David Hughes mines Hollywood's depths for the untold stories behind the unmade movies (Sandman, where art thou?) and the unmade versions of movies that actually did reach the screen (like the fourth Indiana Jones film, written by Frank Darabont and meant to include Sean Connery).
In this exclusive guest post, Hughes answers the question at the heart of his acclaimed and — newly updated — book, Tales From Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made:
In an ideal world, a screenwriter would write a script, and assuming it's brilliant, attract (a) a director, (b) actors, (c) finance, and (d) members of the opposite sex. In practice, these things seldom happen — especially (d). Of all the scripts that get written (fewer than 1% of those that get started), fewer than 1% get anywhere near anyone with the power to get them made; of that 1%, only 1% will actually be made. In other words, every film you see is like Rocky’s whole life — a million to one shot. Many of the rest wind up circling the drain in a place called Development Hell.
Development is what happens when everyone with an interest in an unproduced script tries to help it get to a place where it’s ready to be turned into a movie. This will tend to involve studio executives, producers, actors, and multiple screenwriters — some brought on board because they have a particular ‘voice’, others because they had a hit the previous weekend. When all of these people pull in the same direction, working together to create the best possible version of a particular story — or, in most cases, one that’s achievable for the money — development can go smoothly. When some or all of the collaborators are pulling in different directions, and this process continues indefinitely, that’s Development Hell.
So how can budding screenwriters avoid this special form of damnation? One way is to refuse to sell anything you’ve written, leaving your perfect script as words on paper, like the blueprint for a wonderful building that will never be constructed. Another way is to be so amazingly rich, you can finance your own films. Another If, however, you want to see your masterpiece on the big screen, and you don’t have the necessary millions to make it yourself, there’s a pretty good chance you will end up in the special place reserved for screenplays that started out so perfect, they just had to be rewritten. And rewritten… And rewritten… The name of this particular circle of Hell? Why, Limbo of course.
The above article has since been optioned by a major Hollywood studio, and now features a talking dog, a car chase and a more “relatable” protagonist. A new writer is being drafted in to ‘punch up’ the second paragraph, and by the time they’ve finished, everyone will forget why they liked it in the first place.
Find more Hollywood stories and exclusive guest posts at the Amazon Studios Hollywonk blog.