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10 June 2016 ·

When Hollywood Comes Knocking: Part 2 – Development Hell

Continuing from last week’s post: now you, your agent, your publisher and your film lawyer are all happy – you’ve signed that option agreement and have a nice little chunk of money, probably 10% of the sale price.
And you’re going to get the rest of that money very soon, because the movie’s going into development!
Well, they say Hollywood is made of dreams, and that’s one of them.
Even if it goes straight into development, and the rights aren’t simply locked into some mysterious vault until it’s too late for anyone else to want them, there are a few steps in between.
1)    The script. Unless you’ve got screenwriting experience, the studio is unlikely to want you to write the script. They will choose someone they want. If you want to be involved, you may be able to be a consultant to the script, which should also earn you another small fee.
A bright spot: traveling to Santa Monica to meet the producer and studio execs
If you are involved, be prepared: writing a screenplay is not anything like writing a book. This is not your baby any more: there will be many, many meetings and quite a lot of compromises. Only when everyone (ie the studio) is satisfied with the outline can the script can be written.
2)    Firings. If the studio isn’t satisfied with the screenwriters’ attempts, the writers may be fired once they’ve submitted the negotiated number of drafts. The whole procedure will start again with new writers. This is true even if the independent screenwriter is the person who took the project to the studio.
The independent director or producer can also be fired. So can studio executives. Their replacements may make more changes. Any of these changes will stall the process to some extent, may take it back to the beginning, and possibly stop it all together.  

Santa Monica beach
For Nim’s Island, my first contact from the producer Paula Mazur was 3 June, 2003; we agreed the terms of the contract with Walden Media Christmas Eve of that year, and I think I signed the final version of the contract in March 2004. We got the greenlight to go ahead around March 2007 – so that was three years of development. I had no idea how lucky we were! During that time there were three lots of screenwriters, and one change of studio executive. And much angst. Return to Nim’s Island I think took a year longer, with much more complicated changes. This is why it’s popularly known as development hell.
3)    Funding. Movies cost a lot of money, incomprehensible amounts. Apart from changes that need to be made to the storyline to meet the budget, changes in funding will obviously affect whether or not it goes ahead.
4)   Casting. This is intertwined with funding, and unless you are so amazingly successful and famous already that you probably aren’t reading this blog, you won’t have much to do with either. There needs to be a certain level of funding to get the right actors – but the right actors will also influence the funding. They’ll also influence who else wants to get on board. (And yes, I’m talking about Jodie Foster. When she said she wanted to play Alex Rover the writer, good things happened, though not as easily as I would have thought.)
A bit of advice: It’s a lot of fun to be thrown into a totally different creative world, but going back to the question of whether or not to quit the day job – you could probably write another book, or two, during that time. I was a consultant on the Nim’s Island film, and I think there was only one week during the three years of development that Paula Mazur and I didn’t have at least one phone call or email each day. It was very intense, and very rewarding ­ but I don’t know if I would feel the same way if the film hadn’t been made. 
Just a reminder again that everything here is my personal opinion and does not constitute any form of legal advice.

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Wendy Orr is a Canadian-born Australian writer. Her books for children and adults have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Nim’s Island and Nim at Sea have also become feature films, starring Jodie Foster and Abigail Breslin (Nim’s Island) and Bindi Irwin (Return to Nim’s Island.) Her latest book is Cuckoo’s Flight, a companion to the highly acclaimed Bronze Age novels Dragonfly Song and Swallow’s Dance. Read full bio