Stone Soup

If you’re not familiar with the folk tale, here’s a quick thumbnail synopsis.

Basically some itinerate beggar/soldiers/travelers who are starving – walk into town to try and get some food. Everyone denies them. So they say, “Okay fine, we’ll just make ‘stone soup’ (or nail soup, button soup, axe soup, or horse-shoe soup in some versions).  They proceed to boil up a pot of water, drop in the stone, and sit around sipping the ‘soup’ admiring the taste, smacking their lips, singing its praise,  and waiting for it to be ‘done’.

Finally one curious villager comes out to try it –   “I don’t taste anything.”

”Well, it’s not done yet. And it COULD do with an onion or two…”

“OH! I’ve got an old onion…” And he hurries to get it.

You see where this is going.

One villager chunks in a wild onion. Another some old carrots. Someone can spare a single potato and a pinch of salt.  And slowly, it takes on the flavor of a soup or stew. “A bit of beef or mutton will finish it off…”  Someone comes out with cuts or an old bone left over from yesterday – and sure enough – everyone sits around enjoying a lovely soup or stew at the end of the day. It’s a tiny bit of a flim flam – not really a ‘scam’ – because in the end everyone DOES get to enjoy a nice stew. One might even suggest that it is a parable on the strength of community and the value of sharing.

The development process for making a movie is very much a “Stone Soup” process.  I think there are even a couple of production companies called “Stone Soup Productions” or “Stone Soup Films”.

But the whole key to the operation is to ‘sell the idea’ – and get someone to INVEST something into the project.

Someone has to go first.

That’s the tricky part.

In film making, the ‘stone’ is the IDEA of the story.  Ideas are free. They’re everywhere. Everyone has them. And frankly – they’re not really worth much. Not until someone INVESTS their time and energy into shaping it into a STORY. As the copyright office is quick to explain, it’s the EXPRESSION OF THE IDEA FIXED IN A TANGIBLE MEDIUM that has value, not the idea.   You cannot copyright an idea.

So the writer is the first to invest in the soup. It might be his stone, or it might be someone else’s stone. But if he doesn’t do a good job of crafting the pot, making sure it will hold the stone and everything else – ensuring that it won’t crack or break in the fire, that it doesn’t leak, and will hold plenty of water, and oh yes, he’s got to be able to sell the soup recipe to the other folks – then it’s just going to be a pot of hot water with a stone in it, bubbling away in an empty field.  It is something the writer put some serious time and energy into preparing – but it won’t cook to completion.

In the folk tale, the order of the ingredients is not really specific – except that it tends to start small – and easy – then gets more involved, with the meat coming last.  And I suppose the person who brings the meat, might get the largest portion of the share – if the story metaphor holds true.

I’ve been making stone soup for quite a while now.  I’ve gotten people to bring out some onions and carrots, even a bit of salt and pepper.

This happens in the form of an option.  Producers will read the script, and get excited about the prospect of creating a big pot of soup, rich with ingredients and flavor.  So they’ll option the script. Put a little money down, and take it off the market. Why do this? Well – it allows them to go to the rest of the villagers and say “See – it’s starting to happen. There’s some onions, and carrots in there, and all we need, is some meat and potatoes …”   They’re looking for more financing, and maybe some ‘attachments’ of talent in the form of Directors or Actors.

This is the ‘development’ phase.  A lot will depend on the quality of the ‘stone’ and how well crafted the pot is – but even more will depend on how well they can smack their lips and gather a crowd. Yup, that’s part of the writer’s job too. But the producers are typically the ones reaching out to investors, directors, actors, studios – to get them involved. THAT’S what they bring to the soup – their connections and marketing skills. (We’re skipping over the obvious notion of self-production here. If you’ve got the skills, money, talent and equipment to make the soup all on your own – this metaphor is not for you.  Let’s hope you can sell enough of your soup to make up for the cost of creating it.)

The thing is – what you don’t often see with the Folk Tale – is that you’ll gather a bunch of villagers, all standing there with their respective contributions; carrots, potatoes, onions, soup bones and meat, and they’re all WAITING for someone ELSE to go first. Maybe they love the shape of the pot. Maybe they’ve had ‘stone soup’ before, and liked it. But they’re just a little hesitant to make that next step. “I’ll put this in – as soon as you get THEM to put THAT in.”

It’s a serious case of “You go first”.

Commitment. Everyone is afraid to make one.  And it really only comes in two forms. Time, and money. Though if we’re honest – time IS money.  So that only counts as one. Though time is a slippery value hard to monetize. Money is easier to see and measure objectively.

The writer has invested lots of their time. We call this ‘sweat equity’.   The option isn’t designed to pay the writer for the script – it’s no where near enough. No, the option does two things – it compensates the writer for removing the script from the market for a specific length of time, “Stay here – in this village – don’t go down the road to THAT village… I promise, THIS is the place to make the soup.”  And it also convinces the other villagers to bring out their ingredients. “See, We’ve built a fire – we’ve put in some of OUR ingredients – you put in YOURS.”

It’s why I’m loath to ever do a ‘free’ option. It doesn’t add value to the stock –and in fact, it’s more likely to end with nothing happening. This is because the producers have nothing invested in the project. Maybe a bit of time, a couple of phone calls (maybe valuable, maybe not)– but they’re not financially invested – not like they’ve put money into it. They haven’t built a fire under it.  The more time and money they have put into it – the more ‘fuel’ –  the more likely they’re going to really try to sell it. If they don’t value the script – it will show in their own pitching, and no one else will value it either.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s POSSIBLE it could happen.  I mean, if Steven Spielberg wanted a free option for a year on one of my scripts – I’d roll the dice because, hell – the value of saying “I’ve got a script under option to Steven Spielberg” is money in the bank in terms of reputation and credibility. (Something else of value to put in the pot.)

All of this to say – at some point – eventually, the fire under the pot is going to burn out.  The option is going to expire. If no one else brings anything to the campfire, no more fuel, no food, no garnish, no ‘meat’ – then it’s time to simply kick the embers, and move on to the next village.

How do you know if the stone is working? How can you tell if the pot is well crafted?

You’ve gotten to the onions and carrots phase with it?

Right stone, wrong town.

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