Most people involved in the film business have heard of “Development Hell” but is there a “Development Heaven” and, if so, how do you get there?
“Research and Development” is part of every industry. The building you’re sitting in, the computer you are reading this post on and even the pen you might use to jot down some notes – all of those products had an R&D phase. An architect can draw detailed plans, do sketches and even build models like the one pictured below created by my talented nephew Danny Savoca. Anyone can see from this model what the final product will look like. Naturally, there will be a lot of additional documentation to bring the project to life – budgets, schedules, environmental assessments, etc. But the overall look and feel of the building is pretty clear from this model.
That’s just not the case for a movie.
While it is true that filmmaking is a manufacturing process, it is also true that each outcome or product is wholly unique. Despite the best efforts of our industry to clone successful films, no two movies are ever alike. There really are no prototypes. We can’t build a sample and then manufacture a movie just like it. Television tries to do this but if “pilots” were accurate predictors of success there wouldn’t be so many cancelled series. That’s because filmmakers can’t show you the end result until they’ve created it. All of which makes the development process especially challenging but also essential.
Remember that every movie you’ve seen has had a significant investment in its development. Whether that means a studio was spending a lot of money or one passionate filmmaker devoted years of their life to it, the project was being “developed.” By selecting the material, researching it from a million angles, working on draft after draft after draft of the screenplay, ironing out the legal wrinkles, sorting out the details – the where, when and how of making the picture – we are laying the foundation for what an audience will see on screen.
So who’s involved in development? First there’s the person with the vision – the filmmaker. Who that is depends on what medium we are working in. For feature films it is the director who is the storyteller. In television we look to the writer who will ultimately become the show’s creator. In either case, a good producer is usually part of the mix to help shape the project and guide it along to fruition. The initial process can start with one or two people but it will invariably expand and might ultimately include a good development executive – hopefully from the company that will finance the project.
Development usually begins with a clear purpose, in much the same way that I sat down with the clear idea to write a blog post about development. Invariably, that idea gets muddled with all of the various permutations and possible ways of expressing it. I wrote about 3,000 words in order to get this 800-word post to where I felt that it was ready to publish. Ultimately, the story is crafted from this larger “ball of clay” then shaped – edited, re-edited and edited once again. The idea takes full shape only as people and resources come on board.
As a producer, your role in development is both creative and business oriented. The script is crucial so helping the writer and director (whether that’s a one person ‘hyphenate’ or multiple people collaborating) to stay on track is a must. You’re also doing research on the kinds of companies that would be interested in your particular type of project, whether it’s a low budget genre film or a high concept studio one. You’re working on a budget. You’re putting together an “Idea List” for casting, hopefully in conjunction with a casting director. You’re searching for the right location to shoot the film and that requires you to research the latest tax incentive news. You’re also finding ways to get each of these development steps accomplished. Mostly you’re asking a lot of questions and, depending on the answers, coming up with a whole new list of questions.
If it sounds like “lots of work” – it is. That’s why you had best love your project before you embark on it. While all stories struggle to get financial support, the only ones that are ever abandoned are the ones that weren’t truly loved from the beginning.
So, how does one get to ‘Development Heaven’? Love your story. Enjoy your time with it. Examine it. Question it. Think about it. Connect with it in every way you can. Stay open-minded and ready to learn from it. In short, work it!
What do you think? Do you have a “Development Heaven” or “Hell” story?