You Should Probably Stop Calling it ‘Development Hell’
Thousands of scripts are written each day, whether on spec or commission. The industry wisdom is only one in ten projects developed—meaning those that have money decked against them for scripts and other development costs—actually end up in production. Even that doesn’t guarantee it will reach an audience, that it will be picked up for series, that it will last beyond one season, that it won’t open on a Friday and close on a Sunday.
It really doesn’t pay to see the process as ‘development hell’. Yes, it is difficult. Yes, it can be frustrating. No, you shouldn’t invest one iota of your emotional health in it.
Done properly, the development process might not be heaven, but it can at least be a cushier purgatory — if you approach it the right way.
After over three decades spent mostly in the film and TV development process, I’m almost one of those urban Hollywood legends: someone who makes a living writing screenplays but rarely has anything produced. It certainly feels that way sometimes — or rather, it felt that way all the time, until I learned to get out of the way of my own unreasonable expectations and fantasy constructs of how things should be. I stepped back from being the typical creative who believes his vision is so amazing that it deserves millions of dollars decked toward it, and took a deep dive into the business of film and TV.
I spent a couple of years sharing office space with international sales agents. When I went to the Cannes film Festival or Berlinale, I spent time in business meetings, deep in the market aspect, not at screenings that weren’t my friends’ openings. I got a firm, visceral grasp of just how challenging it is to get a film made.
It’s challenging for good reason. Whatever you might think about mainstream blockbusters, Hollywood has an extremely high benchmark of excellence. To quote Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, “The film industry is one of the few remaining American manufacturing businesses whose products the rest of the world still wants to buy.”
No matter what your idealistic teacher at film school said, the film and TV business isn’t the place to be fully self-expressed. There are few auteur directors; none of them get to make whatever they want, anyway. I have had writer friends with projects set up with Darren Aronofsky, who watched their cool-Hollywood dreams just fizzle out, with none of the fanfare and congratulations that followed their agency’s announcements in Deadline.
As I once observed after a hot project of mine didn’t go into production, “It feels like I was riding this strong, swift thoroughbred horse. I could see the finish line up ahead. And then the horse just vanished beneath me.” Even the sets and costumes had been designed. I didn’t even get a comforting pat on the back from my agent, just a shift in topic to what else I had going on.
This is why the development process needs to be a means and an end unto itself. I focused my thoughts about this when I attended a museum exhibition dedicated to Frank Gehry. Now, how on earth do you fit that many huge buildings into a few galleries? That’s not what the exhibit was: it showcased his pitch sketches and models for projects that he was never awarded or never went ahead, which doesn’t mean he wasn’t compensated handsomely for his research and development.
There are many similarities between property development and filmmaking. Chief among them is the huge cost. Accept that if someone other than your friends and family decked money towards this, it wasn’t about you or your creativity. It was likely a business decision with many variables that affected its fate way beyond what you could control.
But you will stand a far better chance of at least going into production and giving it your best shot if you put your best work forward with your development and pitch materials.