DISCLAIMER: If you think screenwriting is all about art or originality, talent or simply "great writing" (whatever that is), then go away. You won't like this post. Don't say you weren't warned.
Still here? Right. Here goes.
... So, you've got a GREAT idea. What's its USP?
USP = Unique. Selling. Point.
*This* is the point of screenwriting. It doesn't matter how arty or original your idea is; it doesn't matter how talented you are; it doesn't matter how fabulously written your script is on the page. You could be all three of these things and if producers or financiers can't pin down your work's USP, they will not take a punt on it.
Think about it... Why should they? If your project hasn't got that "je ne se quois" we have not seen before, if it's not the same but different, if it isn't OBVIOUS as to WHOM this piece is for and WHY, those producers would be literally throwing a load of money in development, production AND marketing down the drain. That's a loooooooot of cash.
And this is what writers persistently seem unable to grasp: it is NOT just about nabbing a producer with your butterfly net: that is only half the story, maybe even a third. The battle STARTS when you have a producer - now you have to find your AUDIENCE.
And audiences are demanding bitches! Think of your place in one... 'Cos we're all in one. For example - I love Crime Drama and this love affair began with CSI. I do not tend to watch Law & Order. Why? 'Cos I like the CSI "versions" (not flashback) and I don't like the somewhat drier tone of Law and Order. Law & Order is actually a great programme, but end of the day, I don't actually care about the justice SYSTEM - when it comes to crime drama, I want to watch hero/ine cops doing cheesy one-liners and walking, slo-mo in arty camera shots. So it stands to reason I love NCIS just as much as all the CSIs. It has the jokey tone of the CSIs, but crucially doesn't try to **BE** CSI; it has its own narrative logic; its own character/group dynamic and it also tends to have much more explosive action or stunts every week, as opposed to being generally reserved to finales or season openers like in the CSIs. Crucially too, NCIS has the cool value of the CSIs' "versions" of the crime, but focuses instead on CHARACTER REACTION to what has happened/will happen next, those fantastic "black and white photo" moments, as opposed to the stories of the week... A subtle but HUGE difference.
That's how NCIS got commissioned when the CSI franchise was already in existence. They wouldn't have just said, "Oh, it's CSI - but in the military!" (though that would have been a great start). They would have focused on not just on the similarities, but on the DIFFERENCES, because otherwise an audience would ask (quite understandably), "Why watch NCIS when I can watch CSI already?"
Now let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, I worked on a script with a producer and director (the director had written the script, I was attached as a script consultant/associate producer). It was set in the future and people were mutating all over the place in weird and wonderful ways, so its most obvious reference point was The X Men, though there was shades of Torchwood as well. The plan was to make it an comic and animated web series.
To say I was excited about this project is an understatement. The script itself was a diamond; the dialogue in particular was something I hadn't seen before - knowing and funny, whilst NOT trying to be Joss Whedon. The storyboards were done by an AMAZING artist and as super-deluxe comic freaks, the producer and director were 100% committed to their story. They had a brilliant plan which included a fantastic social media strategy. They were speaking to a mega-talented animator who believed she could bring the 2D comic panels to life in 5 minute segments, which would be paid for via advertising and ideally distributed via social media networks and shared by users.
In short they had it all nailed down. Except one thing:
What was different about this project, in comparison to the many, many X-Men-and Torchwood-like-projects that were doing the rounds about at that time?
Every meeting we went to, every pitch we blew down various financiers with our foresight into *how* we would make this and get this done. But then, as is so often the case, would come that question:
"What is the USP?"
In short, the story was JUST LIKE The X Men... too like it. It was too much the SAME and not enough of DIFFERENT. Just how were we going to hook the audience and MAKE THEM WATCH? What was special about ours, in comparison to not only all the other specs out there, but all the other superhero stuff already in creation?
So we started combing through it in desperation. Female protagonist? Nope, science fiction has that all covered in a tradition that goes back thirty years. A Dystopian vision of the future? Nope, Sci fi has that in the spades. A Utopia? Ditto. Is it for children? Facebook and the like has an age limit, audience is compromised, especially in the under 10s - and kids don't tend to use Twitter. For adults? Nope, we already have sexy SF. We started to freak out and did some mad drafts, including one where we tried to go for the mythical "urban sci fi" and ended up writing a pornographic version of The Terminator meets The Matrix. What. The. Hell...
... We were screwed.
"We have a great script!" The director wailed.
And it's true - we DID.
"We have a great package, we've thought of everything!" The producer cried.
And it's true - we DID.
But it wasn't enough. It wasn't different enough. We couldn't find anyone to give us the cold, hard cash. And we ended up junking it.
So next time you think "originality is overrated" (which is certainly true), be sure to think NEXT:
What's special or different about MY project in comparison to all the others?
What will MAKE my audience watch?
NEXT: Why having a USP as a writer helps your career.