What Even is Film and TV Development?

What Even is Film and TV Development?

I want to start today’s article where all good conversations should:

"The West Wing."

What a damn fine television program that was, right?  

You want to talk about a series with trademark moments? This show’s got them in droves. CJ and Josh arguing about affirmative action in the most respectful (but equally heartbreaking and personal) way ever. The endlessly flirtatious relationship between Josh and Donna. Martin Sheen calling God a feckless thug after the death of Mrs. Landingham. Every freaking word of dialogue written in “17 People,” (Season 2, Episode 18 … seriously y’all, if you haven’t watched this one yet, it’s a masterclass in emotion).

There’s a reason this series stands atop the Hollywood mountain. It was considered premium TV before premium TV was a thing. A complete boon for NBC. And one of the best written series ever. It made Aaron Sorkin a household name.

But I don’t want to talk about any of those aforementioned moments today, because there’s a less well-known scene that is sticking out in my head right now. It’s from "20 Hours In L.A." (Season 1, Episode 16), where President Bartlett flies to attend a fundraiser, only for his staff to learn last minute that the host is threatening to cancel the event unless the Sheen-in-Chief makes a public statement about gay rights (wayyy before this was considered kosher).

Anyway, this little moment happens outside, where CJ Craig (the press secretary played by national treasure Allison Janney), bumps into one of the infamous “Hollywood suits.”

It goes something like this:

Hollywood Suit: Let me introduce myself. Mark Miller, head of development at Paragon. There's a place for you in our company. In development.

CJ: What?

Hollywood Suit: Development. Of projects.

CJ: What’s that mean?

Hollywood Suit: You’d develop feature projects.

CJ: Movies? You don't want me. You want Toby or Sam (the President’s speech writers). I'm not a writer. I can't act.

Hollywood Suit: You’d just be in development.

CJ: And what's that?

Hollywood Suit: Shepherding, developing projects.

CJ: … I thought a guy writes a movie and a guy directs a movie. And in between there are designers and technicians and actors … So, tell me, what I'd do again.

Hollywood Suit: Development.

After a long, confused pause, CJ finally says:

“At the moment I have a good job, and I understand what it is …”

Many facets of the Hollywood game are draped in shadow and secret. And as I see it, they really shouldn’t be. So, for everyone who was ever interested (and if you opened this article, I’m assuming that’s you), let’s answer some questions today:

What do development executives do? Why do they exist? Why would a studio buy a script and then not make it into a film or TV series? What the hell even IS development anyway? And which came first: the chicken or the egg? (okay, that last one was easy—it’s obviously the egg.)

In the strictest of terms, development is the process that a script goes through after it has been acquired by a studio or network. And if, like CJ, you’re thinking: “Why does there need to be a process? I (the writer) write the script, and then the director films it. And in between there are a bunch of designers, technicians, and actors …”

Sadly, that’s not the case. You’re massively oversimplifying the Hollywood process. Because while it’s fair to say that many writers think their words are impeccable and perfect and camera-ready from the start, no development executive alive would ever agree.

There’s a huuuuuuuggggggeeeee process in between sale and someone calling “action.” And that’s notes. I won’t go into why the notes process is a thing today. I already wrote a whole article about that.

Every script that gets bought will need to go through the notes process. I would be absolutely floored to hear a story about a screenplay selling and filming without a single round of changes made. That’s just not how the business works. And development executives are the ones who oversee that process. They are very much akin to project managers. They oversee and “shepherd” projects.

Hollywood (like most places) is very hierarchical. There’s a person at the top (generally a President) who makes decisions on what will and will not be made. But this person has SO MANY THINGS TO THINK ABOUT. Not just what is going to be greenlit, but also with marketing, sales, the upcoming board of director’s meeting, how they’re going to get *insert famous actor's name* to stop binge-drinking and return to set, and which sort of private jet they’re taking on their two-week vacation to Cancun. Giving notes on dozens and dozens of potential film projects and keeping up with each and every one of them is not something they can do. They don’t have the bandwidth for it. Elon freaking Musk wouldn’t have the bandwidth for it.

Which is why they outsource the job to other people. These are the development executives who are giving notes on your story. Each of these people will have their own “slate”—a bevy of projects that they are responsible for monitoring. It is their job to keep track of where it is in the process (example: is the script in its first rewrite, or its second? When is the writer due to turn in the next draft? Etc.) and report back up to their boss with this information.

The real decision-makers are rarely involved with the day-to-day note giving process (sometimes they are, if they really like the project, or it’s based on a huge IP, or if they have a personal connection with the writer … but often not, they simply don’t have time for everything). They rely on these people to tell them if a script is worth pushing forward or not. And again, no script has ever come in perfect. There are always changes that need to be made. Thinking that there aren’t is delusional and, frankly, immature. You won’t make it as a professional writer with this mindset.

This is where your ability as a writer to execute on the notes you are given becomes a big factor. In pretty much every environment I worked in, notes were worded as “suggestions.” Execs want to be seen as helpful, loving friends who are your allies in the process (because if you become an A-list top star, would you call them with your next pitch if they weren’t?). And while that’s partially true, you also need to remember that the notes you’re getting are how the people in power feel about your work. And once all the steps have been exhausted, and the rubber meets the road, you’re either going to get a thumbs up or a thumbs down. There’s no in between, sadly.

If you’re wondering why a script would get purchased and then not produced, oftentimes it came down to the notes process. Executives liked something about a script in the early going, but wanted changes. And the writer couldn’t make those changes with high enough execution to please them. OR, the studio liked the script but just determined that it couldn’t make money on it. Probably because the package of talent wasn’t good enough (but usually, in my experience, if a studio has a really, really good script, they won’t let it go just because of that).

So, while you almost always have the choice to take or not take a note, remember that ultimately every decision has consequences. Ugh, I sound like my father right now …

Moving on, another facet of this position is representing the studio’s interests whenever it does come time to film a script. It’s very, very common for executives to fly out for what are known as “set visits.” Basically, they act as babysitters to the cast and crew. They watch and report back to the bigwigs while the grips, best boys, and all others do their jobs. They are the eyes and ears on the ground, reassuring the executive vice presidents (EVP) that all the millions of dollars they’re spending on this film or TV show aren’t going to waste (or, if there’s a big problem, they make sure to flag it and make their superiors aware with enough time to actually fix it).

Could the EVPs and Presidents make these sorts of trips themselves to check in on things? Yes, and they sometimes will. But do they more often than not have better things to do (to say nothing of not wanting to deal with the nightmare hellhole that is LAX)? Also, yes.

Executives are also the conduit of information flow regarding what is happening at the company. Remember when I said that the top decision-maker had a lot to think about? Well, it’s pretty damn hard to make those decisions when your phone won’t stop ringing because everyone wants to talk to you. So, these lower level people will end up providing a buffer layer (or several) of communication in between the top dogs and everyone who wants to piss on their hydrant.

The producer for an active project ran into Brad Pitt at a party and pitched him the logline? Cool. Tell the exec on your team. Not the EVP. An agent has a client with a cool new idea and wants to set a time for a pitch? Awesome, call the manager or director … not the EVP. There’s a chain of information flow that needs to be established in order for everyone to be effective in their positions. Some companies get it right, and others get it very, very wrong (yes, I’m talking specifically about the feckless thugs who work at [redacted—for Spike’s safety, as we at Pipeline Artists want him to keep writing articles for us, not disappear into Kevin Spacey’s basement, never to be heard from again].

There are some creatives out there who will diss the development system, believing that it only serves to put people without a single creative bone in their body in charge of making impactful decisions for a work of art. And they wouldn’t entirely be wrong.

But Hollywood is more than an art gallery … it’s a multi-billion dollar business, and businesses are run by people.

Are there bad execs out there? With terrible taste in material, and who give notes that don’t benefit the story, only so they can say "yes, I put my fingerprint on this movie?" Yes, there are. But there are also very good development execs too.

Finding them is part of the Hollywood lottery. Many times it just comes down to luck.

Doesn’t everything in the city of angels?

Godspeed, and happy writing.

*Feature photo by RODNAE Productions (Pexels)

Spike is a veteran of the Hollywood development landscape, having worked for an agency, a prod co, and a TV network. He enjoys long walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, and dynamic storytelling.
More posts by Spike Scarberry.
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