I got this question recently:

“I have a screenplay idea that deals with an obscure historic character and the great sacrifices he made.
I’ve checked online from time to time to see if there is any internet buzz or news regarding the character.

Today I discovered a book written about my character by an author who claims to also have a screenplay adaptation that will be in preproduction in 2013.

My question is this: Is there a good way to search to see if a similar screenplay idea to mine is out there being shopped around or is in some stage of production?

I don’t plan to give up my project; the author’s book was panned by the critics (I’ve ordered a copy to see for myself), and I’m skeptical if the claim of preproduction in Europe (made by the author’s on his own web site) is true.

I know there is room for more than one movie addressing historic figures and events, but as my subject is virtually unknown, I’m inclined to think it pointless to continue costly research if I discover another project is set in motion.”

I would say if you’re passionate about your subject then continue forward. A well written script that you’re passionate about is always a good writing sample, even if someone else releases a film based a the same character. Now if you have lots of other topics you’re equally excited about then maybe writing one of those is a better idea. But I think if you dig deep enough you can probably find that almost every idea is in “development” somewhere. Most projects, even in development at a major studio, never actually get produced so you don’t want to spend too much time worrying about this. Obviously it really depends on the material and how similar your material is to the material being developed.

I would say new writers tend to get caught up too much in these sorts of details. Most screenplays we write (even the established pros) will never see the light of day. While we all want to maximize our efforts, I would say spending too much time trying to find out if anyone else is working on a similar project is for the most part a waste of time and you would be much better off spending that time actually writing and improving your craft. If you choose a topic and story that you’re interested in and passionate about, I don’t think you can go wrong. Your version of the same historical character will be unique and original and your passion will hopefully shine through.

To answer your first question about doing this type of research I would say try and read the trades (The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety) and maybe set up a Google Alert on the name of the historical figure so when news or information hits Google you’ll know about it.