The Film Business

Understanding the Business of Entertainment – Some Thoughts About Development Hell

Once a project finds its way to a studio, network, cable channel or other major production company, the development process moves forward as scripts are written, analyzed, commented on (called notes) and rewritten. Executives give notes and either the original writer or a new writer continues work on the script. These days in film, it’s commonplace for the original writer to be replaced by someone else. It’s not unusual for that someone else to be replaced as well, as the studio tries to find screenwriting perfection. The development period can go on for a long, long time before either the green light is given or the script is dumped, which in the film world means it’s put in “turnaround.”

You might wonder if it’s really that hard to get a script right. It is hard, very hard. Writing narrative scripts well is an extremely difficult thing to do, but there’s more to development hell than just that. Sometimes the process drags on because you’re trying to get a script to the liking of a particular star or director who has come on board the project. If that star or director subsequently leaves the project, which can happen for any number of reasons, you then have to get the script to the liking of whoever replaces them. And sometimes it’s the studio executive who leaves for one reason or another, which means you have to get the script to the liking of the new executive in charge.

But there’s still another reason for development hell. Anxiety. People tend to get very nervous when they give a project the green light. Tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars may be on the line, which means the executive’s job may be on the line. Saying yes and investing all that money when “nobody knows anything” is one reason why gastroenterologists, psychotherapists, and pharmacies do so well in Hollywood. It’s so much less stressful to say no, or to say let’s do another rewrite.

Image by Stefan Krasowski via Flickr

Here’s the real danger of development hell: I call it my “three-frame” rule. This rule requires we forget we’ve moved into the age of widespread digital projection and remember the old days when 35mm film was projected onto movie screens. For those who don’t know, film runs through a movie projector at 24 frames per second. Three frames, therefore, go by in one-eighth of a second. If an editor, when making a cut, either clipped or extended a shot by three frames too many or too few, that probably wasn’t a big deal. The natural rhythm of the cut might be off by one-eighth of a second, but no one might care. But do that over and over and over again during a 10-minute sequence and the audience would be going out of its mind. People might not be able to identify what’s bugging them, but cuts that jump or lag by even one-eighth of a second, one after another, will drive people nuts.

Each small script change can be like this. One change might not mean much and may be relatively invisible, but throw together a string of small seemingly minor changes and a script’s tone, rhythm, heart, characters and meaning may be subtly changed, then changed again, until what’s left has lost what made the script uniquely good.

Those who give notes on scripts may not realize the ripple effects each change has. Changing this may subtly affect that, which can start a chain reaction through the entire script. Unfortunately, when a producer or studio executive reads a script quickly, that person may not fully understand the interconnections between story events, characters, and theme. Therefore, writers have to carefully analyze notes to make sure (a) they are addressing a definite problem, (b) that if a suggested solution is offered, that solution solves the problem, and (c) the offered solution doesn’t create new problems where none existed before.

People always want to make scripts better, but the effort to do so often subtly, or not so subtly, takes something from the script that made it attractive in the first place. Perhaps it’s coincidence, but when I’ve been asked by the Writers Guild to read every script written for a project to determine who ought to get screen credit, an interesting phenomenon has usually occurred. 18 What I’ve tended to see is that the first draft is quite good, which is why the studio bought it in the first place. The subsequent drafts, however, often start a downward trend as executives and new writers struggle to find that something extra, some elusive magic. Then, at some point in the development process, the drafts start heading back towards the original draft until the final draft somewhat approximates it.

This isn’t to say that development doesn’t improve scripts—I have no doubt that it can and frequently does. But not always.

THE END OF DEVELOPMENT

Ultimately, a studio agrees to produce a project or stops developing it and puts it in turnaround. To get a project made is something less than a miracle but more than a mere long shot. So much has to happen right: The script has to be good; the concept and appeal have to feel timely; the project’s cost has to make sense when compared with the size of the potential audience; there usually can’t be anything too similar already in another studio’s pipeline (though this isn’t always the case); 19 and there must be actors and a director who the studio really wants, who are willing to spend a chunk of their lives working on the project, and who are all available at exactly the same time. So many projects haven’t been made not because they weren’t good but because the timing never worked out.

Excerpted from Understanding the Business of Entertainment: The Legal and Business Essentials All Filmmakers Should Know, by Gregory Bernstein. © 2015 Taylor & Francis Group LLC. All rights reserved.

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