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Everyone has their own thoughts on how to go about deciding whether an idea merits development into a screenplay. A writer spends so much time on writing, rewriting, getting feedback, more rewriting, etc., taking anywhere from a month to more than a year to create a polished script. Given how long and how tricky it can get to write a new screenplay, should not a writer have an effective methodology in place to help decide on the best possible idea that merits development into a screenplay?
There are two actions which a writer can take that will help him/her develop the best possible idea into a screenplay. They are idea research and commercial research.
Assuming a writer is developing an idea not just to satisfy one's creative juices but to also sell it, the first action to execute is idea research. Idea research involves a writer coming up with a long list of very specific ideas first and foremost. For example, a crime thriller set in Peru is vague. However, a crime thriller set in Peru about an ex-felon who has 24 hours to blow up a government building or his family dies -- is very specific. Think of narrowing the general ideas on the list to a very specific logline. The more ideas you narrow down into a logline the better.
Why is "more" better? If Lady Luck smiles upon you there will be one or two that will be worth keeping on the list. Most of the other ideas will be terrible or mildly interesting. Some tips on what to look for in deciding on the strength of an idea are: Does it move you enough to go through numerous rewrites on? Is it a world we have not seen before? Is there a unique "take" on it?
Once you have a very shortlist, you can move on to phase two: commercial research.
Finally, a writer needs to commit some time to commercial research. Here is where it gets more time consuming. Use keywords on at least one tracking board to see if a very similar idea is in production or will be released soon by recognizable producers with a studio or mid-level distributor attached. If so, think long and hard before you make a decision to cross the idea off the list. The reason? That's because it may make it harder but not impossible to sell your project if one is already active. Next, check Deadline online the same way you checked the tracking board. StudioSystem is another place to check but most writers on a mediocre salary cannot afford it. Some people use IMDB Pro which is cheaper. They swear by it. IMDB Pro has not been as useful to me as I would have wished it would have been. Anyway, another great idea is to check the local theater guide and look up loglines online of any movies you do not recognize.
If a writer is unsure about developing an idea even after all this research then better discard it. Uncertainty makes a terrible script certain.
A writer who uses idea and commercial research as a means to make a decision will make things easier for her in the long run. There are no guarantees that someone else will not develop the same idea as the writer is halfway through his screenplay. However, the entire film and TV business is a risk. The key is to do your homework so as to make the risk calculated and not reckless. After all, no guts -- no glory!