Thursday, June 4, 2015

Development Hell 3 - The Players

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 third post in the series.

Last week I talked about various events and stages of development. Today I want to discuss the people who are involved in the process, and their agendas within the process. You have to know the game and you have to know the players!


The writer is the one component absolutely necessary to development. They are the person revising the screenplay based on the notes from whatever other players are involved. Obviously, they have to be skilled at writing. They also have to be skilled at taking notes and delivering solutions even better than those suggested to them. But perhaps most unexpectedly, they have to be master politicians.

The development process is filtered through the writer onto the page. The writer distills input from all of the other players, and these other players rarely agree on everything. Also, as you’ll see below, often the various players are concerned about specific issues relating to their job, which will influence the direction they give to the writer. So the poor writer is left to navigate and balance these sometimes-competing agendas and interests. And that requires monumental diplomacy. Meanwhile, the writer’s agenda is (or at least should be) to deliver the best possible version of the story given all these forces.

All of this applies to the first writer, the last writer, and all writers in between (see “The Writer is Replaced” in last week’s post.)


The producer is the person shepherding the individual project. They typically work most closely with the writer, sometimes even giving feedback on drafts before they are officially turned in. Producer is a hard job to define as it can involve so many different things and few producers do all of those things. But typically the producer has two agendas: first, to get the best version of the story (just like the writer), and second, to get the movie made – meaning they deal with issues of castability, budget and marketability. Often the first agenda gets compromised for the second, though a good producer will try to find a balance between the two. A good producer can be a real ally to a writer, helping the writer navigate all the politics of development – assuming the producer and writer share a vision of the project and work well together.

Underlying Material Creator 

As you have no doubt noticed, most movies these days are based on pre-existing material of some kind. There is a wide range of this material – from comic books to plays, from novels to toys, from video games to board games to television shows to older movies.

Sometimes the creator of the underlying material has little input into the development of the movie, sometimes they have a great deal of control. Unknown playwrights and novelists seldom get any say in how the screenplay evolves. More famous novelists like J.K. Rowling or E.L. James can have a great deal of say. Even if a famous author doesn’t have contractual control over the material (e.g. script approval), often the producers will defer to them for fear they’ll badmouth the film to their fans.

Screenwriters working on movies based on TV shows or old movies typically don’t have to worry about the input of their original creators. However, screenwriters of movies based on toys or games may have to deal with a company concerned about protecting their brand. Lego was very hesitant to allow a movie to be made using their product, and it was only with considerable reassurance from the writer/directors that they agreed to license the brand.

In the case of comic books, independent creators usually get little say, while the big companies are intimately involved with the development of movies based on their characters.

Creative Executives and Other Executives

Various executives at the studio and/or production company will be involved in the development of any project they plan to make. This includes, of course, executives in the development department, but can also include marketing executives, production executives and senior executives. This is where the bulk of notes generally comes from in the development process. The executives will be concerned about creating a good story, but they will often be more concerned about creating a marketable movie. They will also be very concerned about budget. Their job isn’t dependent on the movie being good; it’s dependent on the movie making a profit. And, if the movie is part of a franchise, they will be concerned about protecting the brand.

The Director

When a director comes on board, they will typically take charge of development. Producers and executives generally defer creatively to the director (while still keeping a rein on the budget.) This can be advantageous for a writer – assuming the director’s vision of the story doesn’t clash too much with the writer’s vision – because the writer now only has to worry about pleasing one person. Directors' concerns will often be related to making the story more visual. They are concerned with how they are going to shoot things. Sometimes ego also comes into play when a director insists on “putting their stamp” on the screenplay, even when that stamp isn’t really needed.

Movie Stars

Many movie stars get involved in the development process, assuming they are famous enough to have that clout. They are mostly concerned with making sure their particular character is interesting and consistent (Sandra Bullock is said to have come up with the backstory for her character in Gravity, for example). They might also be concerned with their image. They are a brand, after all, and they have to protect the value of that brand.

Some movie stars have “pet writers” that they demand rewrite every screenplay the star commits to. Usually this is the writer who penned the star’s biggest hit or Oscar-winning movie. So sometimes when a star comes on board, a writer gets fired.


Television has its own slightly different development player list. In general, all of the television development players want the same thing – a quality show with mass appeal (though budget and brand identity are important to the companies as well). If all the players agree on what constitutes the best, most appealing version of the concept, then they all work together to realize that vision. Unfortunately, it often happens that the various players have differing visions and the development process goes badly awry. Here are the players in television:

The Creator

The show’s creator is the person who came up with the idea and sold it as a pitch or, more rarely, as a spec pilot.

The Show Runner

The show runner is the person who will be running the show as it is being produced – supervising both the writers’ room and production. Often this is the creator, but not always. If the creator is inexperienced in television, they may be paired with an experienced show runner (and sometimes the creator is replaced on their own show).

The Production Company

The production company is the entity that is financing and actually making the show. They typically don’t make enough on licensing fees to pay for the show, which means they lose money on every episode in the initial broadcast run. They only make money if the show is successful enough to produce ancillary revenue – reruns, DVD box sets, and licensing for streaming. This can sometimes lead to conflicts when a production company is trying to hold down costs while a network wants a more spectacular show.

The Network (Broadcast, Cable or Online)

This is the entity that licenses the show from the production company. It is the distribution channel. These days, most networks own their own production companies so they can own the product that they air (this is mostly due to the impending over-the-top/cord-cutting revolution that will remake the business – a topic worthy of its own blog post). But, even if the network owns the production company, it doesn’t necessarily mean they both have the same vision of the show. They are separate entities with separate creative staffs that can have different opinions.

Non-writing Producers

Non-writing producers can also be involved in television (in television, writers typically double as producers). Non-writing producers facilitate putting the various parties together. They can have creative input on a show, but generally the primary creative forces in television are the production company, the network, and the show runner. Very rarely directors also serve as non-writing producers helping to develop a show. But in television, directors usually come in late in the game and work for the show runner, having little input into the scripting.

As you can likely see by now, there are many forces at play in the shaping of a screenplay or teleplay. It is part of the writer’s job to navigate those forces while protecting the core integrity of the story.

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