Behind the cathartic and otherworldly strokes of genius that grace the silver screens time and again is a grueling process that involves a bottomless pit of painstaking rewrites, recasts, acquisitions, negotiations, head butting and what not, that oftentimes lasts for years. Whether it’s a major studio, network, talent agency, or productions company, nobody is spared from the wrath of being stuck in development hell.
Development hell is an industry jargon commonly used by key players to depict the extensive process of shaping a material or script into its best possible form before it gets the coveted green light for production. As more people – directors, writers, talents, executives, crew – get involved in the project, further changes may occur due to financial backing, conflicting ideas, or simply to accommodate the needs of each individual. These disparities may delay the project until all parties are in agreement.
The development process begins when the blueprint of a film or TV show, the script, is submitted to a studio, productions company, literary agency, or anyone working in the industry who has a seat at the table. Writers have a handful of channels through which they could get their scripts in the hands of industry professionals, mostly by way of submitting it directly to producers or productions companies they’re affiliated with or having their agents or managers arrange and strategize the sale of the script to potential studios, studio executives, and producers across town. Most adhere to the latter since the first course of action for creatives in Hollywood is to get representation, but for the ones who are trying to break in, the best way to get their material recognized is by joining distinguished writing fellowships, submitting to The Black List, pitch fests, and film festivals. It is worth noting that the industry adamantly stays away from unsolicited material due to legal purposes.
Now that the script has been acknowledged by someone in power, it will be passed down to the story department. It is the heart of a creative company in charge of managing produced, unproduced, and ongoing projects. They receive thousands of scripts on a daily basis but only a handful of those are often put into development, which is overseen by executives through various stages of development such as first drafts, rewrites, open and directing assignments, casting and production. The story department will read and analyze the scripts and write a two to three-page document known as coverage, which contains a brief synopsis of the story supported by comments accomplished by the notorious gatekeepers of Hollywood known as script analysts or readers. While it is an entry level position usually occupied by interns or fresh graduates, they have the authority to decide whether a script is worth producing or thrown into the reject pile. Not even award-winning and proficient wordsmiths of the Writers Guild of America are spared from rejection and the critical analysis and constructive feedback of the reader.
If the story contains unique characterization, originality, ingenious plots, and commerciality, or even if there are minor weak points that are salvageable, it will most likely be considered or recommended for development. There are also cases wherein a reader recommends a writer for their voice and talent, but passes on their story, and it is up to the executive to decide whether they could be hired for other writing assignments or opportunities in the future. The executive will read the completed coverage and ultimately has the final say if it will move on to the next stage. If the material has a strong potential to be a successful project, the executive will bring it to the attention of other superiors so they could read the material overnight or over the weekend and have a discussion come Monday morning. After selecting through the list of considered or recommended scripts, their collective preferred material will be approved by the head of production. Only until then will the material be officially placed into development.
Above all, everyone’s priority is to develop all aspects of the story in hopes of producing the next big hit in Hollywood. A development executive creates a report containing the overall development notes of other executives, producers, and script analysts that highlight their opinions and suggestions as to how the writer could improve problematic areas of the story that could make the characterization, plots, dialogue, and structure stronger.
10 Plus Years of Hell
In 1994, award-winning filmmaker, James Cameron, wrote the 80-page treatment of the Oscar-winning film we know today as Avatar. After the success of his films Terminator and Titanic in 1999, he thought it would be a great opportunity to take advantage of his prime, but shortly realized that the technology at that time wasn’t ready and sophisticated enough to bring to life his highly-imaginative story. It remained in development until cutting-edge motion-capture and CGI finally paved the way to execute his vision after 13 years. When it was released in 2009, it instantly captured the hearts of audiences and took home multiple awards at the Oscars.
Another celebrated film that survived development hell for over 10 years was Deadpool. In February 2004, New Line Cinema ambitioned to produce the film with writer and director David S. Goyer along with Ryan Reynolds as the lead. 6 months later, Goyer lost interest in the project, which forced New Line Cinema to put it in turnaround – a status of a project when a studio or a productions company opts to halt development and offers it to other studios – which 20th Century Fox gladly took and produced. In 2010, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were hired to write the script and the year after, Tim Miller, was hired as a first-time director. Deadpool was finally released in February 2016 and went on to earn $783 million at the box office, making it the highest grossing film of that year and highest grossing R-rated film of all time.
Finding Its Place Among the Stars
Seeing your masterpiece come to life whether it may be on paper, canvas, or the silver screen is heaven on earth for anyone with a creative pursuit. Knowing the amount of hard work, time, and setbacks it takes to produce a remarkable piece, especially the films and shows we dearly love, makes us further recognize the value and understand the creative choices of every department. Being aware of the intricacies of the development process of creating films helps you empathize with the fact that some of your most anticipated films may or may not see the light of day or could take decades to come into fruition due to unforeseen circumstances or simply the extent of time it takes for executives and filmmakers to mold it into its best shape. Nobody would ever purposely let something get stuck in development hell. Every studio or productions company aspires to produce substantial stories that would be part of their audiences’ lives for a lifetime.