

February 19, 2023
5 min read time

You’re beginning to write a screenplay involving a familiar concept or genre, and you’re struggling to make it different from other films you’ve seen before. How many ways can you tell a zombie apocalypse story? What’s a different way to approach a crime heist, a haunted house, or a shark thriller? There’s a spaceship and oh no: there’s a hostile alien on board!

Should a screenwriter avoid familiar concepts altogether and try writing something we’ve never seen before or is there a way to make these old concepts works?

Many people know the adage “everything old is new again”, but in Hollywood screenwriting circles there’s another saying: “the same but different.” The first time I heard this was from my first manager when I asked him what kind of concepts producers and studio execs wanted; he replied, “Give them something that’s the same but different.” It took me a few years to fully grasp this, but it eventually sunk in: producers and studio execs don’t want screenwriters to reinvent the wheel — especially when the wheel is a successful and highly profitable formula —but they need writers to be continually updating the formula and making it as fresh and current as possible.

To a degree, this has always been the case in the film industry, but these days even more so. With less original projects getting made, youll want to show that you can apply a fresh take to a popular genre or existing property. Producers and studios have to keep finding new ways into these established genres, worlds and characters. This is why in recent years, studios have handed their tentpoles over to filmmakers with fresh takes and distinct voices: Taika Waititi (Thor), Ryan Coogler (Black Panther), and Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman) respectively. Of course even in the past, the Batman series was shaped by the likes of Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan. These days, however, it’s becoming more of the rule than the exception. 

In addition to comic book properties, big-budget action and horror films have likewise gone the above route. The most recent James Bond installments have been helmed by filmmakers with more of an individual vision (e.g. Sam Mandes, Cary Joji Fukunaga) than some of the franchise’s journey man directors in the past. David Gordon Green and Danny McBride are generally known for their supervise style of comedy (e.g., Pineapple Express, Eastbound & Down), and yet they were given the task of rebooting the Halloween franchise. Not an obvious choice, but it paid off at the box office, and no doubt studios and production companies took note. Similarly, screenwriters Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, and Hayden Schlossberg added a self-referential and comedic tone to the Karate Kid universe, and it’s been fueling Netflix’s successful Cobra Kai series. They were able to inject new life into the property and every season they find ways to keep it fresh.

As in some of the above cases (the recent Thor films and Cobra Kai series), there were elements of postmodernism and humor inserted into the writing that made them feel different from what came before. This was a similar approach back when there was a wave of subversive and comedic zombie films that resurrected the subgenre in the 00s: Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland, etc. But it wasn’t long before audiences grew tired of funny zombies and the subgenre reverted back to its more earnest and gritty roots via The Walking Dead. So in many ways, finding a fresh take is merely pivoting from one tone to another. If everyone is being funny, go earnest. If everyone is being earnest, go funny. If you’ve grown sick of a certain approach to certain kinds of content, chances are others have as well, and you can be part of the next wave rather than coming in late on the last wave.

There’s also approaching an established world or story via a different angle or point-of-view. For example, Todd Phillips and Scott Silvers Joker placed sole focus on Batman’s arch nemesis, turning the character into an antihero and treating the story like a Martin Scorsese drama rather than a comic-book action film, and it paid off big time: Joker was a box-office juggernaut and ended up outgrossing the latest Batman film, showing that audiences were ready to root for the Clown Prince of Crime for a change. In a similar vein, recent TV series focusing on a supporting character from a past IP (intellectual property) have shown you can make something old new again via a different vantage-point: e.g., Netflix’s successful Wednesday and HBO’s controversial Velma. Of course most writers don’t have access to these copyrighted characters, but they can still make use of this approach.

There are many classic characters and stories that are in the public domain, including Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which many movies have been based on, including Walt Disney’s animated classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). So even though iconic Disney characters, the original Brother Grimms’ story is in the public domain and any writer can make use of it. That’s exactly what Evan Daugherty did, and he sold his spec script Snow White and the Huntsman to Universal for over 3 million dollars. The idea for the script came to Daugherty when attending NYU and his professor gave him the following homework assignment: “Take a new spin on a classic fairytale.” In past incarnations of Snow White, the Huntsman was a minor character, but Daugherty expanded his role and made the script a two-hander fantasy adventure and a perfect fit for two movie stars.

Even if you don’t sell your spec script, it can still work as a writing sample, and if you establish that you can find new ways into old stories, you’ll be illustrating much worth to producers and studio execs. This is possibly the most important skillset for a screenwriter to exhibit today. As mentioned above, there are less original movies getting made; this is due to a growing global marketplace and a need for recognizable characters and worlds. If you can put a new spin on a proven commodity — whether it’s a classic fairytale or a popular subgenre — you’ll be increasing your chances of success tenfold.

So to answer the question: should a screenwriter avoid familiar concepts and try writing something we’ve never seen before? You should rethink the question instead: how do you turn a familiar concept into something we’ve never seen before?

Finding a fresh tone or a different point-of-view is the best way into an old story.

And then your familiar concept can become a high concept.

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