How Does The Story Development Process Work?
Development and its more familiar scary cousin development hell are terms every screenwriter is familiar with. The screenplay development process is broken up into two key stages – pre and post-sale. Writers are typically involved in both stages although their work is driven by slightly different factors in each.
Screenplay development includes all the drafts that writers toil through until their script is ready for the marketplace. For newer writers, the development process is often speculative, meaning they often don’t get paid until their script is sold. If a producer sees commercial potential in a script, they may option it for a nominal fee and then pay the writer for a rewrite and possibly a polish.
Established screenwriters with a proven track record are also subject to the vagaries of this process, but their fees are much higher. If they have written box office magic, they may get their ideas purchased from a pitch and then paid to develop their screenplay including multiple rewrites and polishes.
Whatever stream is taken, the script development stage has one ultimate goal – to get your story to a commercially viable stage ready for industry circulation and subsequent production, distribution, and exhibition. That’s not to say that a screenplay is complete once it’s sold. It has to be locked-down for production. Even so, tweaks can and do occur on set, some of them major in the case of a catastrophic incident during production.
The development notes on a sold screenplay are a combination of logistical and creative decisions which are a combination of opinions and directives.
Logistical notes are largely business and practical changes to your screenplay involving altering or removing locales, special effects, difficult shots, excessive or expensive cast, and stunts.
Screenwriters may be asked to do a page one rewrite if a significant investor comes on board or leaves the project. They can substantially alter the structure and plot of your story, sometimes to the point of being unrecognizable from their original vision. it’s unfortunate, but it occurs frequently. A more palatable polish is often a few tweaks to tighten up your story. Issues are not always about your particular idea, it’s all in the execution of that idea.
The creative changes to your story are more nuanced. As cast signs on, there are expectations on what characters they should play especially during the middle and advanced stages of their careers. While it is true that actors love to be challenged, some creative choices can be detrimental to their careers because their fans don’t want to see them playing specific roles. These considerations have nothing to do with the quality of your writing.
Other creative choices might come down to how actors want their characters to develop during the course of the story.
Most business decisions are based on what a producer can sell into the marketplace at any given point in time. Many have their genre preferences and passion projects, but many are becoming increasingly genre-agnostic. The market dictates not only what can be sent out, but when. Screenwriters should have an awareness of what stories do well in different business cycles, but should not become their handmaidens given that the cyclical nature of the business often breaks the rules when a unique and refreshing story enters the marketplace and everyone listens.
Once a read-through of your screenplay occurs, or discussion groups give their input on what parts of the story they liked, what they want to see more of, and what they want to see less of, producers start contouring your story.
A significant part of the development process also includes the format. Changes in format from a feature to a TV series, or a podcast and a limited series will often result in major rewrites.
Another part of the pre-production process is to establish your story as an IP. In doing so, a writer may be asked to create an expanded universe of the characters or their world. If your script has franchise potential, you may also be asked your thoughts on sequels, spinoffs, adaptations to other audio-visual formats, and even merchandising and product tie-ins. Admittedly, many of these steps don’t occur early on in the development process, but savvy screenwriters should have a basic understanding of how they work.
Pre-marketing Your Screenplay
This is a matter of building industry and audience awareness, whether it be commissioning posters and marketing materials, media opportunities with key cast and crew, or creating a proof of concept video, or Ripomatic (Clipomatic). Rather than tell a complete story, ripomatics show key scenes that depict the look and feel of the story. They perform similar functions to mood boards in the advertising world.
Not all development occurs from a completed screenplay sale. Sometimes it begins from a synopsis or an outline and developed with a group of producers or creative executives. The source material might come from a published article or a short newspaper clip and there simply isn’t enough material for a film or TV show. It must be expanded into a satisfying story.
This is called development by committee.
Once you have a pilot script for a television series or a feature screenplay, you need to develop an appropriate pitching strategy with your creative team. Writers should start formulating these pitches with blue sky concepts like timeliness and relevance to the marketplace in mind. This will generate the initial excitement. You are setting the table to whet the buyers’ appetites.
Then you can launch into the world of your story which often hooks a buyer. This can mean a locale like the center of the earth, a time period like 3000 AD, a movement (social cause), or a setting such as a school or a prison. Then you can build out your pitch and discuss your theme, character, and main plot points.
Occasionally you may be asked for comparable films and casting ideas.
There isn’t a single development process that applies to all projects. Some screenwriters sell their projects off the bat and have not further involvement because producers hire other writers to do rewrites. Other writers may stay on board for a producer’s role and have a bigger hand in creative and business decisions.
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