Hollywood: America's "Big Steal" Industry
Nickin' Morty and Hollywood's Pilfer Problem
It sounded like a manatee dropped from a skyscraper; a wet, squishy, yet earth-shaking thud. The commotion scared the hell out of me as I was at my desk, in my comfy chair, expecting anything but the sound a manatee landing outside my front door…which I ran to, no thought given to the potential dangers (the manatee might still be alive…and angry).
Opening the door, I saw no manatee. Just a fat man stomach-down on my porch. An obese, bearded white man, spread-eagle, lying in the crater he made from his fall.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself.
I was so confused by the sight, I failed to muster a properly cinematic quip (like, “see, that’s why you use the chimney, asshole”).
“Just give me a minute to catch my breath,” the fat man wheezed.
What choice did I have? Dude outweighed me three times over. Wasn’t like I could toss him off my property.
When he finally regained his wind, he apologized. He’d tripped on the top step while ascending my porch.
And at that moment I felt a rush of fear. Oh shit, I thought to myself, an insurance scammer. Trips on my step, sues me, and Mercury finds some obscure reason why my umbrella policy doesn’t cover it.
“Sorry, we only protect you against personal injury claims by humans who weigh less than 350lbs. It’s your fault, Mr. Cole. We offered you our Jake and the Fat Man package, and you only paid for Jake. Next time don’t be so cheap.”
Thankfully, the fallen hero sandwich-eater wasn’t a scammer.
Well, not that kind.
He was a writer.
Which is much worse.
Sitting upright, the fall guy explained that he’d been approaching my door to ask about my neighbor.
My neighbor at the time was one of the biggest literary agents in town. Handled most of the MCU screenplay scribes. It made sense that a writer would visit him.
It made no sense why that writer would come to see me first.
Panting, the beached whale bellowed “I can’t get the guy to look at my script, so my plan was to go to the back of his property and throw it over the fence into his yard. But I wanted to talk to a neighbor first, to make sure the guy still lived there.”
Behold, the Curse of Martin Zweiback. In the 1970s, that untalented loaf tried to get a screenplay produced by tossing it over the fence of a Bel Air mansion where Kate Hepburn was recuperating from surgery. And the old hag found the script and actually made Zweiback’s dream come true by getting the film produced with her in the lead. Ever since then, every talentless sack o’ manure writer has at one point considered replicating Zweiback’s feat (the fact that the resulting film, The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley, is considered one of the biggest critical and box office bombs ever, and that it ended Zweiback and Hepburn’s careers, doesn’t register with these halfwits).
And I told the halfwit slowly rising to his feet that it was a bad idea. I told him my neighbor would be pissed that a stalker found his address and trespassed on his land. I told him that literary agents don’t read unsolicited scripts. As in, can’t. It’s strictly forbidden.
Did my words matter? Of course not. Fatty Chayefsky went lumbering off toward my neighbor’s house, never to be seen again.
And the world is better for it.
Now here’s the quiz to accompany the anecdote: why can’t literary agents read unsolicited scripts? Why is it as forbidden as an imam eating a porkchop? Well, the textbook answer is that agents never want to take the chance that some unknown hack will one day accuse one of their esteemed writers of plagiarism. If a nobody writer submits an unsolicited script to an agent, and that script gets read, and a year or two later one of that agent’s writers pens a screenplay that’s similar to the unsolicited script, the nobody writer might sue.
So literary agents turn away all unsolicited works, and they do so dramatically (if you send an agent an unsolicited script in a manila envelope, it will be returned unopened in a larger envelope with an accompanying note saying something to the effect of “we never open anything we didn’t request”).
In the case of the fat guy, my neighbor didn’t even touch the screenplay; he had his gardener burn it to ash, so that there wouldn’t be any evidence in the garbage that the script had ever been on the property (and good thing too, because starving writers tend to rifle through trash like racoons).
As I said, the textbook answer is that agents never open unsolicited scripts in order to protect their innocent clients from unfair plagiarism charges. The real-life answer’s a bit darker. Agents know that the writers they rep steal all the fucking time. This town is built on writers cribbing other writers. So competent agents, knowing that they rep predatory opportunists so devoid of original ideas they’d happily rip off a script if the author is an unknown who can’t fight back, cannot allow scripts from unknowns anywhere near their clients.
It’s like the manager of a rock star keeping the dressing room free of coke. This is what good agents do - they protect their clients from themselves.
For undiscovered writers - the talented ones who lack representation - producing good content means balancing risk and reward. The reward potential is that your content gets seen by the right people (the right way, on YouTube or via word-of-mouth, not tossed over a fence like a frisbee), and you get an agent or a production deal or at least a few bullshit meetings to suffer through. But the risk is that an idea-stealing predator who already has the agent and production deal and who hosts bullshit meetings for others to suffer through might see your stellar content and filch it.
Which brings us to the tale of Devon Avery and Jeff Loveness.
Loveness is a TV and movie writer. A most divisive character; his scripts for Rick and Morty were well-received by fans, but when he started writing for the MCU, he found himself widely reviled. Now, I don’t watch Rick and Morty or Marvel films (or any superhero tripe), but my friends do, and those whose opinions I trust as much as my own swear that Loveness’ Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is a turd of such oppressive stench that even the world’s most undiscerning dog would refuse to sniff it (word has it the stank is so intense, it got Loveness booted from his next scheduled Marvel film).
Loveness has proved clownish in response to the MCU fan blowback, berating moviegoers for not “getting” his genius; for mistaking his diamond for diarrhea.
None of this was on my radar, because it isn’t my world. But a few months ago I was tipped by an industry insider (an MCU-adjacent exec concerned that Loveness’ antics were harming the brand) that Loveness is far worse than untalented (for the record, I don’t consider lack of talent a sin, says the man who’d always prefer to watch a 1980s Italian zombie film over the pretentious nonsense of most “A-list” directors). Loveness may be a plagiarist.
Well, that interested me, because my latest Takimag column, about AI and the WGA strike, covers the Hollywood screenwriter plagiarism beat.
So I decided to take a look at Loveness.
As it is, MCU fans the world over have pointed out that Loveness’ Ant Man film is taken entirely from TRON: Legacy. I haven’t seen that movie either, but Marvel mavens make a good case (here, here, and here).
Still, that’s an example of the kind of theft that Hollywood excuses, because it’s one overpaid big-budget writer stealing from others of his ilk, who themselves aped the shopworn clichés of other big-budget writers (it actually took six people to write TRON: Legacy, ironically the same number of moviegoers who saw it).
What seemed to me the greater sin, as I looked into Loveness’ work, is that, for his Emmy Award-winning episode of Rick and Morty titled “The Vat of Acid,” he appears to have completely ripped off a short film from an industry “nobody.”
Now that’s vile. That’s the kind of thing agents worry about. Agents never worry that Big-Shot Writer #1 will be sued by Big-Shot Writer #2, because both are likely repped by top agents who’ll settle any disputes in-house. What agents worry about is that one of their clients will be sued by someone who’s never been allowed in the house.
That’s why anonymous fat men toss paper over fences.
The short film in question is One-Minute Time Machine; you can view it below. I’d also recommend reading the director’s text under the vid on YouTube, because that’ll save me from having to recap it here.
As you can see, the core joke is that the “reset” button isn’t actually a time machine, but a creator of alternate timelines, and in each instance in which the protagonist pushed the button while wooing a young lady, he killed his “self” in the timeline from which he fled (this is told via a humorous montage of all his previous selves dying, much to the shock and horror of the other character).
And in Loveness’ “Vat of Acid” episode, the core joke is that the “reset” button isn’t actually a time machine, but a creator of alternate timelines, and in each instance in which Morty pushed the button while wooing a young lady, he killed his “self” in the timeline from which he fled (this is told via a humorous montage of all his previous selves dying, much to the shock and horror of the other characters).
Frankly, I’m amazed that with the vitriol directed at Loveness these days, nobody’s pointed out this possible plagiarism. To be sure, others have noticed the similarity, as in this Reddit thread and every comments section where the short film is posted. But it hasn’t become an Internet “thing.”
One-Minute Time Machine’s director, Devon Avery, has been very diplomatic regarding the obvious parallels between his film and Loveness’ award-winning episode. So I asked him to share his thoughts regarding whether the episode’s similarities crossed a line from mere coincidence.
Here’s his reply, in full:
Thank you for your email. Ironically I read it straight after reading a very angry message from a Rick and Morty fan attacking me for copying his favourite show. This happened so frequently after I reposted "One-Minute Time Machine" three months ago, that I decided to edit the title to inform people my film came first and was (probably) the inspiration for the Rick and Morty episode Vat of Acid.
I'll give you a brief history of my short film after it was released and why I believe quite strongly that the R&M episode borrowed heavily from my concept.
Firstly, I should mention that I am aware that the time loop, reset do-over trope is not new. I don't claim to be the first person to use it. I loved Groundhog Day and wanted to tell a story using that same trope but with a twist. In fact the comedy in my film works better if people are very familiar with that trope. I always hoped their expectations would lead them to think that they know what's coming, and that would make the suicide twist more impactful and therefore, hopefully more funny.
When I released OMTM on YouTube in 2015 it amazingly got 1 million views in the first 24 hours. Those kinds of view numbers are easy for Marvel but extremely rare for a narrative short film made by an unknown director. It definitely helped that the website iO9 talked about the film and the top trending post on Reddit was "What would you do with a One-Minute Time Machine?"
Over the following weeks I was contacted by numerous film and TV production companies in LA. The people behind the "Hangover" movie franchise and even the guys behind the "Bourne" franchise met with me. The industry movers and shakers were suddenly interested in me, and what I had coming next. Unfortunately for me these meetings came at a terrible time. I had just directed my first feature film in Scotland and Japan, and what should have been an incredible experience, had been a complete nightmare. A producer of the film had stolen about a third of our budget and was holding all my footage until I paid him more. Law enforcement was involved and it was messy. It was a pretty horrific and stressful time, and my head struggled to cope with the OMTM meetings. Ultimately everyone wanted to know if I had anything to follow up this amazing short film, and at that time, unfortunately, I did not. I was exhausted and very close to giving up on filmmaking.
My point in sharing all of this is that numerous creatives and executives at various levels throughout the Hollywood TV and Film industry were definitely aware of my short film, so it would not be too far-fetched to believe that a writer for Rick and Morty was amongst those who had viewed it.
In 2020 a friend contacted me to say it looks like Rick and Morty has copied your film. I didn't believe him. Mostly because if somebody creates anything using a reset loop it's probably because they watched "Groundhog Day" (like myself) or more recently, the brilliant "Edge of Tomorrow". I had a quick peek at the comments on the YouTube channel playing my film and there were hundreds of people saying Rick and Morty has copied my film. I was intrigued, so I purchased "Vat of Acid" on iTunes.
Watching it, I could definitely see huge similarities, however one tiny throw away scene really struck me, and interestingly it had nothing to do with the time loop story. It was the scene in the attached screenshots, which I believe is similar to a scene in my first short film "Practice Makes Perfect".
This scene, again, on its own could just be a random coincidence, after all it's nothing unique, but when you pair it with the multi-dimensional suicide plot, it paints a picture that somebody at Rick and Morty watched OMTM, enjoyed it and checked out my other work, then freely borrowed from both.
At the time, I reached out to Rick and Morty via Twitter, but got no reply. I talked to a copyright lawyer and was told it would be a difficult and expensive case to pursue. I tried to let it go and take it as a compliment, but then that episode won an Emmy! Wow! Somebody's whole career could now be boosted dramatically based in a large part on my hard work. That did bug me a bit, as even a little acknowledgement could have really helped my fledgling career.
Overall, I try not to let it affect me negatively, however the experience has made me extremely wary of sending out the pitch slate to my new comedy TV series. It is a very original idea (which, I know, is completely unoriginal to say) that is a vague spin-off to OMTM, that I have spent most of the past 5 years writing. I fear studio executives turning it down then promptly making their own version.
So that's about it. I hope that gives you some idea of my perspective. It's not great when you're one of the little guys and one of the big guys takes your idea and it boosts their career. I don't need to be a Marvel writer/director, I just want to make a living making people smile and maybe a little acknowledgement from Rick & Morty could have helped me do that.
Please let me know if you have any follow up questions. I am currently based in London, but I can talk on the phone easily if you need.
All best wishes,
I don’t feel the need to add anything, other than, Devon seems like a very decent guy, and unfortunately it’s the nature of the business that very decent guys often fall victim to predatory non-decent guys. Without weighing in too heavily on the issue at hand regarding Loveness and the “Vat of Acid” episode, I’ll just say that I do think the plagiarism question is something that deserves an airing.
If only as a warning to all the obese bearded porch-tripping writers out there. Sometimes, your precious script can suffer a fate worse than incineration. Throw your screenplay over Jeff Loveness’ fence, and it may very well get produced.
(Remember: Dave’s Substack is free and always will be. But you can show your appreciation via Buy Me a Beer)