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In Features, Issues

THE MYTH OF DEVELOPMENT

by Joan Galt

One of the most common ways writers try to pitch their screenplays to producers (and, sometimes, actors and directors) is by meeting with their production companies. In most cases, a writer doesn’t meet directly with the producer. Instead, he or she meets with a member of the development staff – the person who’s actually read the screenplay and thinks it might be of interest to the company.

For three years, I was one of these development people – what the industry calls a "D-Girl" – at a New York-based production company that developed about two scripts and produced about one film each year. (Back in the studio Golden Era, development departments were primarily limited to women because there was no place for them at higher levels. Today, however, while both men and women occupy this position, the phrase "D-Girl" is still bandied about.) My company considered just about any and every film genre (as long as it was semi-commercial) and budgets ranging from $5 to $50 million.

But after working in development for three years, I feel that it is my duty to reveal to struggling screenwriters what I consider to be the "Myth of Development" — the Big Lie perpetuated by an industry ostensibly created to discover and produce exciting new screenplays.

 

What is Development?

Development begins with the epic search for a new film project (from a script, book, newspaper or magazine article, or treatment), continues through the commissioning of successive screenplay drafts, and ends somewhere around casting or preproduction. You could say that the role of a development executive is that of both a sieve and an editor. As a sieve, the executive filters through scores of submitted screenplays to find the few that are actually worthwhile. As an editor, he or she works with the writer to make the script stronger, funnier, more dramatic, or simply more appealing to the interested producer, director, and/or studio.

Production companies are almost always looking for new projects. The biggest thrill I had in my years as a D-Girl was finding a great screenplay from an unknown (and unrepresented) writer. It wasn’t common, but when it happened, it was hugely satisfying.

When a development executive finds a project, he or she (or, more often, a hired reader overseen by the executive) writes coverage – a one- or two-page synopsis and commentary on the script. If the project seems especially inspiring, the development exec will give the script and the coverage to the producer.

 

The Myth Explained.

This is, however, where the Myth comes in. During my years as a D-Girl, I initiated many relationships with writers whom I came to respect both professionally and personally. Writers regarded me with respect, and sometimes even grovelled before me, feeling that I was responsible for their future in the industry. They were believers in the Myth; they believed that development executives actually have the power to get a movie made.

When I started my job, I believed the Myth too. It was three years before I realized that my job wasn’t really about finding screenplays or new talent. It was about public relations. By meeting with other development executives, agents and writers, I promoted the company’s name to the industry. I created buzz. I can count on one hand the number of scripts my boss actually read in a year – and this includes scripts that were given to him not by me but by writer or producer friends of his. When it comes to projects I recommended, I’m willing to say that he never read one. Sure, he may have skimmed over the coverage, or perhaps even read the first few pages, but that’s it.

Although seeking out new talent was part of my job description, my boss never really took a sincere look at talent I brought into the company. Once I found a fantastic script, and I passed it on to him. He dismissed it. Four months later the same script was submitted by a producer friend of his, and he jumped on it. When I told him it was the same script that I submitted, he first denied it, and later insisted that I had shown him an earlier draft that was nothing like the draft he wanted to option. The script had to be his discovery, not mine.

This is not an uncommon occurrence in the production company world. Producers seldom seriously consider a project that is handed to them by their development department. Most producers feel it is a waste of their time and energy to read screenplays by unknown writers unless those scripts are strongly recommended by a director or actor with whom they want to work. A development executive is hesitant to show a producer every good script he or she comes across. Rather, he or she will show a producer only a handful of screenplays each year, as each script presented is a risk of sorts. If a producer receives a number of screenplays he doesn't like from the development staff, he may begin to doubt his staff's taste. Furthermore, the producer’s attention is vital, and a D-Girl wants to make sure she doesn’t uselessly "play one of her cards." So what happens? Development executives engage in endless meetings and company-paid lunches with writers about projects that will never seriously be considered for production.

During my years in development, I met plenty of other development executives who actually believed in the Myth. I suppose they had to in order to get through their day. I also think that they were afraid that their peers at other companies had more power than they did. These people weren’t just duping writers and directors, they were also duping one another! And sometimes the producers themselves are unwary believers in the Myth.

I had a hard time with the reality behind the Myth, feeling like I was leading writers and directors on with my enthusiasm, and knowing that I would eventually have to dash whatever hopes they had for being produced by our company.

Now, all of this is not to say that there aren’t development executives out there who carry real clout. There are, but they are very few and far between. There are also a handful of established companies that seek out new talent and have become known in the industry for doing so. Smaller companies too are more apt to rely on their development staff, although they may be less likely to have the means to get your project made. But consider, if a development executive carries true weight with his or her boss, then the producer is a truly open-minded, non-power-hungry or egocentric person. How many producers do you know who are like that?

 

Beyond the Myth.

So why even submit a project to a production company’s development department? Well, unless you’re a personal friend of lots of high-powered producers, it may be the only way to get a foot in the industry door. However, there are some questions you can ask a development exec to learn if your time is being wasted.

First, ask what other projects the company has in active development; then ask how the company stumbled upon those projects. If each project came from a source other than the person sitting across the table, then you can believe everything I’ve just told you.

A more straightforward but perhaps less friendly approach is to ask what the typical process is at the company if the director of development likes the project. How long does it take for the producer to read a project and make a decision? And ask what projects the company has produced or set up and if they came from the in-house development staff.

If you’re discouraged by the answers to these questions, there are still reasons to maintain a good relationship with development staff. If they like your project, they might be able to pass it on to someone who is more likely to advance it. People in development not only communicate with one another, but also with other producers, agents, and directors. During my years as a D-Girl, I had a number of independent producers ask me if I had read any good material lately.

A development executive might also try to produce it themselves. Most people in development are constantly looking for the project that will take them out of that world. Whether the project is produced in-house or the exec leaves the company to produce it, it is entirely possible that your script could be produced this way.

And finally, there is always that outside chance that the boss sees the coverage on your project and wants to read it. And if he or she does, and the project is as good as you feel it is, you are in a great position.

So, while the production company route is an important one, it’s not necessarily the most realistic one. From my experience, if you’ve got a project you’re passionate about, take the hard route: find a director and start raising money. On the other hand, if you are determined to seek out the production company route, just don’t buy into the Myth that time with a Director of Development is necessarily time well spent.



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