Maybe you’ve heard of this dilemma and have yet to experience it, but if you work as a screenwriter long enough in Hollywood you will not escape the disappointing clutches of development hell. If you’re lucky enough to sell your spec script or score a paid screenwriting job, what happens after the first draft could determine if your script languishes in a constant state of development or moves into production. There are many reasons why a script becomes stuck in development hell with seemingly endless rewrites. Many times producers or executives are not clear about what they want, so they’ll tinker with the script until they find their vision. Changes in casting can extend the development process because the script is rewritten to tailor the new casting choice. Even changes with the film’s location can drag out the development process because if the story takes place in the tropics and the producer changes it to a winter climate with snow, you’ll have another rewrite on your hands and possibly more development.
Other times the project itself can stall because of financing issues, global distribution shifts, and lack of a distribution deal. This is why it’s called development hell—it’s either the hell of endless rewrites or your project being stalled from moving forward. Yes, it’s truly frustrating and disappointing.
One of my writing professors in film school complained that she spent her entire professional screenwriting career in development hell because she was paid to write scripts, but they never ended up being produced. I’ve experienced this when a production company hired me to write a detailed story treatment and then the screenplay. After I turned in my first draft, the executive responded with twelve pages of notes. I was dumbfounded because I had worked closely with the company on the story treatment and once it was to their liking they allowed me to write the screenplay. As the dutiful screenwriter, I moved forward and executed their twelve pages of notes and eventually completed a second draft. Three years later, the script has yet to go into production because the company’s budget model has changed and they’re now producing lower-budgeted films. These scenarios are the most frustrating because screenwriter’s contracts involve step deals that pay the writer an upfront sum to write the script and the larger production bonus only when the script actually begins principal photography. That means no production date—no production bonus. Again, another example of how so many aspects of the film business are out of a screenwriter’s control.
I also experienced the bitter sting of development hell when a producer hired me to rewrite another screenwriter’s script. The previous writer had done three drafts and the producers felt she was “written out” and could no longer execute their notes effectively. They brought me on the project with a contract and pay and I eventually did another five drafts and worked with the director and executed his production specific notes. It was a long process that stretched on for nearly two years. The bad news is the script remains in “development” and I can’t get a straight answer as to why. I certainly hope someday the producers pull the trigger on making the project, but it’s out my control.
Conversely, I’ve also been lucky to write a fast-tracked film during February of one year that went into production eight months later in October of the same year. This was one of two films that I had go into production during a ten-month period, so you never know the fate of your completed screenplay. This is especially true when you’re not on the front lines producing the project. Currently I have five screenplays in development, some partly funded, others need financing, and a few will probably never be produced. I did complete two writing assignments this year and one of the films went into production and is no in post-production. That script was a seven month journey from first draft to first day of photography.
It’s a harsh reality to know that even when you do finally get paid, not every one of your projects will make it into production. This is why you’ll constantly need to create a solid body of work and have as many viable screenplays out in the marketplace as possible. There is no real way to avoid development hell and it happens on every level of the film business. So to feel empowered you should focus on your next project and always do your best work every time up to the keyboard.
Keep filling your blank pages because if you stop writing you’ll never have any chance at success.
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“I liked it, I didn’t loooooove it. And I have to looooove it.” — typical producer & executive speak for not wanting to take a chance on a script—easier to say “NO.”
“No, it’s not a very good story – its author was too busy listening to other voices to listen as closely as he should have to the one coming from inside.” — Stephen King
“The single most important question, I think, that one must ask one’s self about a character is what are they really afraid of? What are they really afraid of? And if you ask that question, it’s probably for me the single best way of getting into a character. That finally is where stories are told… with a character that’s real.”—Robert Towne
“The professional understands delayed gratification. He is the ant, not the grasshopper; the tortoise, not the hare… the professional arms himself with patience, not only to give the stars time to align in his career, but to keep himself from flaming out in each individual work. He knows that any job, whether it’s a novel or a kitchen remodel, takes twice as long as he thinks and costs twice as much. He accepts that. He recognizes it as reality. He conserves his energy. He prepares his mind for the long haul. He sustains himself with the knowledge that if he can just keep the huskies mushing, sooner or later the sled will pull in to Nome.” — Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”