There are some major movie flops that find themselves in theaters and, whether they’re good or bad, they oftentimes set the bar for what studios will put out. This means that unartistic studio executives end up meddling in artistic processes with almost every film put out by major studios. Some of the greatest scripts ever written sell for a million dollars but are put in a kind of film purgatory and are never made. These films are stuck in “development hell.”
Development hell is a term used by the industry to describe scripts that have been rewritten numerous times and have had different people attached to them. This arrested development occurs until the creative process comes to a standstill — and the film is never made— or evolves into a new kind of film. Some projects never leave the Leviathan, eventually lose enough studio interest and then they’re never made. This particular concept describes a mangling of original ideas and constant meddling from many sources. The films that do survive this unfortunate process are sometimes beyond terrible.
One of the main reasons projects languish in development hell is because the original concept is bought by a studio, or is based on something else. Films based on comic books, games and magazine articles are oftentimes acquired, but their scripts face extensive rewrites and meticulous oversight by studio executives. After the horrific box office performance and critical failure of Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin,” a reboot of the series was delayed for eight years. During this development hell, names such as director Darren Aronofsky and graphic novelist Frank Miller fell into the mix before Christopher Nolan took the helm in 2003. He went on to make “The Dark Knight” trilogy and revive the franchise. Other films were only a concept for extended periods of time. The critical and commercial flop “John Carter” was imagined for the silver screen as early as 1931. Disney showed interest in the 50s and acquired the rights in the 80s, but the film wasn’t released until 2012.
Sometimes films don’t get made because of unexpected circumstances. Take Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pet project “Crusade,” a film that started as an idea from the action star himself about an action film set during the Crusades. Film director Paul Verhoeven got a script written, actors cast and pre-production in swing. In the blink of an eye, Carolco, the studio founding the venture, went bankrupt. Carolco’s bankruptcy launched many films into development hell and kept “Crusade” in limbo for 20 years before it died by default. Another fine example of uncontrollable circumstances came with 1999’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” which fell into extended development after Stanley Kubrick died. Director Steven Spielberg went on to finish the project himself and created a film both reviled and beloved. It took an additional two years to make than it otherwise would have.
The most frustrating films to fall into development hell are completely original screenplays. Scripts such as “Smoke and Mirrors” and “Isobar,” which set off huge bidding wars between major studios, were killed off unexpectedly thanks to rewrites from new executives. Sometimes films die before they can get going because one to eight different writers haggled over the script and changed the plot, characters, tone and context. Eventually these scripts look nothing like the original source material, and the studio executives wonders why they’ve paid millions in rewrites for a project that gets shelved.
There are so many new, exciting movies that we could be seeing, and this is one of the worst aspects of development hell: it deprives audiences. We want to see new concepts, new art forms and new voices in the film industry. There are films that have fully formed scripts that could be in production now, but are faced with intervention and hostility. Some of these scripts include “The Tourist,” which is a sci-fi story of aliens living on Earth, “Jurassic Park IV,” which has been stalled since 2003, and “Good Omens,” a collaboration between Terry Pratchett and fantasy writer Neil Gaiman, which saw a false start from director Terry Gilliam.
The absolute worst part about these films never getting made is that someone with true artistic talent, who deserves recognition for their time and energy, won’t have their film seen by the masses. Some of these writers work on scripts for more than a year and never see them get made. Others spend decades just trying to keep something alive, only for it to die out without recognition from the movie-going public. These are the real casualties of development hell, and that’s the sad truth.