barton finkEvery writer who has pitched a story, received studio notes, or listened to a network exec talk about ratings and ad dollars instead of character and nuance knows the true meaning of the term “development hell.” Some producers and execs are skilled, smart, and conscientious when it comes to giving notes on a script, and some are… not.

When we talked to Life After Beth writer/director Jeff Baena last week, he shared his own story from the trenches of development hell, saying, “I had to do another draft that was the complete opposite of what I had just done, which was worse than a page-one rewrite because it was a conceptual flip. It was god-awful; it was the lowest moment for me.”

It’s good for writers to get another set of eyes on a script, talk about character arcs and hash out plot points. If the notes are communicated in a savvy, intelligent way, they can help take a project to the next level. Creative freedom is valued in some sectors of entertainment (indie film, Netflix, HBO), but all too often writers have to butcher their creation, unravel a well written and taut script because a financier wants to add dragons to an indie relationship comedy so it’ll sell overseas, or make a female character sexier… just because.

There’s definitely a balance when it comes to giving notes and allowing a creative person to flourish – and trusting the people you hire. In honor of all the writers who have sat across a conference table while someone tells them to “just make it funnier,” we talked to ten anonymous feature and TV writers about the worst notes they’ve received, the issues they see with some studio and network notes and the most ridiculous mandates they’ve had to endure.

If you have your own story from development hell, feel free to share in the comment section below.

“Early in my career, I was hired to co-write a script set in the Yucatan, drawing upon myths and legends of the ancient Mayans.  Shortly before we were set to deliver, the producer called to ask: ‘Could you just re-set the script in Liberia?’ (It turned out that he had a shady financing arrangement with the then-President of Liberia.) We said no.” -Academy Award nominated screenwriter

adaptation-still-1“About six years ago, when we were still in the thick of the Iraq war with no end in sight, I was hired to write a studio project that was set in the military. Part of my pitch was a careful way to acknowledge the war as a part of the landscape (which we all agreed was essential). The producers loved the first draft and told me that the studio loved it – they just had a few small notes. When I finally met with the head of production I was told, ‘We love it. Just one small thing, can we lose the war?’ What a classic studio note, essentially: ‘We love this script about the war but can you just lose the war? We thought we wanted it but it’s kind of a downer.’ Of course, turns out the head of production was right because the development of the script outlasted the war.” -Feature writer

“I love the set pieces, but no one wants to watch a female action hero. It doesn’t sell.” –Award-winning feature writer

“The only gripe I have, on the feature side, is that the bull’s-eye changes so quickly depending on what’s working and what’s not working at the box office. The needle moves too easily in feature development because the development process is so slow. TV, fortunately, doesn’t have that problem as much… getting too microscopic on certain details and losing focus on big picture character and story arcs.” –TV writer

0-tim“The ending is too sad. Can you make it happier, and rewrite it with a sequel in mind? We’re looking for franchises.” –Feature writer

“Everyone who has ever said ‘We’re worried this character is too unlikable.’ Right, because if there’s a theme people hate in movies, it’s redemption. And God knows if your main character is kind of a dick for the first half of the movie, paying audiences will get up and walk out.” –Film/TV writer

“I turned in a first draft of a wedding comedy that was meant to be a dark indie comedy, and one of the producers asked me to ‘make a few changes’ – one of them being to ‘rewrite it with Titanic in mind’ because he wanted something ‘bigger.’” –Feature writer

“This just needs to be… I don’t know… fifteen percent funnier?” –Film/TV writer

“I don’t’ get it.” –TV writer

“I once had a producer who decided it would be ‘cool’ if there was a hurricane threatening NYC during our movie. A category 4. There was no reason for it. Just because. Then the director decided to change the vessel on which the final battle scene takes place to a submarine. And it was an all out battle amongst hundreds. On the deck of a sub!!!! During a category 4.” –Film/TV writer

Dina Gachman

In addition to SSN Insider, Dina Gachman's writing has appeared in Forbes, Bustle, The Hairpin, Salon, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her first book, BROKENOMICS, will be published by Seal Press this April. You can find her on Twitter @TheElf26.

This Post Has 13 Comments

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  3. Donald L. Vasicek

    The fine point of writing a screenplay resides in keeping one’s focus on logic. Without logic (a category 4 hurricane???), the script will fall short, flat and contrived. Each and every nuance in the script regarding characters, story, setting, location, action, dialogue, narrative, etc. requires logic. Logic ties each script element together. Without logic in a screenplay, each element in the story will flap around like a flag in a fierce wind.

    Look at the successful screenplays. Look for logic in them. It will give you an idea of what it takes to include logic in all of your screenplays and give you a solid platform from which to argue with producers and the like.

  4. David M. O'Neill

    Every script and film has its stories. I was writing and developing a project called Lady Godiva. The work called for extensive research, travel, myths, legends – every ounce it laboriously poured over with love, affection and financial resource. Great right? Godiva takes the humiliating ride for the love of her countrymen to rescind the excruciating tolls placed upon them by King Canute – the Danish King… All good so far… Then, the producer comes into my office and says, “What if we have Godiva pay the tolls?” I said to him… “Then, the movie is over.” ‘There’s no more conflict.” “Peasants are saved by pg 38.” But then working with the note, and trying to support a directive from the boss, I was able to find and locate a more complicated kind of conflict, one actually more nuanced.. I never thought I could get there but once I worked it out, it did provide a second act turning point I couldn’t have imagined…

  5. John Gasparro Jr.

    Not too many years ago, when I was involved in the film and TV industry, I was DEVELOPING my own script for a major motion picture. It was a great story that was based on my own true story, of when I was a Marine stationed on Okinawa during the Vietnam war. The working title was (Never Sayonara). It had all the necessary components of what makes a movie a “classic.” And, it followed the paradigm of any good story: A beginning, a middle, and an ending–which is not the formula of today’s movies!

    During a final meeting in Toluca Lake, CA., with the producers and agents, the overall comment was: “Can you put more drama in the plot by having someone get murdered or maybe the hero get run over?” And: “Can you make it more ‘explosive?” Immagine this conversation going on during the development of “Sayonara”–which starred Marlon Brando, and won Academy Awards!

    John Gasparro Jr.

  6. Lucifer

    15% funnier seems like a fair note. Sometimes scripts need to be funnier, right? I’ve seen many movies that would have been far better off being 15% funnier.


    Sold a screenplay called Moonray to a major production company in Burbank. It involved a boy who died and came back as a ghost in a beam of moonlight. First call I had was from the assigned story editor saying how much he loved the story but did we really need that moonray?

  8. Wayne Behar

    It’s the ultimate studio hubris in asking a writer for changes. Funny short film that closed Palms Springs Shorts Film Festival in 2002.

  9. Ashley Pharoah

    “Right, before you start your pitch, I hope and pray it has the word “franchise” in it”.

    It didn’t.

  10. Abraham Alan Ross

    After 30 odd years and 26 good screenplays

    Methinx it’s time to change my shingle from:

    “Gone to a prod meeting to GONE FISHING!”


  11. Mark

    The worst screenplay note that I ever received? “The emotional highs and lows have to be higher and lower.” GOOD NIGHT EVERYONE! Drive safely!—film/tv writer

  12. Film Guy

    “We’re thinking of doing a ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ reboot but definitely do not want to do it in Beverly Hills.”

  13. tom jarrell

    The fact is, every note is given for a reason — something bothered somebody — and the smart writer listens hard, divines the note behind the note, figures out what isn’t working, and makes it better. I spent the first ten years of my career being smarter than the jerks giving me notes and it wasn’t until I got a little humility and started to listen that I started working all the time – and writing scripts I was proud of.

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