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, the 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 also 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. The longer a project is in development, the greater the chances for outside forces to come along during the process and derail the entire operation.
Other times the project itself can stall because of financing issues, global distribution shifts, changes in what the buyers want, 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. Hopefully, you’ll be paid for every draft but it’s little consideration if the movie never gets produced.
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 the projects 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. Five years later, the script has yet to go into production because the company has dramatically changed and is making fewer films focusing on lower-budgeted productions. These scenarios are the most frustrating because screenwriters’ contracts involve step deals that pay the writer an upfront sum to write the script and successive drafts, but the larger production bonus only is paid 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 working closely with the director as I 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 have to let it go because it’s never going to be produced. I certainly hope someday the producers pull the trigger on making the project, but it’s out my control. You have to move on.
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, all production ready screenplays. Why they are not moving forward is out of my control. When you start on a new screenplay, you’ll never know the journey it will ultimately take. Sometimes you end up lucky and have a slate of steady work. I completed three screenplay assignments this year and all three have gone into production. The latest script just started production last week, it’s my eleventh produced film and my 33rd completed screenplay that I’ve written on my journey. So, as you can see, you never know. The key is being a prolific workhorse and turning out solid material that will hopefully open doors to screenwriting assignments.
After I started working professionally in Hollywood, the hardest reality check that I quickly learned to accept was that even when you do finally get paid to write a screenplay or sell a spec, 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. If you want 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.
Copyright 2017 written by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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