Emerson Rosenthal Has a Lot of Ideas
It makes sense that the mind that has generated more than 2,500 ideas in the last four years loves movies that are actually “a hundred different movies in one.”
By Lizzie Racklin
Emerson Rosenthal has a lot of ideas.
Digging through my saved posts on Instagram, I find several Notes app screenshots from his account @freemovieideas (as well as a clip of his partner, comedian Lauren Servideo, yelling “why???” in the pouring rain). On the account, Rosenthal shares high-concept movie ideas written in industry-standard logline format. The posts range from character-driven odysseys to broad comedies to surreal supernatural thrillers.
Over Zoom, I ask Rosenthal how he came to create the account and how on Earth one person has so many good ideas. His yellow-sided green cheek conure, Mabel, flits around the room, occasionally joining the conversation from his shoulder.
When Rosenthal was growing up in south Florida, film was always present in his life. Known as the “video guy” at school, he would film friends who were into extreme sports, help out on documentary sets, edit promo videos for nightclubs, and make his own experimental video collages.
While studying film at NYU, he landed an internship at Vice. He graduated from college early and eventually became an editor for the website’s culture section, but after seven years, he realized that everything he’d worked on—making videos, hosting gigs, writing articles—wasn’t really his. Feeling that he needed to make his own work and concentrate on his love for writing and storytelling, he left Vice and found a book he wanted to adapt into a screenplay.
As he threw himself into screenwriting, Rosenthal found himself coming up with ideas that he couldn’t commit to writing in full. He figured that if he couldn’t write all these things, maybe someone else could.
In 2018, Free Movie Ideas was born. In four years, Rosenthal has posted nearly 2,500 ideas. Each contains its own spark of ingenuity; they are the kind of ideas that could only come from someone with an appreciation of grand cinematic storytelling of all kinds—highbrow and lowbrow, ridiculous and profound. In a culture bogged down by sequels and remakes, it’s refreshing to see so many original ideas in one place.
When I laud the generosity of the account, which encourages people to take the ideas and run with them, Rosenthal tells me his motivations are not entirely altruistic.
“The selfish part is that I will get to see these movies,” he says. “If people write them, then I’ll get to sit on my couch and watch them. And that’s for me, because I love watching movies.”
While it can occasionally be hard for him to post a standout idea—one that he feels has true potential—the account itself serves as proof that creativity doesn’t need to be jealously-guarded. Rosenthal feels comfortable giving great ideas away for free because, he says, “After doing so many... I know that I’ll have more ideas.” But, he adds, “Once in a while, I’ll have an idea that I’ll keep for my own in what I call the ‘Dollar Movie Bin,’ which are the ones that people will have to pay for.”
Since starting Free Movie Ideas, Rosenthal has gained a sizable number of followers, or, as he prefers to call them, “Free Movie Idealists.” Many Idealists work in the entertainment industry, including a number of production crew members. He appreciates the opportunity to connect with these often-unrecognized behind-the-scenes creators, all of whom share a desire to tell stories. He’s met friends and collaborators through the account and he has (allegedly, allegedly, allegedly) inspired at least one feature film.
During the “big reveal” in James Wan’s Malignant (2021), Rosenthal gasped. He went through his archives and found an old post in which he’d tagged Wan. The text from his logline was said almost verbatim in the film. He dug through the trades and saw that, about a month after his post, Wan’s new project had been greenlit. Rosenthal concedes that ideas can come from anywhere, and acknowledges that it could all just be a “coinkidink,” but the thought that Wan saw his post and developed it into a movie was completely vindicating, he says. His whole goal is to put more original ideas and interesting movies into the world.
In November 2021, Rosenthal launched a project called “NaNoScrëMo,” a play on NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, in which he wrote every night for a month with the goal of completing a feature-length screenplay. He documented the process in a series of Instagram livestreams, which started out more instructional but evolved into a kind of office-hours space for Idealists to drop in, discuss their own writing, and collaborate with Rosenthal as he developed his script.
In the first livestreams, Rosenthal selected an idea and began expanding it into a feature. He wrote every night for 30 days, successfully completing the first draft of TOMMi, which tells the futuristic tale of a genius teenager who gets their hands on an all-powerful smartphone.
The open, collaborative nature of NaNoScrëMo embodies the larger ethos of Free Movie Ideas—an accessible forum for writers to gather and collaborate. Rather than hoarding and hiding, Rosenthal makes his projects transparent and welcoming.
As our conversation veers into tangents, Rosenthal casually demonstrates his truly encyclopedic knowledge of film. We talk about the stylish stupidity of the eighties, the pacing of screwball comedies from the thirties, and the many bizarre film adaptations of fairy tales.
As he discusses his favorites, he describes the genre of “movie…not even a ‘film’...a film is a different thing.” To Rosenthal, the most exciting movies are those that transform as you watch, taking you from romantic drama, to psychological thriller, to slapstick comedy—a “ten-course meal,” as he calls it. The kind of thing that makes you feel like you just watched a movie. He cites The Yakuza (1974), Something Wild (1986), and Silence of the Lambs (1991) as examples.
It makes sense that the mind that has generated more than 2,500 ideas in the last four years loves movies that are actually “a hundred different movies in one.” Rosenthal clearly has his own lineup of ideas ready for the big screen. The question is just which one we’ll get to see first.