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What is Movie Development?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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In the film industry, movie development or simply development refers to the initial stages of working a story idea into a viable script. A producer zeros in on an idea for a script that can be original, based on a true story, or an adaptation. Producers are also routinely given unproduced spec scripts by associates and agents. Once a producer commits to a project, movie development begins and people are brought on board to help with this phase of the project.

If working with an original idea, the story is often fleshed out through a series of meetings and phone calls with writers or associates who will be involved in the project. A synopsis is written, then an outline, treatment, and script. If starting with a spec script, the usual path is one of rewrites and reworking the script idea. In all cases, producers like to get a director and talent attached to a project as soon as possible in order to attract financial backers and a studio. Further rewrites are made to accommodate the wishes or particular style(s) of attached talent.

The amount of time a project stays in the development stage depends on many factors, but a period of months is usually minimal. The process of movie development is a collaborative one that is commonly fraught with opposing creative ideas, conflicting egos and a high potential for tension and stress that can slow down or even derail progress. Hollywood politics might also dictate whether or not a project survives development. Plans that get stuck for years in this phase are said to be in “development hell.”

Assuming a project makes it through the movie development phase, the screenplay is pitched to a studio executive and to additional executive producers that will be providing financial backing. Once a studio greenlights the project, (which might require more rewrites), it moves into the pre-production phase. In this phase all arrangements are made that must take place prior to actual shooting. For example, the movie is fully cast, the crew is hired, and sets are built and/or locations are chosen and contractually secured. Production, or the actual shoot comes next, followed by post-production or final editing and the screening phase. Finally the movie is premiered and released.

Movie development is the first step in a long road to movie production. Hollywood has many more projects in development than will ever be made. Even a project that successfully completes the development phase has no guarantee of seeing the big screen. Any number of circumstances can arise in the interim that will spell disaster or cancellation of a project. By some estimates less than 10% of movie development projects are ever produced, with the vast majority being permanently “shelved.”

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Discussion Comments

By anon996290 — On Aug 06, 2016

This is a very real illustration of what's going on in the industry. In fact, the success of the shared universe by Marvel (which is now backed by Disney) has caused the market to shift to a point where original ideas are no longer profitable or able to get people in the seats. The sad part its probably going to be the norm until 2018-2019. P.S. Marvel/Disney is dooming Black Panther by putting it into a crowded a schedule where it can only do well if it has time to mature into a box office hit, which it won't have. 2018 will change the industry again. I'm prepared -- are you?

By anon979884 — On Nov 30, 2014

If you're determinate in achieving what you want, you'll get it, no matter what! No matter how hard it is, no matter how hard it gets! You can do it!

P.S. There are tons of crap movies produced by Hollywood every year. Just think about that: If they can do it, I can do it better!

By anon973098 — On Oct 08, 2014

I've been reading more and more about movie sequels that have been in development for years, like a sequel to "Independence Day". There's also been talk about "Ghostbusters 3" for over a decade now. Considering how successful the original movies were, you wouldn't think the studios would drag their feet on getting out a sequel or a prequel.

By anon345539 — On Aug 20, 2013

I am a filmmaker and to tell you the truth, film-making can be a very tiring process.

By roxytalks — On Mar 22, 2011

I never realized that the movie development process was such a big ordeal, and that it's only the first step of many.

I guess I just never really thought about what goes into making a movie. They are released, and I watch them. It never went farther than that. I now have a lot more respect for the amount of work and the process that goes into making those movies.

It sounds like a lot of hard work, even before you know if it will pay off. I'm not cut out for that kind of thing. I'm thankful that there are people who are though, because I really like watching movies!

By reader888 — On Mar 21, 2011

I can't believe that less than ten percent of movie development projects are ever produced! That is a very low number! Can you imagine how many people put an immeasurable amount of work and time into so many different projects, and nothing ever comes of it?

It puts a whole new outlook on the movies that actually do make it onto the big screen. They are the few that actually made it. It makes those movies seem a lot more impressive.

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