Development Hell: Writer’s Purgatory


Being a screenwriter in the film industry means you spend a large portion of your time networking (yikes, introverts hate this), writing query letters, synopses, loglines, and submitting. It’s a lot of work and as time consuming as writing a script.

After all that work you get a call or an email requesting a meeting. They have read your script, they think it’s brilliant, they want to be in bed with you, but there’s a catch, they just want a little development before they move forward.

Sometimes I cringe when I hear that word. Development. Also synonym for free rewrites. If you called the WGA right now they would tell you not to do free rewrites. This is a step where you should already be under contract and getting paid. But the reality is it hardly ever happens that way. The reality of our business is after you have an idea and spend months researching and writing on spec (Translation: Writing a story you want to tell with no guarantee anyone will ever produce it.) you get notes from people you trust and you rewrite. You let the work sit for a few weeks or months and rewrite again. You maybe get some more notes. You take it to your writer’s group and workshop it some more. You do some more rewrites. Finally you love your script, you ironed out all the little things that you know weren’t quite landing. You think your dialogue is sharp. Your protagonist has an arc, your antagonist is intriguing, your plot points are where they should be, your supporting characters are lively. You are in good shape.

Now you start submitting and hope your script will land somewhere. And after months (sometimes years) of submitting someone bites. They bring you in, they love the script, but… they want you to make some changes.

Now, most of the time this is a harmless process. One that either leads you to a paycheck and a completed film or just a few meetings and no deal. Some of the notes you get are definitely going to make your script better, so you might as well do it. Some of them you might not like at all, so you find a way to still address the problems without compromising your work’s integrity too much. Sometimes getting a suggestion on a script means they have diagnosed a problem, but their solution doesn’t necessarily work. At the end of the meeting you go home and make whatever changes you want.

Every once in a while you get caught in what we call “development hell.” It is a purgatory stage where the notes are never ending and so are the rewrites and the meetings. I have been caught in that trap twice now. Sometimes when you’re in it, it’s really hard to see it. Because it starts the same way I described above. But at some point the process drags, there’s no real movement forward from the producer’s side. The places they said they would take the script have all said no, or have not responded at all. There’s been hours of brainstorming about who would be great in this leading role and how to get those people attached.

It is all exciting and exhilarating at first. One day you wake up and you realize it’s been a few years of this! Yes, years. And you don’t want to throw away all the time you invested in the project. All those lunches, meetings, rewrites, your time, your money. (In my case some international travel.) But sometimes calling it quits is the best thing you can do. I knew in my gut that in those two instances the project was dead. There was no other place to take it and the producers and I didn’t see eye to eye anymore creatively.

In one instance, it also coincided with other projects of mine coming out and getting some not so great reviews. (That’s another story in itself, one that I will write eventually.) So to add insult to injury, you hear from your producers that they no longer trust your creative vision given how your previous work was received. Now they want even more rewrites. Rewrites that will basically change your story beyond recognition. The decision that was in front of me was: give up everything that I loved about the script, do more free rewrites with no guarantee of ever seeing money or a finished film, or pull the plug and get the rights to my original script back. After over three years of back and forth it’s hard to call it quits. I held on to the slightest amount of hope that the project would somehow, magically, come to life until I came to terms with the idea of letting go.

It was painful. Everyone is eager to sign option agreements, no one is eager to sign dissolution of partnership documents. It took a little chasing people down and hounding them until I got my signatures. Once it was all over it was as if a huge weight was lifted. Yes, it was sad, it made me angry to have invested so much time to end up with nothing. But now that script can have a whole new life somewhere else. And I have started submitting again and getting great feedback on elements that were once removed from my original script due to notes.

It gives you great perspective to get a new fresh set of eyes on a project and on yourself. And once you get yourself out of writer’s purgatory, out of development hell, you usually see a rebirth of your project on the other side. The trick is knowing when to let go. My gut knew before I was ready to accept it, but I got there eventually.