Development Hell is a series of occasional posts where I discuss the process by which an idea or spec screenplay becomes a movie either in Hollywood or in the independent world. Development is the bread and butter of the professional screenwriter’s life. This is the second post in the series.
When a screenwriter is writing a script on their own, on spec, they are not in development. Development starts when someone else gets involved in the screenplay. Today I want to look at the various stages and events that can be part of the development process.
Development almost never proceeds in a smooth, straightforward fashion. So though I’m presenting these stages/events in a roughly chronological order, often a project will move backwards on this list, skip steps, jump around, etc.
Some might not consider this technically development, but it is often the first step in the process. Free development typically occurs when a producer (or sometimes a director or actor) finds a script (or sometimes a pitch or underlying material – see below) that he or she likes, but is not willing or able to pay to acquire it and doesn’t feel it is ready to take to a studio yet. The producer may offer to work with the writer, giving them notes to hone the material. Of course the writer may turn down this offer, and in many cases probably should – such as when the producer has no track record or credibility. But if the producer is established and has a good vision for the project, this can be a big opportunity for the writer. (All of the foregoing also applies to a director or actor who might want to work with the writer on some spec material – also see attachments below.)
This is the point at which someone acquires spec material or a pitch from a writer. An option is a temporary acquisition – the buyer has the exclusive right for a limited time to purchase the material (for more on what an option is, read this post). With a purchase, the buyer now owns the copyright. At this point it is the buyer’s project to do with as they like.
If you look at the films currently in the theaters, you will discover that most movies these days are not made based on screenwriters’ original ideas. Instead, the producer or studio acquires some type of “intellectual property” – a comic book, novel, video game, play, etc. A writer is then hired to adapt that underlying material into a screenplay. This is also development and plays out very similarly to what happens to a spec script.
Once a spec screenplay or underlying material is acquired, it is rare that the buyer immediately proceeds to production. Instead, they first commission new drafts from the writer to shape the material to the buyer’s needs and vision. Under WGA rules, the writer is to be paid for these drafts, but often they are pressured to do extra free drafts. This is a complex and nuanced issue beyond the scope of today’s post – perhaps I’ll cover it in the future.
Before each new draft, the writer gets notes on the previous draft. These notes will come from the producer and development executives involved in the project, and may also come from a director or star(s) attached to the project. They may even come from a marketing executive. Notes may be delivered in person in a meeting, over the phone, or in writing. The writer is expected to address these notes in the next draft. (I’ll definitely go into more detail on this process in a future post.)
The Writer is Replaced
In Hollywood, it is exceedingly common for writers to be replaced by new writers on a project. There could be many reasons for this. Perhaps the current writer is not capable of fixing certain problems in the current draft. Perhaps the producer can’t figure out why the screenplay isn’t working and wants new creative input. Perhaps the writer and producer have different visions of what the film should be. Perhaps the writer is not a good team player. Perhaps the producer is not a good team player. In any event, the writer is fired and a new writer is brought on to do the next draft. Rinse, repeat, sometimes with more than a dozen writers. It may not be the best system, but it helps many writers pay their mortgages!
The Option Lapses
As I mentioned above, often a producer or studio will option the right to buy a script for a particular period of time. If that time expires and they don’t acquire it (by “exercising their option”), the rights of the original script return to the writer. The rights to any drafts done while the script is under option do NOT necessarily go to the writer… that’s a more complicated legal question that depends on the wording of the contract and whether the writer was paid for those drafts. If the writer reacquires his script, he is free to start the development process all over again with a new buyer.
Turnaround is when a studio has actually purchased a screenplay but decides they no longer want to make the movie. Turnaround is actually a specific legal situation having to do with tax write-offs, though the term is sometimes used in a broader sense. When a project is put in turnaround, it can be acquired by another studio, but that studio would have to reimburse the initial studio for all development costs (this can be negotiated, of course, but usually it’s the full cost). Those costs can run to tens of millions of dollars if many drafts have been commissioned.
When a script is in development, other creative talent – typically directors and movie stars – may become attached. “Attached” often has a fuzzy definition. Sometimes it means a mere expression of interest; sometimes there is a contractual element with hefty financial penalties. But when a director or star becomes attached, they often become another participant in the development of the screenplay. In fact, it is not unusual for a major attachment to initiate a new creative direction for the project.
Green Light/Flashing Green Light
When a movie is given a green light, it officially leaves development. A green light means the studio has decided to make the movie and the project proceeds to pre-production. This is supposed to be a hard line, but sometimes projects get what is referred to as a “flashing green light,” meaning the studio is starting pre-production but might still back out of the project. Also, some producers claim something has a green light before it really meets that criterion. Even when a movie enters pre-production, however, development often continues with more rewrites. Sometimes the script is being rewritten even as the movie is being produced – usually not an ideal situation.
Going through these stages and events should give you a good idea of how the development process functions – and perhaps how it sometimes malfunctions. Next week I’ll dig more deeply into the players involved in the process, what they do, and what their concerns are. After all, if you want to be a professional screenwriter, you need to know how the game is played and who the players are!