Back to selection

Intelligent Screenplay Development

This article originally appeared in our Fall, 1995 print edition.

Development is a dirty word in the film business. To screenwriters in Hollywood, it means toiling under the tutelage of a team of business people, endeavoring to give them what they want, all the while realizing that there is little chance that their script will ever get made. To development executives, it means finding an idea, novel, or original screenplay and then having to work with a writer who can be alternately moody, recalcitrant, or even lazy – and then being disappointed with the results. For the studio executive, development is a necessary evil in order to stay ahead in the idea-production factory game of Hollywood.

Although the lucrative screenplay development deals of the ’80s are no longer easy to come by, Hollywood still spends an enormous amount of money hiring writers to develop screenplays from novels, plays, old films, treatments, magazine articles, concepts, and news stories. Occasionally studios find what they consider to be a good original screenplay and pay a considerable sum of money for it – usually after a frenzied bidding war.

A large number of scripts that Hollywood develops are shelved or put into turnaround, but, as filmgoers are well aware, many poorly developed scripts are put into production too. A typical Hollywood development scenario: a producer gets enthusiastic about an idea, sells it to a powerful studio executive, and lands a deal. A high-priced writer is contracted to write the standard two drafts and a polish. The first draft comes in and, in most cases, the producer is disappointed. Something’s wrong – it just doesn’t sing off the page. The producer, his or her development person, and the studio executive prepare critical notes for the writer which are usually inadequate to help the writer make the changes that they feel are necessary. The writer makes a second pass, but sensing their lack of enthusiasm, has difficulty mustering feeling for the rewrite. When the second draft comes in, it’s still not that home run the producer was looking for. The project is dropped, or, depending on how commercial the producer believes the idea is, another writer is brought in.

There is a general awareness that the screenplay development process in Hollywood is terribly flawed. Screenwriters are paid more than ever, but at great artistic cost. One wonders what Ben Hecht or Raymond Chandler would have thought about a young screenwriter being paid $4 million for a violent actioner that includes a gunfight in which splattered brains land on a griddle and are fried next to a hamburger?

Fewer and fewer films with complex characters and original storylines are being produced in Hollywood. This is because Hollywood’s values have changed, largely due to the advent of the blockbuster. When a film with a slender, uninteresting screenplay like Jurassic Park makes more money than any film in history, who cares if films make narrative sense? On the other hand, botched, misconceived, or badly developed scripts like Last Action Hero, Flesh and Bone, and I Love Trouble have produced financial flops which have cost people their reputations, if not their jobs.

Why does so much screenplay development fail, both in Hollywood and among the smaller independent companies? Why aren’t better screenplays being developed and filmed?
People don’t recognize true writing talent or know how to develop it. Writers have been historically undervalued in the film business, but today they are simply not included enough in the filmmaking process. Too many people have the notion that they can write themselves and don’t value the art of writing enough. This is partly due to the proliferation of word processors which make the physical part of writing easier.

There is currently an abundance of “made” writers in the business, people who have very little creative ability but have flourishing screenwriting careers. These so-called writers have managed to fashion and sell what is perceived to be a successful screenplay and may continue to get work off it for a number of years. Often, they are people with aggressive personalities who can navigate the world of film development – a world of pitch meetings and conversations with agents – more effectively than their more sensitive creative writer colleagues. There have always been hack writers in the business – the problem today is that people don’t seem to know the difference between a good writer and a hack. And too many third-rate scripts are being produced.
To write a good screenplay takes not only an understanding of narrative and character but a knowledge of cinema. The ability to write a good screenplay is developed over time by writers who are fortunate enough to collaborate with talented directors, and the best screenplays are usually written by writers who are a little older. Unfortunately, many of the best writers are never given the motivation or the context in which to hone their creative writing skills.

Not enough people in the film business understand what constitutes a good screenplay. Most people who work in film development – and by this, I mean anyone who develops a script, i.e. producers, company presidents, directors, and actors as well as development executives – do not know how to judge whether a screenplay would make a good film or not. Of course, this is a highly subjective matter and the question of what a good screenplay is is difficult to answer. But company presidents and people in development seem less confident than ever in their opinions about screenplays. Or, at least, they seem unwilling to risk their opinions, fearing the result may reflect badly on them. And typically, to protect their job or investment, people tend to put their stamp of approval on safer, more generic scripts and are scared off by scripts and ideas that are more original and less easy to categorize.

People who work in development do not possess screenplay editing skills. There are many intelligent people trying to develop interesting material in the film business but few of them know how to edit screenplays. To be a good script editor, you must know something about how films are made, and you must have an understanding of the writing process.

One of the biggest impediments I’ve encountered in the development process is the widespread belief in clichéd rules of story development. Consider the almost universal belief in the old Hollywood adage that some writers can write only “character,” and others can write only “structure.” It’s important to debunk this adage because it’s a way that people developing scripts try to minimize the writer’s role in the creation of the film.

The roots of this belief are in Hollywood where an obsession with the mechanics of plot and action have to do with a desire to devise a formula for screenplays so they can imitate and repeat prior box office successes (although they usually don’t). It comes out of a misguided notion that action and plot are somehow separate from character. But the best, most psychologically interesting narratives are informed by character. In fact, the writers who are supposedly poor at structure but good with character are often the best writers, for it’s impossible to have interesting stories without believable characters and situations. In the end, what the audience remembers most are not the car chases but the characters, their relationships, what they were struggling with, and how the audience identified with them.

Scripts are developed for the lowest common denominator. Anyone who has worked in development has heard the line, “The character isn’t sympathetic enough!” Writer Bill Hauptman remembers first hearing the line from actors in a play he had written: “My character is not sympathetic enough. My agent doesn’t want me to play him!”

By sympathetic characters, most development people mean stereotypes that filmgoers can easily identify with, role models rather than roles. All their protestations about characters not being sympathetic enough have to do with their fear that the script may not be perceived as being a commercial star vehicle by financiers or stars. Certainly it’s important to be interested in the characters and to care about their dilemmas but the notion of creating “sympathetic” characters is a form of social engineering that denies the writer the chance to create characters of real distinction and depth.

Insisting that all characters be sympathetic leads to homogenized, boring screenplays. For independent filmmakers, it’s particularly important to leave behind these pedestrian notions of characters because people expect something more original from independent cinema.

Too many people have a voice in the development of a script. Until you get to a certain point, development works best with one writer and one editor (preferably the director). This is how it works in the book publishing world, where authors work repeatedly with the same editor. It is difficult to create this kind of protected environment in film companies, where often even beginning assistants and readers are asked to critique scripts and give the writers notes on how to improve them.

Screenwriting is the only form of writing that’s often done by committee. The beleaguered writer is asked to incorporate multiple – and often conflicting viewpoints – in his work. The material then becomes attenuated and the ideas diffuse. If the work ceases to be the writer’s own, he or she will cease to care about it and will write just for the paycheck.

The process of writing the script is usually too tightly controlled. If you try to over-control and structure a writer (through strict outlines, long sets of notes, treatments, etc.), you will miss out on the magical things that come out of a good writer’s head when encouraged to improve on his work in a more constructive way.
Independent producers need to rethink the actual process of screenplay development. (The best ones already have.) If the art of intelligent story editing were learned or allowed to be practiced, it would help independent producers come up with well-developed scripts that both challenge Hollywood paradigms and offer something distinctive for the marketplace. I believe that the best way to achieve these goals is to let the artists have the strongest voice in the development process.

Good script development insight takes more ability and experience than people in the business fully appreciate. It’s not enough to be bright and have opinions. The very best editors can offer ideas about how to improve material through the addition of a character, a change in tone, a plot idea, whatever. This is a skill that comes from experience and instinct and an understanding of dramatic narrative, and it can’t be taught. All the best directors have it.

A good editor gets in sync with the artist’s vision, or else the collaboration will be a waste of time. The talented editor does not provide wild riffs on the writer’s (or director’s) ideas but tries instead to do a more naturalistic type of development, one that serves the idea and doesn’t try to impose an outside, impractical vision on the artist’s work.

The following is a discussion of my own style of screenplay editing, a style which, when I’ve been able to employ it, has yielded the best results.

Treatments and outlines are usually a waste of time. I find it impossible to understand from a treatment how the writer will actually realize a script. This is because a good writer doesn’t quite know what the story is about until he’s written the first draft. If the idea already exists – if the writer is adapting a book, or the script is a remake – then a brief outline to get in sync with the writer about the story can be helpful. Some writers like to outline their ideas in advance of writing the script but beware the outline that is mapped out by anyone other than the writer or the director.

First Drafts. People have unrealistic expectations about what they can expect from a first draft. It should be considered very raw material.

First drafts come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There is the first draft that is so off the mark that one doesn’t even know where to begin to criticize it. It may appear that all is lost, but a completely wrong first draft can sometimes be useful. It can help you define what you want from the script, by seeing in print what you don’t want.
There is the first draft that starts out well and then falls apart quickly, where the writing is thin, and it’s clear that the writer didn’t muster much feeling for the idea – and may never be able to.

The sort of first draft one hopes for is a little unwieldy but contains exciting elements – a memorable character, a handful of usable scenes, a plot which holds together even though it’s not perfect – or, my favorite thing, a good ending.

Call the writer as soon as you’ve read the first draft, before you talk to anyone else about it. If you’ve ever known a writer personally, you know how they suffer when they turn in a script and no one calls them. If you value a good working relationship, which you should if you want to get a good script, don’t keep the writer hanging fire. He or she would rather hear from you right away, even if you think the script is terrible.’

How to talk to writers. To be a good editor, you must be fairly egoless and not expect a lot of thanks from the writer, whose ego is always at the forefront of any discussion. Your suggestions should be merely suggestions, which the writer can follow or discard, and they should only be made once you are clear about what the writer is trying to accomplish.

Rave about the good things in the work. No matter how many compliments you give a writer, it’s usually not enough. However, writers shouldn’t be coddled. In fact, they usually require a fair amount of pushing to do their best work. But the most talented writers are usually sensitive people who need a lot of support. A good editor must allow for the personal equation in the development of scripts, which many people on the business side of film simply do not understand. You must allow for it if you want a good script, because the best writing is the projection of a unique personality.

Pages and pages of notes do not help the writer, usually. Development people are often required to write lengthy critiques of screenplays to justify their jobs to their employers. In my opinion, a few written notes to articulate a point of view are fine, but I believe in general that writers hate long sets of notes and do not refer to them when making their revisions.

Editing a screenplay is a little like a puzzle – you change something, it throws everything else out of whack. I believe you have to be deeply involved in the process to edit a screenplay, and you get involved through discussion, reflection, and then more discussion. To really know the problems is to sympathize with them; this reflection will bring you closer to being able to help the artist solve the problems.

Editing the first draft. The most important thing to do after reading the first draft is to talk to the writer one-on-one. I make few notes before this discussion, unless they are for myself (to clarify my own ideas) or if I have to (the writer is in a different town, or is terribly defensive or uncommunicative).

I mark up a draft with questions and comments which I then go through and verbally share with the writer. In this discussion, you need to determine what the writer has been trying to achieve with the scenes and characters that aren’t working.

In my experience, a first draft often lacks shape, and you need to provide fairly broad comments about how to improve it. (However, it is important to let the writer know that your editing will probably become more specific in subsequent drafts.) Let the writer know what characters aren’t working, which narrative threads aren’t fully developed. It’s important to not be too picky about specific scenes or dialogue on a first draft. You’re trying to find a broad way to encourage the writer to keep and strengthen the best elements, and to leave the weakest ones behind.

I very often change my mind about some of my criticism after this initial discussion. A good writer will usually intelligently and truthfully defend the ideas he strong believes in, and I am often swayed by this defense.

Over-writing in first drafts. Most people do not understand over-writing, and this is a particular problem in the editing of screenplays. Many of the best writers overwrite and people complain, “The story doesn’t take off!” When a script is over-written, which many first drafts are, people have difficulty realizing its potential. For many writers, over-writing is an important part of the creative process.

Editing the second draft. Second drafts are often inspiring. The script begins to take shape. And then for the editor, the real work begins. It becomes necessary to talk through the script scene by scene with the writer.

After the discussion, I go through the script and provide a fairly heavily marked up draft for the writer, with suggestions for changes in the margins. I find that marked-up copy is the most useful editing tool for a writer, rather than separate notes.

It’s very important in this marked up version to make note of every moment you like, for two reasons: for the writer’s morale, and also so that they won’t cut it from the next draft (although they might have to anyway).

In the second draft, I ask the writer to clear away some of the underbrush and will ask him or her to cut scenes and dialogue more specifically than I did in the first draft revision.

Always listen to what it is the writer intended to do with a scene. If you know what the writer’s intentions are, then you may be able to explain what he or she is failing to achieve, and provide an idea of how to achieve it.

The subsequent draft can be disappointing. Sometimes it seems that less work has been done on the third draft. The writer seems stuck, unable to improve things. You might even prefer things from the previous draft.

Get right to work – don’t take time off. Don’t be afraid to be repetitive. You may need to push and prod the writer a bit. The writer gets cranky (particularly if he or she has tried something at your suggestion and you didn’t like the effort.) The writer may worry that he will never be able to improve certain aspects.

You must admit your own mistakes as an editor up front.

Sometimes it’s necessary to work on only a few things at a time.

It’s important to let the writer know you believe in the script, that you’re in it for the long haul.

It may take a few more drafts or polishes before you hit that breakthrough draft. If you hang in there, there is usually a draft that will come in that is a breakthrough draft, and it’s very fulfilling when it comes in.

Get another opinion before you show it around widely. If you’ve succeeded in getting deep inside the process with the writer, you’ve also managed to lose perspective. Give it to a couple of intelligent readers. You and the writer both will have overlooked a few key things.

Solicit a few opinions, but don’t believe everything you hear. Protect the writer a little bit from the feedback, but if you keep hearing the same criticism, consider it and share it with the writer, make a few adjustments and then send it out more widely.

Never rewrite dialogue or scenes and give them to a writer. For some reasons, writers have their work tampered with more than any other film artist. I believe it’s because so many people are frustrated writers.

There is nothing more offensive to a writer than to have their work rewritten by non-writers.

It is a mistake to use terms such as “character arc” and “character journey” when critiquing a screenplay. The catch-phrases that development people sometimes use are clichéd and the rules they follow are too general. Using language like this only serves to alienate a writer. It’s not beneficial to the creative process to try to reduce screenplay writing to a formula.

Be careful of the egos of writer/directors. Of course, many of the best scripts in the history of film have been written by the directors themselves. For an editor, it’s much trickier to try to edit a director’s script, because if the director is any good, he often has the film in his head and it may be that you simply do not understand from the written word how he intends to shoot a scene.

Still, I believe in the importance of a well-developed screenplay, and if it’s not on the page, then I strongly doubt that the film will work. To me, a script is much more than a blueprint; it is the very lifeblood of the film. I tend to tread more carefully with writer/directors, but will risk their displeasure with my criticism because I feel their perspective is sometimes skewed. It’s important to speak up if you believe some things in the script aren’t working. Editing a director’s script can be a minefield to negotiate, but you try to get through the process with grace and at the same time stay true to your opinions.

Directors should be aware that once they take on the writing process, they must be open to the same type of criticism that writers are.

Thoughts on How to Run an Independent Development Operation.

After having spent almost two years as the head of a development company run by independent producers in New York, I spent a great deal of of time reflecting on how I’d do it myself:

Pick projects and filmmakers that you believe in. Many independent producers will put a script into development because they desperately want to announce that they have a project in development. It’s better to wait so that when something comes along that you really want to develop, you can afford to do it.

Often, a producer will try to come up with an idea of his or her own and try to develop it with a writer. But it’s difficult to develop an idea from scratch if the idea belongs to the producer or film executive. Developing speculative ideas is always risky, and it’s better if the idea belongs to an artist who has the skill to write it. Talented producers know their artistic limitations, and spend their time trying to help directors choose viable projects to develop.

Develop relationships with directors. Too often, producers (and companies) try to develop projects without a director. There are not many truly creative producers or film executives. Most writers polled will tell you they prefer to develop a screenplay with a director rather than a producer or executive.

The producer-director relationship has deteriorated in the film business (an article in itself could be written on this subject), and films are suffering for it. The most successful producers have ongoing creative relationships with directors.

Develop writing talent. I believe that too many directors are allowed to take on the sole responsibility of the writing in independent films. A creative producer understands how key the writer is to the filmmaking process, and can help a director understand that he or she is not always capable of fashioning the script alone.

It’s important to be aware of good writers and to bring them together with directors. A few things to keep in mind when choosing a writer:

Try to pick a real writer. As noted earlier, there are many fake screenwriters working in the business. In my experience, the difference between a “made” writer and the real thing is that a creative writer can improve on his work, can rewrite and give you something special with each new draft. Fake writers are generally one-shot idea people.

Find a writer who really wants to do the project. It’s best if it’s the writer’s own idea, or if they want to work with the director – it rarely works if the writer is doing it for the money.

Beware the writer who has too many commitments. You wouldn’t try to direct more than one movie at a time – it’s also difficult to write more than one script at a time well.

Beware the overly-enthusiastic writer in initial meetings.Some of the writers who can dazzle people in a meeting are the worst at delivering a good screenplay. (Many of the best writers are not all that good at social interactions.)

Never hire a novelist to adapt their own book. As Raymond Chandler said when he was doing an adaptation of his novel The Lady in the Lake: “It’s just turning over dry bones.”

Don’t pigeonhole writers; it leads to boring screenplays. Writers are more versatile than people in the film business give them credit for.

Commit to making what you develop. Don’t go into the process without fully believing that you will make the scripts you are developing.

Producers and companies put too many things into development, hoping they will hit on one good thing out of ten. They would do better to choose more carefully, and to give more time to each project.

If all the creative parties involved understand that you, as the producer or head of the production company, are determined to get the film made, everyone will work harder to create something of quality.

Fully develop scripts before taking them to financing entities or actors – or before making them into films. By thoroughly developing a script before showing it around widely, a person will increase his or her chances of maintaining creative control and deflecting interference. Heads of companies should not even allow a film to go into pre-production unless the script is well developed – but they do, over and over again.

Employ scouts and editors – but not development executives. Development executives have a very bad reputation in the film business. This is because unqualified people are often placed in development positions, and they’re not taken seriously by either their employers or the artists. And they’re often in an impossible situation, finding themselves with one ear tuned upstairs and the other – often with the volume considerably lower – to the writer sitting on the couch.

Development positions as they exist now cover two separate activities: scouting and editing. Film companies should consider separating the functions – and the world “development” should be eliminated from any job title, since it has such a negative connotation.

The heads of companies should do most of the scouting themselves, using their own taste and judgment to choose who they want to work with. Some scouts should be employed, people who share both similar and different tastes from the executives.
But scouts should not also be required to do story editing. It takes a lot of time to properly edit a screenplay. It’s impossible to edit screenplays if you’re attending screenings, spending hours on the phone, and wading through piles of reading and viewing material.

The best story editors are talented directors, but a handful of gifted editors do exist apart from directors. Film companies would do well to find and foster the talent of people who can help film artists edit screenplays, much in the way a publisher develops the talents of good book editors.

If you employ story editors, give them some autonomy. It is impossible to edit a screenplay if you don’t have any true voice in the matter. If you choose to employ a story editor, employ someone you believe in, foster their talent and give them authority.

Be patient, and understand that good screenplay writing is a layering process. Producers and production executives often lack the patience needed to develop a good script. I believe that it takes three or four full drafts to get a screenplay in decent shape. (I don’t believe that the standard two drafts and a polish deal is adequate, and if I were in a negotiating position, I would try to work out something else in a preliminary deal). Film scripts must work on many levels: dramatically, cinematically, narratively, and all within a time limit. The producer has to be patient, and to understand that it’s difficult for a writer to achieve everything in two drafts.

Beware of overdevelopment. Try to avoid it at all costs – it leaves everyone feeling deflated and bitter. Overdevelopment happens often when a producer has trouble setting up a project and thinks that by adding certain more commercial ingredients it will magically make the script work better. A producer often panics and asks the writer or the writer/director to change something after hearing one or two negative things about the script. This is very unbecoming and unproductive behavior.

Stick with the same writer. Many times, film companies lose patience and fire a writer without good reason. When something isn’t working, people love a fresh horse – it makes them feel active to fire someone, and it postpones the result so that they are not yet responsible for the outcome.

Also, because producers or company executives often don’t have the strength of their convictions, I’ve seen them capitulate too easily to a director-for-hire, allowing him or her to revise (and make worse) a script that already works quite well. One could write endlessly on the subject of the amount of money wasted in development, about power and egos, about how writers are often scapegoats. And of course, sometimes it is necessary to replace a writer. However, I consider it a sin to remove a writer from his own original screenplay. And as often as not, the problem lies with the development process and not the writer.

Keep abreast of good writers and films – but don’t over-do it. If you’re constantly chasing after the new hot thing, you won’t have time to develop what’s in front of you. (This is my pet peeve in the world of development – the “grass is always greener problem,” the short attention span on the part of film executives.)
I find that most people in development don’t see enough films or live performance. They waste a lot of time reading bad screenplays. Don’t clutter your head; you need time to reflect on ideas.

Pay artists reasonably. You can pay modest but adequate fees to parties during the script development stage. Agents and writers and directors have become more realistic about development fees for independent projects, but producers must stop trying to get something for nothing. Writers always work better when they feel they are being decently compensated for their time.

Create an environment which allows art to happen. I believe development fails so often at so many companies more because of the producers and production executives than the artists. A truly creative producer understands the necessity of long-lasting creative involvements and the patience and risk that this often requires.

It is impossible to manufacture art, but you can create a place where it can thrive. Such an environment would allow filmmakers to do their work according to what they think is right.

This doesn’t mean that artists should be given free rein; many talented artists are extremists who need a balancing viewpoint. It is the executive or producer’s role to be artistically intelligent and at the same time to maintain a sense of what is practical and possible.

© 2016 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF