Screenplay DevelopmentAll script development projects start out small. They consist of a writer, who comes up with the film idea, and a producer, who can also be the originator of the idea. But as the project moves forward, more players get involved and they significantly shape the direction the script takes. They can also drop out of a project and let someone else in, who in turn has his or her own ideas about the film.

These constant changes make film development a fluid and complicated process. Competing interests will always influence a project and those who possess the power at a particular point will have a greater say.

The Stages of Development

1. Treatment Before the First Drafts

Treatment refers to the period in which the writer and producer negotiate a script development agreement, before the first screenplay drafts are written.

The writer or producer can have more power at this stage. The writer has greater leverage when the original idea for the movie, which is the writer’s, has a lot of buzz and excitement surrounding it; this buzz can attract producers who want to work on the project. In short, if there is high demand among producers, the writer will be in a stronger position to negotiate favorable terms. On the other hand, producers usually already have access to funding sources.

This gives them leverage over the writer, because without funding a film can’t move forward and writers tend to not have access to this capital. If the story idea is an adaptation, s/he may own the rights to the idea. Also, producers can choose whomever they want to work with, whereas the writer cannot be so picky. It is also more difficult for writers to attract funding from financers without a producer on board.

The producer uses experience, expertise, the promise of funding, and general powers of persuasion to convince the writer that s/he is best person to work with. An agreement between the two parties is, in the short-term, beneficial to the writer.

The writer has the power to write the first few drafts of the screenplay, assuming there isn’t a speculative script; the writer’s credibility increases once s/he starts writing, and s/he probably receives a payment upfront. The downsides are that the writer typically loses the rights to the film because the producer either buys an option of it or buys all of the rights to the film at the beginning. The producer may also hire another writer at any point if s/he deems it necessary.

Agreements can easily break down. The kind of agreement described above is called a “negotiated exchange power transaction” because the producer did all s/he could to convince the writer to sign on, and the writer exchanged skills and rights to the project for a large payment upfront and subsequent lower payments.

The writer, however, may lose interest if s/he has disagreements with the producer. Additionally, as the size of payments decrease, so do the financial incentives to keep writing. In response, the producer might try to employ a “force transaction,” which means that s/he tries to force the writer to start working because the writer is contractually bound to do so.

Otherwise, the producer will hire someone else. These, of course, are not the right ingredients for a successful film project. They stymie creativity and create distrust. So it is in the producer’s and writer’s best interest to develop a solid relationship built on mutual respect and trust.

Sometimes a broadcaster or studio adapts a story from a novel, play, or real-life story into a film. The studio (or the broadcaster) is the most powerful player at the outset of negotiations because it has the capital in place to fund the script development.

It can buy the rights from the author, or from the people associated with the real-life story, and choose the producer and writer it wants to develop the script. It also hires the director it wants and possesses the authority to replace anyone if it so chooses. In this situation, the reputation of the producer usually counterbalances the strength of the studio, however.

When studios seek people to work on a film they typically hire well-known producers who in turn have their own “expert power” and, therefore, the ability to exert their own influence in negotiations.

2. The First Drafts

The writer can finally get started on the screenplay once treatment is over and the development agreement is signed. Not surprisingly, the writer is at his greatest strength during the time he writes the first couple of drafts; he is the only one writing the script and is, therefore, in control. This control does not last forever, though; it begins to wane once he hands drafts over to the producer, development executive, family, friends, script editors, and other trusted partners for review.

It is essential that all of these people, especially the members of the development team, read drafts and give the writer feedback as soon as possible. Making the writer wait is detrimental; he is already nervous and apprehensive about what people think and whether the script is on track. Experienced writers understand the difficulties that come with script writing but they also know that, in the end, the whole process can be rewarding.

The next step in the process is to “send [the script] out” to development financers. The decision about when to do this belongs to the producer.

Needless to say, this is a critical juncture in the project and the strategy to move forward must be planned. All films need financial backing to move forward and those with the money can essentially make or break a film project; they can either reject or accept the script. Producers know that development funders can eventually be production financiers if they so wish, so first impressions are critical.

The film development team fully understands that financers can reject the screenplay and that, in order to convince a financer to fund the project, major changes must be made to the script itself or to the development team. The producer should also consider how many financers (and which ones) the script should be sent to. Because of these factors, the “external” players have more power over the project’s direction.

A financer reads a script and gives feed back on it when s/he agrees to fund a project from the start, particularly with adapted films. The writer has less power with adaptations because usually he needs to follow the original story as closely as possible. The writer may be asked to work with  the author of the story, who, if the full rights to the story are not bought, may have reserved the right to approve the final draft of the screenplay.

3. Drafts Are “Sent Out” and Returned with Multiple Sources of Feedback

As alluded to above, once drafts are “sent out” to external players, the script development process becomes much more complicated because there are more people to contend with. The writer’s power decreases a great deal at this stage. Financers, film production financers (broadcasters or public subsidy financers), equity financers, and co-producers all give the producer their feedback about the script.

The producer must carefully consider this input. He must also be aware that they may belong to organizations that have their own agenda and culture—factors that will likely be evident in the feedback. It is the producer’s job to sort through all of the feedback and decide what comments to give to the writer.

A skillful producer will not only be able to wade through all of these comments and suggestions but also use the conflicting input to his advantage by playing the external players against each other (too much feedback is referred to as “too many cooks”). The producer’s ability to do this decreases the chance that a financer gains too much control over the process.

The producer must be careful, however; financers always have the choice to sign onto the project or not. In order to get them to do so, he and the writer must weigh the advantages of incorporating the financer’s feedback against the possibility that doing so would result in a significant loss of creative control over the screenplay.

Financers are not the only external players who begin to exert influence at this stage. Directors often get involved in script development as well and they typically have a lot of power. Their reputation and the fact that they are very skilled in how to visualize a script on the big screen combine to become powerful forces.

In fact, some financers will only commit to a film if a director is on board. The director also has his own staff, friends, and family who provide their advice as well. As with input from others, the producer and writer must take into account the director’s feedback and decide how much to put into the script.

A director’s decision to join a film project is also contingent on his overall schedule and participation in other movies. On the other hand, the producer must consider the director’s ability to attract production financers and cast members, which ultimately  depends on the level of respect the director has earned in the field. The idea that the script development process is very fluid is especially true when it comes directors, because they can withdraw from a project at any time for any number of reasons, allowing another director to join.

As one might expect, the constant changes described here almost always alter the direction of the script based to the input of the new players.

Actors can have as much influence as any other participant in the process. Since they are the ones who perform the script, they also give the writer and producer feedback. They must take into consideration the same issues as everyone else: the quality and direction of the storyline, who the director is, and how the film will be financed.

The producer and writer need to decide what elements of the script to change without ceding creative control.

As outlined in this article, a lot of negotiation takes place before a screenplay comes to life on the big screen. Everyone involved in script development possesses different degrees of power and influence at different points in the process. The writer has the most influence in the early stages but inevitably loses some control. Financers, directors, and actors all play an influential role as well.

The producer must manage all of these competing interests and help the writer maintain enthusiasm for the project. But, in the end, a “unity of vision” must tie everyone together. Without this in place, a film will not be made.