Movies and Film: Development: Birth of a Notion

Development: Birth of a Notion

Development includes all stages from the germ of the idea to the hiring of the talent, and includes fundraising, screenplay drafts, and initial location scouting.

Ethel, I Have an Idea: The Story

Typically, a feature film's genesis is the story. The story can come from a variety of places. Sometimes it is the director's own idea. The stars of Good Will Hunting (1997), Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, also wrote the piece. Sometimes studios will vie for the rights to an already-famous book. (The battle for the rights to the phenomenally successful children's book Harry Potter comes to mind.) Some stories come from contemporary headlines, like Boys Don't Cry (1999), which was based on the life of a woman killed in Nebraska for passing as a man.

Director's Cut

In the last decade, American filmmaking has seen a boom in the television show remake business: The Fugitive (1993), The Flintstones (1994), The Brady Bunch Movie (1995), McHale's Navy (1997), and My Favorite Martian (1999), to name a few. Hollywood hopes to capitalize on the nostalgia of the baby boomers for the shows of their youth. If not precisely productive of original work, this strategy seems to work just fine at the box office.

Short Cuts

Writers, to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, don't get no respect. With some conspicuous exceptions, they tend to be the least valued member of the creative team. An old Hollywood joke goes something like this: How do you tell the really dumb but ambitious rising star? He or she is the one who sleeps with the writer.

One truism bouncing around Hollywood for the past 50 years is that it's easier to make a great film from a potboiler or second-rate novel than it is to make a great movie from a great work. Some of the most legendary films to come out of Hollywood—The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Thin Man (1934), The Shining (1980), The Big Sleep (1946)—come from novels that dated quickly, or literary genres like horror or detective fiction often thought of as less "serious" than, say, psychological novels. On the other hand, some real clunkers have been made from literary works: A Midsummer Night's Dream (1999), Oliver! (1968, a musical adaptation of Oliver Twist), and The Big Sleep (1978), for example.

Directors and adapters seem to have a better time of it when they aren't being reverential. Many critics liked Clueless (1995) as an adaptation of Emma better than they did the more authentic adaptation because it managed to be as funny as Jane Austen really is. There are exceptions to this rule. John Ford's film version of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is almost as great as Steinbeck's novel.

Director's Cut

The two quirkiest remakes of late have been Psycho (1998), which attempts to reproduce Hitchcock's 1960 masterpiece shot for shot, and Twelve Monkeys (1995), an offbeat sci-fi homage to an avant-garde film by Chris Marker: La Jete (France, 1962).

One favorite Hollywood gambit is the remake. When in doubt, redo an earlier successful film. For some critics this is okay, simply akin to the Renaissance tendency to repaint the same religious subjects over and over. We are a little less sanguine, believing that an era in which there are too many remakes generally reflects a film industry with too much money and too few brains. Most of the time the remake is less interesting than the original. Despite the color photography and the hipper-than-thou transformation of the lead from a cook to a photographer, the 1995 remake of the 1954 Billy Wilder film Sabrina is less biting and critical of the mores of the idle rich. In fact the color photography makes the story seem mindlessly sunnier than the noir photography of the original does. Another example is of course the remake of The Big Sleep, which can't really touch the Bogart and Bacall original.

A related phenomenon is to remake a foreign version of a film. This has also been a popular trend of late. Fellini's Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria) (Italy, 1957) was remade as Sweet Charity (1969). The French films Boudu Saved from Drowning (Boudu sauv des eaux) (1932), Breathless ( Bout de Souffle) (1960), The Tall Blond Man with the One Black Shoe (Le Grand Blond avec une Chaussure noire) (1972), and La Cage aux Folles (1978), were all remade as, respectively, Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), Breathless (1983), The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), and The Birdcage (1996).

If someone tries to market an original screenplay, but is not directing it herself, she will probably try to acquire an agent. Agents try to maintain contacts in the film industry so that they can get into studio literary departments to hawk their wares. Often, as a door-opener, the whole script is not submitted. Rather, a 10-page treatment of the script is offered around the studios. If interest remains, the whole script is submitted. The script can go to a director or producer, who then tries to sell the idea to a studio who funds the project; or it can go to the studio first, who then assembles producer and director itself. Still another route is for the agent to actually buy a story and hire someone to do a screenplay. After this point, the original writer may be out, or may be retained to work on the screenplay.

Magic and Mud

The next phase involves secret negotiations, insider trading, savage industry back stabbing, and much calling in of favors. This is the negotiating phase, when it's determined which creative team does which film. Hollywood negotiations are murder. Stars scramble to catch plum roles, directors scrabble to land plum films, producers scrabble for plum funding sources, fruit wranglers scrabble to land plums, and so on. The budget is also decided during this negotiation process, and distribution and advertising are considered. During this process, the producer is expected to bring the project together. Probably the least bloodletting occurs in companies owned by the creative staff: LucasFilm, Industrial Light & Magic, and so on.

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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