Monday, 27 February 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #857: How To ... Develop A Movie

Developing a movie is one of the toughest stages of the whole film-making process.  No I'm not talking about actually developing the film, that's done in a lab, and while pricey, isn't all that stressful, and hardly anyone uses film anymore anyway.

What I'm talking about the development of the script, a process that's supposed to take a raw first draft with a good idea at its core, into a sleek, professional quality movie that's worthy of the big screen.

Of course that's what happens in a perfect world.  A world where unicorns frolic in the fields while Zooey Deschanel feeds me pieces of a Cadbury Dairy Milk bar while lounging poolside at my villa in Tuscany.

This is not a perfect world.  

This is a far from perfect world.

In this unpleasantly odorous real world the whole development process is known as "development hell."  This "hell" can take a perfectly good script and bastardize it to the point where even the good idea that made it appealing in the first place is lost forever.  Lot's of money, often millions, can be spent on a script, and have absolutely nothing to show for it in the end.

The most obvious story of development run amok was when Jon Peters was put in charge of putting together a new Superman movie franchise. He spent fifteen years and $50,000,000 before a single frame of film was shot, and the final product was the overpriced and underwhelming Superman Returns.

This is why Hollywood needs this post, which I like to call:
This is because script development needn't be the long and painful process that Hollywood has made it into.  In fact, during the Golden Age of movies the development was incredibly fast.  A book could hit the best-seller list in January, the movie rights bought by February, and a movie version could be out by the fall.

Even Gone With The Wind, a massive novel that had been tried on and rejected by almost every major studio until independent producer David O. Selznick joined forces with MGM still spent less than 3 years between the release of the book, and the release of the film.

Think about it. A 1000+ page historical epic, took less than three years to go from book to screen, and it was considered a troubled and chaotic development process by the standards of the time. Nowadays if it takes less than three years to develop an original screenplay for a modestly budgeted contemporary movie you're considered a model of efficiency.

So, how can someone running a studio/production company streamline the process?

Follow these simple rules....


Every screenwriter in Hollywood has a story of taking a script to a development executive, only to have the executive try to turn it into their own movie in a conversation like this...
WRITER: "It's about a loose cannon cop who plays by his own rules, and he's out to avenge the death of his partner."

EXEC: "Does he have to be a cop?"

WRITER: "What?"

EXEC: "Cops have been done. Could he be an archaeologist?"

WRITER: "An archaeologist whose partner was killed by drug lords?"

EXEC: "Do they have to be drug lords?  Could they be time traveling aliens who are coming to make the 2012 doomsday prophecy come true with their crystal skulls, and the key to saving the planet is exposing the identity of the man who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?"

WRITER: "That's a different movie."

EXEC: "It's a guaranteed hit movie!"
That's an executive who has their own idea for a movie, and is trying to find someone else to write it for him.

If you have a movie script in you, go write the damn thing yourself.


Now while it's not your job to write the story, a solid knowledge of the art of storytelling is essential.  Structure, plot, character, and the natures thereof must be second nature to you.  Remember, your job is to pick a good story, and help the writer(s) smooth out the rough patches.  

Think of it as like the making of a sculpture. You're the guy who has to look around it for cracks to fill and rough patches to smooth.  It is not your job to take a hammer to it.


Always start with a good story, and always keep in mind that you bought it because it was a good story.  Too many times you see a studio buy a story, and grind it through the machine to the point where it has nothing to do with the material that was originally purchased.

That's because the person who bought the story forgot the reason why they bought it, panicked, and then had people slap together something new.


While it's nice to get "fresh eyes" on a script the temptation to pass the buck by passing the script on to someone else to do a rewrite.

However, it can easily become ridiculous, with literally everyone who sees the script, from you, other executives, the secretaries, the janitor, your maid, and her cousin, giving notes. 

And you don't even have to ask most of these people to give notes.  Everyone in Hollywood thinks they can write better than the people who actually dedicate their lives to writing.  They want to be the one who can point to a hit movie and say: "It was my idea to give him a sass-talking monkey as a sidekick." And they'll also be the first to disown a bomb and put all on you.

A good executive knows when to set limits, in both time spent, and in the number of "fresh eyes" put on the project. Instead of just passing it around like a doobie at a pot party, keep a select, small, and elite group of people whose judgement and taste you can trust. Go to them, use them, and take their material back to the original writer for a chance to bring it all together. Why? Because their talent was the reason why you bought the damn thing in the first place. Don't you remember rule number three?

When it comes to rewrites you need to be like Kenny Rogers' Gambler, you have to know when to fold'em, know when to hold'em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.  Because the secret of successful rewriting is knowing when to stop.


There is a very simple reason why an executive brings in everyone and their cousin to give notes on a script.


They're afraid that if they make a decision they might have to take responsibility for it if it blows up in their face.  That's a next to impossible way to do business in a business that has been, and always will be, a crap-shoot when it comes to success and failure.

There is no magic panacea to create a sure-fire hit movie.  Sometimes classics sink, while shit floats.  It's the nature of the beast, and the only thing that's even remotely close to being occasionally accurate when it comes to determining a hit or a miss is gut instinct.

Then, you might have a chance to turn development hell into movie heaven.


  1. Is this what happened to John Carter?

  2. It's quite possible. They did go through a ton of writers & directors during the development process.