Development hell

Aha, you’re fucking with me now, aren’t you? (image from The Breakfast Club)

Think of development hell as an infinite spin cycle. You are going to the Best Party Ever as soon as your laundry is done. Your amazingly cool shirt is too damp to wear but if you can just wait another 15 minutes… Oh good, it’s dry! But the wash cycle has left a spot on it, so you have to run it through again. It only takes 45 minutes: there’s still plenty of time to get to the party. Then the cat hoiks up a bile-yellow hairball on your jeans. That’s okay, you have another pair! Then your shoe breaks. But your hobby is cobbling (I think I said a really true thing about the entire indie film industry right there). You fix your shoe with a leather needle you had squirreled away in your junk drawer. You feel triumphant because you knew that needle would come in handy someday, no matter that it pokes you in the finger and makes you bleed all over your shoes.

And you dress and you’re sweaty and hopeful and excited, and you arrive at the Best Party Ever — and no one else is there. They all met another script that is throwing an Even Better Party than yours. You are not invited.

This happened for about eight years with OTHERLIFE.


My experience of indie development hell is:

Hell is other people’s checkbooks.

Hell is other people’s schedules.

Hell is other people’s need to attach themselves to 57,000 projects, thereby ensuring from their perspective that they will not miss whatever turns out to be the best party. This means you get two seconds of their attention per year, but because they are attached, you have to run things by them. Bonus points when they promise to read the script this weekend and get back to you on Monday, which ensures that you are too anxious on Monday to get any meaningful work done. About a year later you realize that “Monday” means “no.”

Hell is other people’s belief that female-driven films don’t interest men and therefore will not make any money. Apparently women do not go to the movies or have any desire to see realistic, complex women characters in films. Apparently all men who go to the movies are 15 years old, straight, and interested only in breasts and blowjobs. And if any grownup men did go to the movies, they would want to see movies about themselves because men are more interesting than women. Don’t believe it? When’s the last time you saw an interesting movie about a woman? The people who tell you these things are some of the same people who complain with no apparent irony that there are no interesting movies being made anymore.

Hell is other people’s egos.

Hell is your ego.

Hell is your belief that you will never write a film that will interest anyone because you are an unproven untrained middle-aged woman who wants to write about women, and we know how well that usually turns out.

Hell is your disbelief that you have to justify the reality of your women characters to so many producers, managers, executives and readers. When you get notes about the character not being likable because she raises her voice to a man, you have a vertiginous moment of feeling like you in are in a movie yourself.

Hell is your lack of experience which makes it very hard to separate good notes from bad ones. When you try to hide this lack of experience by treating all notes as equally important, your script becomes what is technically known as a giant spaghetti mess. You are the writer. This is your fault. In all seriousness, it is.

The hard part of development hell is knowing that if I were a better writer, my script would make people put aside their other 56,999 projects, stop tweaking, dive in and get this fucker made. But development hell happens a lot in indie productions because the script is almost there, has a good concept or a compelling character, and with a little work…It’s almost dry. It just needs a little spin.

There are plenty of reasons movies go off the development rails. OTHERLIFE was set up at a major studio and then put into turnaround, meaning that the studio decided so firmly not to make the film that they wrote off the costs and sent the script home from the party. Turnaround is bad because it sends a signal that the script may not be strong enough to engender confident financing: even if the script is not the real problem, the signal of unconfidence is still a real signal.

Also, if someone else wants to make the script, they now have to take on those sunk development costs. In spite of this, OTHERLIFE was nearly financed multiple times by multiple people with big checkbooks who would have signed off on all those zeros if only we could get (insert Big Famous Name) to direct or star. We showed the script to a lot of those Big Names. We had a lot of conversations about notes, about improvements, about tweaking this or that element of the script to make it better.

Development hell happens because people have faith in your script. It happens because people commit and work hard and keep trying. It happens because an amazing director (I’ve had four) with one or two films under their belt sees your film as a great opportunity to actually get something interesting made… with a little work. It happens because a producer (the count of OTHERLIFE producers is in the double digits) who wants to make great films finds something in yours that they think could be worth investing months or years of their lives in trying to realize. We had a couple of people who were just slipstreaming on the script, attaching themselves because someone at a party mentioned it and they thought they might be missing out on an opportunity (this is a true story). Those people directly contributed to slowdowns in development. Development demons, if you will. But most of the people who have crossed paths with OTHERLIFE have been good, smart, creative, passionate folks who want to make movies because it’s hard and meaningful and fun. Those people are goddesses and gods to me, every single one of them who ever touched this script or believed in the project.

We were close-but-no-cigar so many times, and some of those people who believed in the script stopped believing, and moved on. Sometimes that was my fault: I was the writer who couldn’t make the script better. That’s a special hell.

But I’m learning (more about which soon). That’s part of what these journals are for: to figure out what I’ve learned, to get better, and to share those lessons so that maybe other writers can benefit. Today I will say that development hell brings its own set of lessons. One of the biggest is that as a writer, so much of development is outside your zone of control — those schedules, those egos, those dollars. So the part that’s in your control — the writing — had better be fucking perfect. No excuses. No matter what. Sometimes all you can be in charge of is whether you suck it up and do it again and learn. So be the great big boss of that.

The OtherLife Journals (OLJ) are a series of chronologically-random posts about writing, selling, and making the film OTHERLIFE. One woman’s view of the wild ride of indie filmmaking.

The 4 AM Blind Panic Just Keep Swimming Blues

The Abyss
The Abyss. Perfect metaphor.

I knew that SOLITAIRE-the-script would be different from the book, although during the first year that the script was in development, I (predictably) indulged in the fantasy that the differences would be superficial. I wanted Ko. I wanted Solitaire-the-club. I wanted Jackal and Snow and Estar and Crichton and Scully and Razorboy and pink-haired Drake. Just writing their names here evokes them for me; all these years later, they are so real to me. But none of them were in the draft of SOLITAIRE that I read, or in the OTHERLIFE that you’ll see on screen. I’m truly good with that. They live in my heart and head (and also, I hope, in some of yours). And it turns out film scripts are difficult enough without putting them under the impossible burden of an un-filmable story.

If I had known how hard screenwriting is, I’m not sure I would have given Tommaso such a strong pitch to let me do the rewrite. And yet, one of the patterns of my life has been that sometimes the universe opens an unexpected door and invites me to walk through. I get to choose, but it’s a real choice: no door stays open forever, and they all lead to places of change that are not predictable in outcome. Those doors have led to my greatest joys, and my greatest failures, and my greatest tests. They have been the making of me.

I think this happens to a lot of people. I think most lives are tales of what happened when we were expecting other things. It’s not the door itself that is the story: it’s whether we walk through, and what we find. I don’t know about you, but often my initial thoughts are Oh wow this is going to be so cool WAIT WAIT SHIT what’s that over there? OMG that thing I’ve been so scared of for so long? That thing is what I just signed up for. I am SO FUCKED. It’s like walking out your front door and dropping into the Mariana Trench. Time to swim like hell.

I’m a good prose writer. My particular skills are in character, relationship, psychological nuance, the big impact of small choices. I can parse those things and write them down in 1,000 or 25,000 or 100,000 words. I basically swim in character soup when I’m writing. And characters are the heart of a good script: but making their stories come alive demands a different kind of writing excellence. I didn’t know this when I started the rewrite. I didn’t know how to construct a screen story. I didn’t know how to build visual narrative grammar. I didn’t yet know that Act 2 would long be a vast desert of Okay, Now What? I wasn’t just ignorant: I had the special self-assured ignorance of the expert who thinks that her tools will fit any situation.

The self-assurance lasted one day and one page into the rewrite. The second morning, I got up at 4 AM, made tea, put on my headphones, stared in blind panic at the terrible awfulness of the previous day’s work, and started swimming like hell. I worked every day for six weeks from 4AM to 6PM, stopping only when Nicola made highly unreasonable demands on my time and energy (you know, things like We should eat lunch now.) I was exhausted and scared and the only thing I knew how to do was keep going.

And you know what? I also had so much fun. I wrote things that I thought were pretty good. They weren’t, not really, but they were on the path to good. The experience of that script was like the swimming lessons I had when I was little, where the Nice Teacher opens her arms and says Swim to me! The terror when she steps back farther every time and you know you will never close the distance. The exhilaration when you do.

I met my deadline. I sent the script to Tommaso. He responded with a very polite version of What an interesting mess you’ve made! Which I was rationally expecting, and which still gutted me. He gave me notes. I made changes. Notes. Changes. Notes. Changes. The baby writer out in the deep, swimming like hell for an unseen shore.

The OtherLife Journals (OLJ) are a series of chronologically-random posts about writing, selling, and making the film OTHERLIFE. One woman’s view of the wild ride of indie filmmaking.

The power of no

The OtherLife Journals (OLJ) are a series of chronologically-random posts about writing, selling, and making the film OTHERLIFE. One woman’s view of the wild ride of indie filmmaking.

When someone in the film business wants to adapt a novel, they start by asking the writer or her agent if the film rights are available. The writer or agent respond, “Why yes, they are.” And generally the next thing that happens is… nothing. So when my agent let me know that Cherry Road Films in LA was expressing interest in Solitaire, I indulged in 20 seconds of what-if and then went back to work.

    Imagine my surprise to receive an offer. Imagine my consternation when my agent, and the literary film agents in Hollywood that she had connected with, advised me to reject it for a number of reasons:

  • Too little money for the initial option term
  • Too short of an option term
  • Too long of an extension term for too little renewal money
  • Too little money for the purchase of film rights.

A film rights contract addresses two primary transactions: a development option, and a rights purchase agreement. They are linked. The option gives the producer the time-limited exclusive right to create a screenplay and develop it into a film deal (by attaching a director, key actors, money, a studio or distributor commitment, the list goes on). If the producer is able to secure a commitment to make the film, then they exercise their option to purchase the film rights: the rights purchase language spells out all those details.

Money, time, and creative control are the basic components of these agreements. Here begins the “not for the faint of heart” portion of our journey….

The number of authors who sign publishing or film rights contracts they don’t understand makes me crazy. It’s not enough to assume that your agent knows what she’s doing and will automatically get the best deal for you. You may trust that she has your best interests at heart, but she’s not the one who has to live with the terms. You do. And you’d be amazed at the number of agents who don’t really dig into the fine print details: they, like writers, assume some things cannot be negotiated. Oh, that’s the publisher’s boilerplate, or That’s standard film industry language. They won’t change that.

And maybe they won’t. But that doesn’t mean you should sign a contract without understanding that when it says blah blah blah legal language YAWN blah blah, sometimes what it really means is, for example, Not only do we own the right to publish this book, but we also have the right to publish any future books you write unless you can get someone to make a higher financial offer. This is what I call a company-store clause, and is a true example from a not-so-small press contract that an editing client almost signed within the last several years.

So, back to the offer to option Solitaire, me wringing my hands over my keyboard and whimpering But…Hollywood! Movie! Want! But I listened to my agents and I thought hard. That’s when I started realizing that it was up to me to decide what tradeoffs I am willing to make in my career, and what my personal balance is between business and art. Stephen King and J.K. Rowling no longer have to compromise (I’m guessing). The rest of us have choices to make.

Ultimately, I decided that the parameters of the offer didn’t work for me. I was ceding too much control for not enough compensation. So I told my agents to say no.

At about 5:15 PM the afternoon of the offer expiration date, my (unlisted) home phone rang, and the man on the other end introduced himself as Tommaso Fiacchino from Cherry Road Films. My eyebrows went up and I put on my best grownup professional voice, although inside-Kelley was squeaking Hollywood calling! Movie producer! Mrrph!

Tommaso said, “So, we don’t have a deal?”

However, because inside-Kelley was still squeaking, phone-Kelley didn’t really hear the question mark at the end. Phone-Kelley heard a guy dropping the hammer on the wee writer from the sticks. You missed the deadline and now we don’t have a deal. I honestly thought he was calling to personally inform me that this was the End Of The Line. (I was perhaps feeling a little freaked out :).

So I said, “Okay.” As in, okay, we don’t have a deal.

And he said, “…. Wait. No, we don’t have deal?” This time I heard the question mark.

“Has no one gotten back to you about this?” I said. And when it became clear that my LA agents hadn’t bothered to give him the courtesy of a formal no, I did it myself.

Being Tommaso (*waves at Tommaso fondly through the internet*), he argued with me earnestly attempted to persuade me to change my mind. He told me how much he loved the book. I agreed that I loved it too. He told me that it was unlikely that anyone else would offer for it, because it was three years after publication and the world had moved on. I agreed with him. And my answer was that I appreciated his interest, but his offer didn’t represent the value of the property.

“I’m very disappointed,” he said.

I said, “I am too.”

We wished each other well, and I put down the phone and walked upstairs to Nicola. I must have looked like a bunny in the headlights. “I just said no to Hollywood,” I said.

I had already decided not to take the offer, but there was something about saying no on the phone to Tommaso that made it so… real. And I was disappointed as hell. But I felt right about it. And I still do.

Nine months later, the phone rang. It was my agent. “Guess who’s back?” she said. Three months later I signed a standard option agreement with Cherry Road that did, in fact, represent the value of the property pretty well.

Sometimes the greatest power a creator has is the power of no. This was the first time I exercised it with OtherLife. But not the last. Stay tuned for more on that, and all the ways in which the OtherLife journey becomes very non-standard down the road….

Enjoy your day.

The OtherLife Journals

OtherLife Countdown Clock

I’ve been waiting — for years — to write about the journey of my film OTHERLIFE.

Why haven’t I, until now? Because it has always been my conviction that the first rule of Not-Yet-In-Production Club is you don’t talk about it. This makes sense to me. I don’t broadcast about undertakings outside my zone of control until there is a real outcome to report. It doesn’t make sense to me to chronicle in real time the miserable rejections, the almost-deals, or the occasional moments in which I mentally pointed a large rocket in the direction of The Film Industry. Or to trumpet the amazing highs, triumphs, and moments of deep satisfaction when I couldn’t give context.

It’s way too easy for impatient writers to shoot their own deals (and working relationships, and careers) in the foot these ways. Loose lips, etc. One of the reasons that my team on this film trust me is that I have kept my mouth shut FOR YEARS about the sausage making, and also about the Good News before everyone involved was ready to make it officially public. It’s a strategy I encourage all writers to consider: resist the temptation to share details just because you have them. Especially when you are miserable, frustrated, desperate for recognition, or in need of an ego boost. And even when you are radiant with joy. Not until it’s time.

Which doesn’t mean that I haven’t wanted to share. I have. And now the film is well into the editing and post-production process, and sometime in 2016 there will be a movie that I can see. And you too, I hope!

Those details are not yet in place, so I won’t speculate on them here/now. What I will do is begin a series of occasional and chronologically random posts about writing, selling, and making OTHERLIFE. I will talk about as much as I can that doesn’t violate confidentiality clauses or expose me to libel. I’ll answer questions if you have them — reach me at kelley [at] kelleyeskridge [dot] com. And I’ll do my best to be transparent and authentic about my experience. I have no idea where these journals will go, but I’m looking forward to sharing the ride with you.

More soon!

Enjoy your day.


Nicola and I Tivoed the E! preshow awards because we like to look at all the pretty dresses, and then of course the Oscars. We drank beer and wine and ate dinner while we watched (skipping all the commercials, which is the beauty of TiVo). I got snockered, because I do every year for the Oscars — they are, even more than writing awards, my Great Big Dream of Recognition, and I like to drink and wave my arms and opine about the speeches, and most of all to imagine myself there. My BA is in Acting, and I’ve been on stage, or writing, or both, since I was 8 years old: the Oscars have always been one long evening of what if and what I would say and how marvelous it would be.

So, a few thoughts on tonight:

Isn’t Kathryn Bigelow awesome?

Helen Mirren is so gorgeous and I want to be her when I grow up.

I love that for the Best Actress and Best Actor nominations, they bring out people who have actually worked with the nominees who can say something personal about them and their work. It’s a big award; it’s nice to have a chance to see the nomination be truly meaningful.

I read the screenplay of Precious recently, and thought it was astonishingly moving. Screenplays are not novels: it’s not so easy to make them interesting reads. This one is really good.

James Taylor can still sing. It is nice to see age and experience onstage. Youth and energy and potential has its place, but the older I get, the more I enjoy seeing potential realized.

Someday writing awards will be sexy. Today is not that day.

Can I just double down on the Kathryn Bigelow thing?

In 1989, after Clarion, when Nicola was back in England and I was in Georgia, I wrote her a long letter that was essentially a play-by-play of the Academy Awards. That year they made a bunch of unfortunate women dress up like dancing stars with tap shoes. The star costumes covered their heads and bodies, so out on stage they were just great big gold stars with legs and arms, tapping away. It was a particularly funny production number, and with any luck at all we will not see its like again. I sat on my sofa with a glass of wine and drew Nicola a little picture of the dancing stars. I don’t remember who won that year, but I remember wishing that she was there. So tonight was a good night, you know?

Have a good week. The world is full of magic: I hope some of it comes your way.

Læta Kalogridis talks about screenwriting

I haven’t been out of my editing/writing cave in a while, and I’m missing the movies. I like matinees with quiet grownup audiences and fresh popcorn. I like that immersion in story…

But right now it’s all about the Netflix, and that’s good too. There’s lots on our list right now that I’m looking forward to, including Shutter Island. I’m always curious to see how writers handle adaptations of fiction like this, that has an essential secret at its heart. It’s easier to keep these kinds of secrets in prose, it seems to me, easier to bring the audience into the mystery without making them feel jerked around.

And so I was interested to read this interview with Shutter Island screenwriter Læta Kalogridis. I thought I’d be reading about adaptation: instead, I found a very thoughtful discussion of women in Hollywood, urgency and violence in narrative, and a lot more.

And she’s from Winter Haven! (*Tampa native waves at Læta Kalogridis through the internet*)


An open letter to the Academy

Dear Oscar guys,

And I know you are all guys, because no one who has ever actually worn one of those dresses would make people sit in them that long for such a boring stupid program.

I was fairly amazed at the cluelessness of it all. I understand that the reason the Oscars are a million hours long is so the network can sell 999,999 hours of advertising and make a packet. But yeesh, people, there’s no point in selling ads when the audience isn’t watching. (This year’s ratings were The Worst Ever since Nielsen started tracking the show in 1974.)

And why aren’t we watching? Because we are bored. I can only imagine the suffering of the live audience — at least I can TiVo through the worst of it.

Here is what I want: a return to dignity. It’s Hollywood’s biggest award, so why not let the awards, and the nominees, shine? I don’t need a funny host (and if we have to have a funny host, can we at least have a funny host?). I don’t need a monologue. I’d love to see a confident, successful actor host the evening — Denzel, Meryl, Jodie, Tommy Lee, I have a list. I’d like them to open the evening by saying, “Welcome to the 81st annual Academy Awards show. I’m honored to be here, and to have the pleasure of recognizing the fantastic work of this year’s nominees. Tonight, we begin with the nominees for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.” Ba-da bump. On with the show.

And then have one presenter for each award. One actor in nice clothes who comes out and makes a brief, heartfelt, personal speech about the category for which they are presenting — what the category is, and why it’s important to film. Don’t make the presenters be “entertaining,” and for the love of god don’t make them pronounce anyone’s name.

And then show lengthy clips, at least a minute each, that highlight the nominees’ work — including the cinematographers and the composers and the editors and the writers. Oooh, that’s hard! Here’s the thing: if you aren’t running around like a blue-assed fly trying to write jokes for presenters, you might have the brainpower/critical sensibility/time you need to select clips that would (and here’s the really radical notion) actually make people want to see the movies!

And then give the winners at least 90 seconds each to thank their goldfish if they want to. You Oscar guys are so fucking rude to the winners that it’s unbelievable. So what if their speeches are lame? They just won an Oscar, dude, they deserve their 90 seconds. And I would rather watch a minute and a half of someone being incoherently (or even tediously) happy than watch one more second of lame scripted patter between presenters who are only there because their agents had power lunches.

And then end the show.

Oscar guys, why is it so hard to understand the power of simplicity, dignity, and focus?

I’ve just written my first screenplay. Of course I’ve written my Oscar speech… but when I imagine giving it under the circumstances of last Sunday’s award show, I just want to put a nail through my forehead.

I will not thank you for your attention, since I suspect you will pay none. But mark my words, one of these days it will be impossible to tell the difference between the Oscars and “Dancing with the Stars.” Oh wait, “Dancing” will be the one with the bigger audience….

Of interest to writers

Well, certainly of interest to this writer.

First, John Scalzi’s excellent post on the harsh realities of the business (and this follow-up). I wish I’d had this when I taught Clarion West this past summer. It would have saved a lot of conversation. I could have just said, “Go read Scalzi’s #4,” et cetera.

Speaking of which — the 2008 Clarion West workshop is now accepting applications, but put your skates on. Deadline is March 1.

Looking for an agent? Colleen Lindsay has just hung out her shingle

If you’re at all interested in screenwriting, I recommend looking back through the comprehensive coverage of the WGA strike at Deadline Hollywood Daily. If you’re not too worried about being linear, then start with this blow-by-blow reporting of the recent events leading to the recently-announced deal. And don’t just read the post — ponder the 300+ comments that follow, and what they reveal about the human cost of the strike. The last strike was in 1988, when there was no technology for this kind of immediate, urgent public discussion — and it reveals the huge losses for many below-the-line people who aren’t writers and didn’t have a choice, and the long-term damage to writers and the industry as a whole. In these comments are redline levels of excitement, despair, empowerment, uncertainty, and vitriol, interspersed with some thoughtful examinations of Hollywood business and the writer’s place in it.

Book publishing isn’t as different from Hollywood as you might think — book writers may not have a union, but we do have some of the same issues. There are lessons here for every writer.