Monday, 22 October 2012

The Basics: Development Hell.

One of the things I like to gripe about are the problems with the "development" stage of a film before it goes into pre-production. I even wrote a piece about how to avoid the pitfalls of the process, but I never laid out the basic mechanics of the process itself.

It all begins with an idea.

This idea could be in the form of a novel, a board/video game, a long cancelled TV series, or it could in the form of an actual original screenplay.

That idea, in whatever form it has, is then picked up by a producer or a studio executive, who act as the project's "Executive Producer" and then brought to a Hollywood studio as a "pitch."

This is where the fun begins.

If the pitch is not rejected out of hand the first thing the studio does when they buy into a project is to either hire a writer to adapt the preexisting material or idea into a screenplay, or, in the case of an original screenplay, to bring in another writer to do a rewrite.

Then the studio works to bring in "star" actors, a director, and producers for the project.

Depending on their level of clout, the stars, the director, and the producers will all ask for their own rewrites of the script. Often multiple rewrites by multiple writers.

Remember, this all costs money. The original owners of the material have to be paid, the writers, and re-writers have to be paid, and fees are being paid to the actors, directors, and producers for participating in the development process.

If things don't work out with one combination of people, new combinations can be brought in to give the project another try. The people in these new combinations must also be paid for their time and effort.

Now to reach the next step in the life of a movie a combination of actors, director, and producers must all be in agreement, not only amongst each other, but also with the studio's development, production, and marketing departments. 

It can take years, if not decades to find the right combination of people and draft of the script that can work.

The next step of a potential movie project can then go in three directions.

GREENLIGHT: This means that the film is going to be made. Yippee!

TURNAROUND: This means that the film is NOT going to be made. However, another studio can buy the project for the money the original studio put into the development process, plus interest.  This can be in the millions of dollars, and is not exactly attractive to a studio because it's millions spent that won't be seen on the screen, especially when they're expected to pay their own development costs on the project as well.

But it's not all bad news. Columbia Pictures put E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial in turnaround, Universal Pictures bought the project, and had a monster-sized money-maker on their hands.

WRITE OFF: This is where a project is simply and completely abandoned by the studio, and the money spent on it is put on the books as a write-off. If it's based on previously published/existing material, the rights will eventually revert to the original owner, according to the terms of their original contract.

And those are the basics of movie development.


  1. Blast Hardcheese22/10/12 2:35 pm

    Hey D,
    Out of curiosity, what movie had the most money wasted in pre-development hell? I'm betting on Superman Returns myself. Giant spider, anyone? :)

  2. Blast-

    That's hard to say because the studio's don't advertise what they spend on development, so only the really egregious stories like the $50 million pissed away on Superman Returns get out.

  3. Was that $50 million part of the $209 million production budget?

  4. ILDC-

    Usually development is included in the production budget.

  5. Good night... is this what lovecraft spoke of? It sounds horrendous! No wonder bad scripts come out all the time.

    Do you think there's any hope of sanity coming to the process or are the egos just too big for us to ever get quality movies again?