I get a lot of questions and see a lot of comments from new writers who don’t quite understand how a sold script gets developed. By that, I mean EXACTLY what happens to every script that gets made, where the writer is not the director.
This is the abridged version of screenplay development. Of course, there is a lot more detail and nuance in the long version, but boiled down? Here's the unvarnished truth.
1. After negotiations—and please don’t sign the first thing put in front of you—you sign a contract that all parties (this includes you) AGREE to, and you option / sell your script. The producers who bought it gush over it and tell you how much they love it, but only AFTER you sign the contract, because if they tell you they love it before you sign the contract, you might ask for more money.
2. You have the first development meeting—before it was in person, now it’s Zoom—where they give you notes to change a bunch of stuff in the script they love because of the budget they have, or characters they want changed to attract actors, or enhanced / changed storyline to attract directors, or changes needed because they know what they want and it's not what you wrote, or specific things they need in the script to attract specific finance people, or any other number of things.
You think, “Wait. What?”
But instead of saying that, you smile and then you unemotionally discuss the changes they want and your opinion of them based on YOUR complete knowledge of the characters and script and how those things might affect the story they bought and own.
After you discuss (NOT object to) these things, you then, based on how they respond, do EXACTLY what they want, even if it means gutting your original script for their vision. If you do object or get emotional, they will smile, thank you, the meeting will end, you will fume thinking about how you will make these changes ... BUT you won't have to because 2 hours later, you'll get an email, firing you from your own script, and because they bought it, they get to do that. If you're thinking you can put something in the contract saying they can't do this, they just won't buy the script at all. 100% of the time.
So, let's say, for the sake of this exercise, that you didn't get emotional or argue.
3. You do the rewrite to the best of your ability with their notes and send it to them. A few weeks will go by, and then they will ask for another meeting and give you as many new notes on the rewrite as you got before. Some notes will come from new people now involved who all have new ideas of what should change. They might let you write this version, too, if you did a good job on the last one and also had a great attitude, or they might just thank you for your hard work and tell you they are putting another writer on the project.
You accept this because YOU CANNOT CHANGE IT. Getting mad or arguing or anything else not smart will just get you completely cut out of the loop. Forever.
4. Understand that a LOT of the time these producers and development execs are RIGHT with their notes and your script can get a whole lot better. But whether you think they are right or not, you still have to cooperate and be professional. It’s Show Business. Not Show Art. So, even if you’ve done well in their eyes, you may have taken the script only as far as they think you are capable, and that’s not enough for them.
You are gracious and step aside.
You can scream and yell and punch walls, but not where they can see or hear. (This gets old after the first time you do it, by the way) And you don’t go on social media to complain how poorly you’ve been treated, or mention any of this at all in a negative way. They will see it. Other producers will see it. This is BAD. Career-killing bad.
Attitude is everything.
You must show you understand the business and can work within its structure. That gets you hired again. Even if they hired another writer to replace you in this instance, they could call you next month to rewrite someone else’s script, if you did everything they asked of you. You’ll have to trust me on this, it’s been my personal experience.
5. They now can hire, in succession, 3 to 5 other writers to keep rewriting. Or not. But probably. They’ll hire as many as they have to (or have the budget for) to get the script where they want it. A reminder: If they bought it, it is theirs to do anything they want with. So, after an indeterminate number of writers, they will finally have a script they like. For now.
6. Then a director will attach. The director will have notes and will either rewrite the script, or have another writer hired to rewrite the script, most of the time one they recommend and like to work with. Again, this could be you down the road if you act professionally and can write professionally. Then actors will attach and they will have notes, and depending on the actor, those notes will or won't be used. These notes can further change things that were untouched before.
7. The film will go into production and more changes to the script take place because of production stuff, locations, budget considerations, actors’ availability ... dozens and dozens of reasons.
8. When they are done, if you weren't a dick, maybe you'll get to see the director's cut when that's ready. And, you might be invited to a screening or premiere, and that will be cool for you, because if you were smart and put it into your contract that you get screen credit—if it wasn't a WGA film, who decides credit and who favors the original writer a lot anyway—you get to see your name in lights. But most likely, not your original script on the screen. So, go in with an open mind, if you can.
9. If 50% of your script remains, you are a WINNER!!! That means you wrote a kickass script in the first place. If there's more than 50%, you're a Golden God. But ... probably there will be less ... maybe all the way down to 0%. I had one where nothing remained at all. BUT... if it's a GREAT film, you bow a lot and take the compliments and the credit from your friends and family just like it was ALL yours. And if it sucks, you tell them that none of your script remained. A win – win. Plus, you still get a screen credit, and in the long run that's all that counts.
10. This isn't just for studio films either. 90% of independent film, unless you finance and make it yourself, works exactly the same way.
So, there you have it. The short version of The Anatomy of Screenplay Development.
Read Bob's fantastic, no-nonsense book: That's Not The Way It Works: A no-nonsense guide to the craft and business of screenwriting
Learn how to write a stellar script with our SU online course, Beginning Feature Film Writing