Another Thing I Learned From Not Killing Stephen King: Development Is Where Most Projects Get Stuck

by Dr. Monroe Mann, PhD, Esq, MBA, LLM, ME, EMT
Founder & Executive Director, Break Diving, Inc.
Author, “The Theatrical Juggernaut – The Psyche of the Star” (now in its 2nd edition)

PHASE 1 – DEVELOPMENT  (Where most projects get stuck)

Before I even explain what development is, let me start by explaining that development is where most projects get stuck.  Why?

Most projects get stuck in development because most people try to make a movie without realizing  that making a movie is an entrepreneurial business endeavor of the highest order.  It truly doesn’t matter if it’s a short film or a feature film—you are about to embark on something of immense proportions.  Getting involved with such an undertaking without realizing that you are starting a business (even if the project is just for fun) will lead to almost certain disaster.

Therefore, and more specifically, most projects get stuck in development because they don’t have the infrastructure to cleanly move forward to the next step.

Infrastructure?  What infrastructure am I talking about?  Well, first and foremost I am talking about a finished script.  Second, financing.  Third, a great team.

And funny, those are the only three parts to development, haha: a quality finished script, legitimate financing, and a good team.  I’m laughing right now writing this because the three key elements you need to move out of development and into pre-production are the very three things that most people have trouble procuring.

It is so easy to say, “Oh, I’m developing a few films”, but what that really means is that you have no films at all.  Just some ideas on paper.  Maybe a little bit of money.  Maybe one or two attachments.  But the truth is, until you move into pre-production (to be discussed later), you really have no projects.  You just have a script (I hope) and a dream.  And odds are, it’s not a great script that you have.  It probably needs work.  A lot of work.

Now, if I had to pinpoint just one particular area of development that results in most projects getting stuck, it’s always the money.  Or rather, the lack thereof.   The script?  Not terribly difficult.  The team?  Not monumental.  The money?  That’s a challenge.

True, while writing a script is hard, procuring one via an option agreement or buyout is simple.  Many aspiring pro screenwriters are often also willing to get involved at a bargain for the experience and exposure.  Of course, you can always just write one!  It may not be the greatest thing ever (though it might!), the point is that getting a script is not your biggest issue (more on that later).

As for a team, the truth is that there are also so many people who want to be associated with the next big film (or even the next crappy film that might give them experience), so it’s not terribly difficult to get people attached to your project (more on that later as well).

However, where there is always resistance is with the potential investors: how the heck to get the money to produce the project?!  One answer is that you need investors to T.R.U.S.T. you.  Check this out later for more info: T.R.U.S.T.™ – Using Psychology to Raise the Money You Need for Your Project.  Bottom line: no matter how great your cast and how great your crew and how great your script, without the money, nothing happens.   Keep that in mind as we proceed.  If you don’t have the money, you may never move out of development.

Okay, now what is development?

Development is where it all begins.  As you may recall from the last post (Another Thing I Learned From Not Killing Stephen King… Filmmaking is Like a Pirate Ship!), there are five phases to making a movie:

  1. Development
  2. Pre-Production
  3. Production
  4. Post-Production
  5. Distribution

No film ever starts in pre-production.  NEVER!  All films must first pass through this gauntlet.  It’s such a terrible gauntlet that it’s often known as “development hell” and if you listen carefully enough, you’ll hear all the stories about films being “stuck in development hell”.  The Star Wars movies throughout their existence are one example.  Terminator II took FOREVER to get into production.  Top Gun 2 was in development for the last 30 years.  Whether it was hell or not, I don’t know, but for those on the Top Gun team who have wanted to make the sequel since the 80s, I’m sure the wait has been hell!

What specifically is development hell?  It means the production team is stuck in one of the three areas of development I mentioned above: they can’t get the money; they can’t get the script; or they can’t get the team; or… they can’t agree on any of the above.  That’s it.  If a project is stuck in development, it’s stuck only because the production team is stuck in one of these three areas.  Why is it hell? Because no one wants to be in development.  Producers and screenwriters are arguing about credit and money, producers and financiers are arguing about credit and money, and well, everyone is arguing over credit and money!  It’s a hotbed of potential contentiousness.  It’s also often a period of time where there is no clear leadership structure yet in place.  In can be stressful and frustrating and annoying…  and because of this, projects notoriously get stuck here ALL THE TIME.  That’s why it’s hell.  Once there, it’s hard to get out!  Bottom line, the idea is to get into pre-production, and then production as soon as possible, but no sooner (and I will explain that further too).

No matter what we’re talking about, whether it’s film rights, letters of intent, copyright, kickstarter, investors, start dates, cast, crew, or whatever—development will always and must always fall into one of these three categories:

procuring initial script + securing initial funding + assembling initial team  = development

Years ago, in 2002, I was developing a feature film about wakeboarding called In the Wake.  It never ‘got off the ground’ despite the fact that I truly believed that I had a script, had funding, and had a team.  Alas, clearly, it didn’t have one (or more) of those things, because if it had, it would have moved into pre-production.  While the project did have a great script (co-written by yours truly) and did have a wonderful team (including the producer of Gremlins Mike Finnell and music by Avril Lavigne and Sum41), the money fell apart at the last minute.

What happened?  Well, long story short, I had a million-dollar internet tycoon who had just sold his company who was about to give me the money, but at the last minute, the money fell through.  I’ll explain why later, but for now, the key is to note that development only consists of three elements: script, funding, and team.  If think you have all three, but for some reason, the project isn’t moving forward, then you don’t have one of them.  For example, even if you have the money in the bank, all team members on board, and the script is ready to go, if you’re not actively moving forward, it’s still a development issue: it means someone isn’t writing a check to get things moving, or someone is not giving the greenlight to move into pre-production, or there is still work being done on the script that is holding things up.  Script, Funding, Team.

With my film You Can’t Kill Stephen King, it all started with a rough draft of the script in 2008 co-written by me and Ronnie Khalil, a bunch of my previously shot short films I used as a fundraising tool, and a minimalist team.  However, my online repertoire of short films (some of which you can find on youtube and on imdb) did wonders to convince our first investor that I knew what I was doing, and that I would be able to assemble a team that would ultimately be successful.

Those short films made the difference between getting the money and not getting the money, and I’ll go over the details in the section on financing.  Right now, again, and for the umpteenth time, it’s crucial for you to simply recognize and remember that most film projects never leave development, and it’s because one of the three key areas have not been addressed: the script, the funding, or the team.  You need all three, and you need all three to be on the same page.  Once you do that, you can then move into pre-production.

How did this all pan out with our movie?  As follows:

THE SCRIPT: Ronnie and I met through a mutual friend, Peter Bielagus.  Technically, Ronnie and I both met Peter on the speaking circuit, and Peter invited both of us to Book Expo America in NYC during summer of 2008.   Another friend was supposed to vacation up in Maine with me that following weekend, and literally, the night before, he bailed out.  I had been texting with Ronnie and—shot-in-the-dark—I asked if he wanted to take a break from NYC for two days.  We barely knew each other.  We had just met that one time the previous weekend for a couple hours.  I have no idea what prompted me to invite him—seemed like a nice guy I guess.   So he took the train from NYC to Port Chester, and together, we drove the six hours up to Maine.

While up there, I was telling Ronnie all the stories about Stephen King, who also had a house on the same lake.  One of the stories?  Over the last few years, he had started buying lots of property around the lake.  He even purchased a bustling campground and… shut it down.  Purportedly, it was because he wanted the lake to be quieter.  Why?  No one knew.  So he could write?  People suspected, but the truth wasn’t clear.

Ronnie and I arrived on a Friday night.  It was raining.  On Saturday, still drizzling.  Swimming and boating and hiking seemed out of the question.  While walking along the pine tree lined backwoods road by my family’s cottage, I said to Ronnie, “It’s odd that no one has ever made a movie about Stephen King.”  And almost immediately, Ronnie and I had an epiphany: It’s raining!  There’s nothing to do!  We should write it!

It started out as a joke.  We had no intention of making it into a movie.  We were just bored.  And we thought it would help us pass the time.  What would it be about?  It became clear almost immediately: We want to write a movie about Stephen King.  It should probably be horror.  No one knows why King is buying all the property on the lake.  It’s sorta creepy.  He wants it to be quiet?  And our imaginations went from there.

By the end of the weekend, we had a 45-page draft.  By that time, we realized we needed to finish it.  We were having a blast.  We also knew we needed some help, particularly with the Stephen King references.  So when we got back to NY, we posted on Craigslist or Mandy (don’t remember offhand) and interviewed many people, and found Bob Madia, a horror screenwriter and Stephen King expert.  A couple months later, we had a first full rough draft of 80 pages.  The three of us continued working on it together until we arrived at the final 89-page screenplay (which we were still re-writing while shooting the film–more on that later).

THE MONEY: I took the script and my portfolio of short films and presented it to an old Army buddy of mine who was financially accomplished.  Long story short, he liked the script, and after watching my short films, he realized that if I was able to make these short films with just a few hundred dollars, I could probably do something great with a real budget.  That’s the short story, and we’ll get into the nitty gritty later.  For now, suffice it to say that after a lot of negotiation and contracts, we got our first huge cash infusion.  The point here is that we got our money.  For real.  Cold hard cash.

THE TEAM: Although our team at first was quite small: myself, Ronnie, Bob, and our first investor, it was a team.  And it was a team that was on the same page in terms of moving forward.

So what happened here?

  1. We got our initial script.
  2. We got our initial financing.
  3. We got our initial team.

In other words, we successfully completed DEVELOPMENT.  We were now ready to move forward into PRODUCTION.

Coming up next is a more in-depth analysis of procuring a script and all of the different snags you may encounter, and most importantly, how to avoid them.

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