“Tales from Development Hell” and “Credit” in Hollywood

by Sonny Bunch on March 10, 2012

I have a review of Titan Books’ Tales from Development Hell (only $8 on the Kindle) in the Wall Street Journal this weekend; you should check it out! Here’s a taste:

Christopher Nolan’s bold reboot of the Caped Crusader, “Batman Begins” (2005), was great—but what about Darren Aronofsky’s? The director of “Black Swan” unsuccessfully pitched a version described as “Death Wish or The French Connection meets Batman,” with a Serpico-like Detective Gordon and a Travis Bickle-like Bruce Wayne.

Or how about a “Lord of the Rings” directed by the guy behind “Deliverance”—and starring the Beatles, with John in the role of Gollum, Paul as Frodo, George as Gandalf and Ringo as Sam?

Such alternate-Earth versions of films we know and love provide case studies for “Tales From Development Hell,” David Hughes’s fascinating and irreverent look at the perilous portion of a film’s life cycle after a script is purchased but before it is committed to celluloid. In development anything can happen, as bean counters nervous about committing millions of dollars to someone else’s idea insist on endless revisions. Delays of years or decades are common, and many scripts never get made at all.

Read the rest at the WSJ. And I’d definitely recommend checking out the book, which is fascinating throughout. One thing I’d like to hit on that I didn’t have space for in the Journal is the idea of “credit” in Hollywood. Not credit as in “Greece is defaulting so we need to give them some more credit”; more like  “Screenplay written by Sonny Bunch”-style credit.

You know movie posters? You know how, on a movie poster, you’ll frequently see multiple people given “written by” credits (and sometimes you’ll see a “story by” credit)? Well, the way these credits are divvied up is fairly complicated (for instance, if it’s “Sonny Bunch and Michael Mann,” it means that Mann and I both took a crack at the script separately and we each had a “significant” number of ideas in the final filmed product; if it’s “Sonny Bunch & Michael Mann,” it means we worked on the script as a team). Getting one of those credits means more than a pat on the back: It means residuals, essentially royalties paid in perpetuity every time the product earns a little money by being played on cable or in a revival at the AFI Silver or someone buys a DVD or whatever. The writer’s guild handles assigning credit in arbitration processes that are adjudicated by fellow writers.

Anyway, one of the reasons that development hell drags on and on, I’m convinced, is because of unscrupulous writers who seek to make many minor changes that either have no impact on the plot or actively make it worse all in the pursuit of undeserved residuals. As Robert Garant and Thomas Lennon note in Writing Movies for Fun and for Profit, screenwriters are frequently commissioned to write a screenplay, fired from that screenplay (which is then given to someone else for a rewrite), only to be rehired to fix the damage that was done to the screenplay. As the duo note,

whoever replaces you might be a bit unscrupulous in making changes to your script. Watch out for this, especially with writers who haven’t had a lot of films produced. They’ll change character names, locations, and props. If you get rehired to fix one of your old scripts— CHANGE THEM BACK. Why? you ask. Why would they change something that works for no good reason? FOR CREDIT!

Studio heads seek a different, less-official kind of credit, insofar as they feel the need to put their stamp on a picture in order to prove their involvement in the project was worthwhile and they shouldn’t be fired. There’s a funny story in my review (which you should read!) that I won’t spoil here, but I will hint at: monkey baseball.

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