Your Script Is In Development, But What Does That Mean?
November 13, 2020
Development is one of the most nebulous terms in Hollywood. If you spend any amount of time working in film and television, you'll hear it used constantly. But what being in development actually means can vary wildly and depend on any number of factors.
Let's start at the broadest level. Development generally covers any and all work on a film or television project that happens before production starts. It's a process that can be as short as a few months, or as long as several years. A project doesn't need to have a script or even a writer attached in order to be in development. Finding a writer in the first place can be part of the development process, which can involve any combination of steps from the actual writing of the script, to giving and receiving notes, to pitching the project to studios or financiers.
The business side of development
Many studios and production companies have a team dedicated to development. The titles for those team members are pretty easy to spot: development coordinator, creative executive, VP of development, and so forth. Their goal is to shepherd a script to the point where someone will finally give it the green light to get made. On any given day, development executives are engaging in a wide range of tasks: looking for potential IP to option, meeting with writers, making lists of writers, giving notes on a script, helping a writer brainstorm solutions for a script problem, pitching a project to studios, anything they can do in service of getting the project into production.
From the writer's perspective
As a writer, you might meet with a development team for a general meeting. It lets them put a face to the name, hear about your background, tastes, and any ideas you have brewing. On the surface, this might sound like a step outside the development process not worth mentioning here, but generals can lead to some crucial exchanges of information. At the very least, the development team has a better sense of who you are the next time they look at their list of potential writers for a project. It's also possible the development team might tell you about their development slate, including projects they're looking for a new writer on, and you might have just the right take to pitch them. Development executives are constantly looking for new writers and ideas, and the right general meeting could lead to new opportunities.
That's development from the side of the production companies and studios. What does development look like from the writer's side?
The pre-production side of development
Unsurprisingly, there's no one answer to that question, as it will vary from project to project. A script might have one writer from outline to final draft, or a revolving door of writers as a producer tries to find the right approach to certain material.
Developing your own work
If you're lucky enough to have your own script or idea put into development at a production company, your involvement could go any number of ways. If you have a script that's optioned, you'll probably be given a set of notes and sent forth to make revisions. It's also possible that the company might hand you a check for the script itself and bring on another writer. Sometimes, a studio just wants another writer to do a polish on a script to get it over the finish line; other times it may involve extensive rewrites.
A writer might also come aboard a project to write a script from scratch. Say a company has a graphic novel they want to adapt. They've got the rights to the IP, but no script. The development team will start looking for a writer, consulting their many, many lists of screenwriters, as well as asking managers and/or agents which of their clients is available and a good fit for the job. Sometimes a writer will be established enough that they're hired by name alone. More often a studio or production company will ask for a full pitch of the script the writer envisions before they are commissioned. Once hired, the writer might be sent off for a few months to return with a full script, or it may be the company wants to see outlines, first pages, and more to make sure the project is proceeding to their liking.
Usually this is where managers/lawyers/agents (when there isn't a WGA/agent dispute happening) get involved to decide how and when you'll be compensated. A writer hired to write a script often has their work defined in terms of "steps." The nitty gritty of the language is a conversation for another day, but a step usually refers to a draft of a script. Some contracts will have a certain number of guaranteed steps, meaning a writer is hired for a certain number of drafts on a script. A studio may also include optional steps, so they can decide after reading a draft if the script is done, is close and needs just one more draft, or needs another writer entirely (meaning the studio won't use the optional step).
Learning to love the process
At the end of the day, it's important to be aware that just because a project is in development does not guarantee that the project will ever get made. In fact, sadly many scripts never leave the development process. Many writers and producers often bemoan a script is stuck in "development hell," meaning for one reason or another, they can't get it over the finish line and into production. It could be a particularly tricky piece of IP that is proving difficult to adapt. It could also be that the script is done, but they can't find a party willing to finance it. It's also happened that a studio's mandate might change and they're no longer interested in making a particular script, even though they've spent the last year giving a writer notes and feedback.
Development can be a long and stressful process, with no guarantee of success. Thankfully, if you're a screenwriter, odds are you find writing enjoyable and rewarding. That will help get you through the days when it feels like the notes are endless and the studio's goal posts for a green light are ever-shifting. And with luck, one day you'll emerge from the amorphous bog of development, with its writing, rewriting, and rewriting some more, and finally have a script that goes into production.
Written by: Caitlin GrieveAfter discovering a passion for film studies at USC, Caitlin has spent several years working in film and TV development. Most recently, she worked at Silvertongue Films where she was part of a team developing adaptations of classic Scholastic properties, including 'His Dark Materials' for HBO/BBC and 'Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween' for Sony.