Principles of Hollywood Development

by Ken Aguado

A journey into the heart of darkness of Hollywood script development, and how it can be better.

There was a funny episode of Aaron Sorkin’s series “The West Wing.” Staffers from the Bartlett administration travel to L.A. for a Hollywood fundraiser at the home of a studio president. Opulence and celebrity abound. During the event, a fatuous studio executive tries to persuade administration staffers Sam Seaborn and C.J. Cregg to come work for the studio in a development position. The only problem (and the joke) is that neither Sam nor C.J. can figure out what the job entails or why it’s even necessary.

The idea for this essay originated when I was asked to teach a production workshop at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA. The class objective was to allow the film students an opportunity to vet their projects with their peers, giving the students an opportunity to improve their projects before they shoot. Being a slow learner, I eventually realize the class was really all about the development process and that this is what I should be teaching the students. The problem was that I could find no information on the topic — no books or articles — to share with my students. This was strange. After all, people in Hollywood spend a lot of their time doing development, and God knows there seems to be a book on every other topic related to showbiz. But nothing about development. Was it supposed to be a secret?

I decided to take a crack at the topic.

What is development?

Development is the process by which film and television scripts are acquired or created, and then improved. If the process is successful, these scripts become the basis of film and television productions. The people who live and work in the Hollywood creative community spend a lot of their professional lives doing development. It is an (often) indeterminate phase of creation that is crammed in between the original spark of inspiration and getting the thing produced.

The idea behind development is to make a good project better. And no matter what you think “better” means, I hope we can all agree we need more of it. On the other hand, if you think the talented Adam Sandler has been making his best films in the last 7 or 8 years, you can probably stop reading right now.

As everyone knows, many more scripts are developed than produced, perhaps by a factor of 100. When that process goes awry it is sometimes called “development hell.” And with a one percent success rate, there’s plenty of hell to go around. More on this delightful topic very soon.

Development doesn’t happen unless there is a minimum of two parties involved — one of which is typically a non-writer. If there’s just a writer involved, we call that “writing.” Development starts when other people get involved in the process.

Active film and television companies employ people (executives) who spend a significant chunk of their day performing development services. But of course many writers, directors, and producers also collaborate to develop scripts. With writers, sometimes the projects developed are their own scripts (ie: written by them), prior to taking the script into the marketplace but, as I said, they are not really “in development” until someone else gets involved.

A legal agreement to develop a script is called a “development deal,” although projects are often developed informally (that is, with no written agreement) between two or more parties — for example, as between a writer and an independent producer, or director. Unfortunately, in some cases this leads to some confusion about who owns or controls the materials being developed. This is probably because many of the people who dabble in development (like me) were able to convince their parents that they weren’t cut out for law school. If this is true, I won’t risk losing you now by letting this essay lapse into a discussion of copyright law. Just know that you can only hide behind that fig leaf of ignorance for so long. There are few things worse than having your project finally moving towards production only to learn there’s some problem with your rights. I believe the technical term is “it sucks.” So before I move on, here’s my shorthand version: If a writer develops a script with other (non-writing) partners and no one is employing the writer to do so (as in not “work for hire”), then the writer usually owns the results of their written work. But it can get much more complicated than this. Ironically, one thing I have learned over the years is that the last person you should rely upon when sorting out who owns a writer’s work is the writer her or himself, other than screenwriter David E. Kelly, who went to law school.

Although the numerous, high paying development deals of the ’80s and early 90s are no longer common, Hollywood still spends an enormous amount of money developing projects based on novels, plays, existing films, comic books, magazine articles, historical facts, and news stories. Sometimes, although now less frequent, original “spec” screenplays and pilots are acquired and developed. In television, the majority of development still comes from original ideas — that is, not based on other preexisting material. But not all development occurs in Hollywood. Independent projects are developed outside of the Hollywood system all the time. But even in the indie world, the vast majority of development goes nowhere.

Why the low success rate? Why aren’t better screenplays and pilots being developed and filmed? I’m glad you asked.

The short answer is that many of these projects probably shouldn’t have been developed in the first place. Yes, hard to believe, but mistakes happen, even in showbiz. But the longer and more complex answer is that this is the wrong question to ask. The fact is that plenty of good films and television shows are developed and produced. It’s hard to see them all. How much free time do you really have? On the other hand, there’s no question that for every great project that is developed and produced, there are dozens of projects developed that never make it all the way. The point of this screed is to share some of the things I’ve learned about how the process works — how it can go wrong, and (hopefully) how it can succeed.

Why does so much development fail? There is no one answer to this question. And if you ask the different people involved in the process, you will invariably get an answer that is skewed to their point of view: “The writer ran out of gas,” or “the network didn’t know what they wanted,” or “no one listened to my notes!” I will leave it to the reader to guess which industry professionals might be the source of these generic quotes. But I can also tell you that, at one time or another, all of these answers can be true, and many more that aren’t listed.

As mentioned earlier, when the process goes bad it’s sometimes called “development hell.” And while this term usually refers to a development process that becomes painfully protracted, it doesn’t always fail. There are many good (and bad) projects that get made after a decade (or more) of torturous development. There are many reasons development hell happens, but four big ones come to mind:

1) The writer (or succession of writers) has trouble executing the planned changes that are requested of them, whether the changes are based on good ideas or not. I remember David Madden (the current President of Fox Broadcasting) once told me that most first drafts are 90% of what you will get out of a writer, and my exerience since then has confirmed Dave’s wisdom. (If no changes are required and the script goes right into production, that’s not development. We call that “a miracle.”)

2) A project is developed in a way that distances it from the thing that people liked about the project in the first place. Yes this sounds strange, but projects frequently languish in development for years. Under these circumstances the people involved can lose sight of the original spark that ignited their passion for the material. They might just forget what was cool about the idea in the first place. If you’ve read The Hollywood Pitching Bible (a book I co-wrote with screenwriter Doug Eboch) you might be familiar with our cautionary adage “everyone loses perspective.” And it happens all the time in the development process.

3) There’s difficulty or disagreement in solving some fundamental narrative or production-related problem in the story. This includes a huge range of reasons, too many to list. But if you’re curious, Google the development history of “A Confederacy of Dunces” (narrative-related and never made), the 2010 version of “Robin Hood” (narrative, but got made), or the development history of James Cameron’s film “Avatar” (production-related, but got made). Warning: some of these stories will have you reconsidering that promising career in dentistry you abandoned for the glamour of Hollywood.

4) There’s a “disconnect” between development partners. For example, you might be working hard, developing something at the behest of an executive, but when the project goes to the executive’s boss, you learn it’s not what the boss wanted at all. I wish I could say this situation is rare but it happens enough to be worthy of mention. Or sometimes the parties just never agree on what the desired results of the development should be. Some projects are like a Rorschach test — different people see different things. One party wants a drama, another wants a thriller, and still another wants action. Me? I see a pretty butterfly. Is that weird?

I should point out that development hell rarely happens in series television development where a writer will typically only get a few cracks at executing a pilot, and if he or she doesn’t deliver, the project will be quickly abandoned. The torture can still happen but, if the project dies, at least it’s a short, painful death. Sometimes that’s a “win” in Hollywood. Keep in mind that, once a series is ordered, the development process will become ongoing as the subsequent episodes are conceived and written. Sometimes this can take development hell to a whole new level.

There are lessons to be learned from development hell, which is why I mention it before we get to the actual “principles” of development. Often, you can learn more from failure than from success. Failure that results from disagreement, misunderstanding, or incompetence can illuminate the fault lines of the process. In fact, if you’ve been through the process, successful development can seem like just a fluke, or a “happy accident.” It’s really not, but success often requires the planets to align in ways that would have made Galileo hang up his charts for good.

One last thing before we dive in. By “principal of development” I am not just talking about how a writer makes a script better. Sure, that’s part of it. But really I am talking about the broader creative process, and what I have learned over the years about how it works, and (very often) doesn’t work. This is as much a human “transactional” problem (to borrow an old school psychology term), as it is a writing problem And let’s be honest, there is a lot of stuff that gets produced where it is hard to imagine that the perfection of the script during development was the thing that made it a “go.” It’s just as likely a project gets made because of a star’s limited availability, or a network not wanting to broadcast reruns at 8pm on their fall schedule, or a studio needs a sequel to one of its hit films in theaters next summer. So when was the script finished? Sometimes it’s on the first day of shooting. Problem solved, right?

With that long-winded caveat, here are my principles:

It’s a big world with different tastes.

“Different strokes for different folks,” as Sly and the Family Stone sang it long ago. Or, “don’t be hatin’,” if “Malibu’s Most Wanted” is more familiar. Accept and embrace the fact that our wonderful world is full of different tastes, and finding a like-minded development partner is like trying to find a black cat in a coal cellar. But there is also good news. With about 600 theatrical films a year and scores of new TV shows released each year, there is something being developed out there for almost every taste. As long as I can get my “Game of Thrones,” you can have your “Big Bang Theory.” The latter show doesn’t even make me smile, let alone laugh, but as long as there’s something else to watch, I say long live Leonard and Penny. Diversity is a beautiful thing. But as I said, finding the right development partner can take some time and effort. Not everyone loves every project. This can be frustrating at times, but when you find and work with partners who love the same project, it can be incredibly gratifying, even if the project never gets made. And it’s not unusual for like-minded people to develop multiple projects together over the years. If the first one doesn’t get made, the next one might. Find the creative people you connect with and play the long game with them. Just be aware it might be a very long game.

Remember what you love.

When you work with your development partners and everything is moving along, you must always doggedly, ruthlessly, maniacally remember what you loved about your project in the first place. Development can last years, but even when it doesn’t it’s easy to get disconnected from your original passion. This may sound strange to some readers, but in development it happens all the time. Forgetting what you love about a thing is the first step towards losing the thing you love. (Yes, poetic, and I am sure someone will write a country song about it someday.) I highlighted this phenomenon in my introduction as one of the root causes of development hell and I’ve seen it happen so many times. Amazingly, the players involved will often travel voluntarily down this dark path until the project collapses under the weight of its own soulless body mass index. But sometimes things can be saved. Sometimes the people involved come to their senses. Or sometimes a new member will join the development team and rediscovers the project’s original faded glory. When this happens, it’s like Indiana Jones unearthing the lost city of Tanis. But a better plan is not forgetting what you loved in the first place.

Everyone wants it good, but everyone disagrees what good is.

When projects are developed, you’ll always hear the players say that their choices are guided by what is best for the project. They will say they just “want it to be good.” But does anyone really agree what “good” is? The definitive answer is, uh, yeah kinda. In my experience, there do seem to be a handful of aesthetic goals that people in development broadly agree upon, even if their path to those goals can vary. Some examples of narrative things most people in development will agree are good include: A defined and sympathetic protagonist(s), with a clear goal or inner need. A strong antagonist (or challenging force) that opposes the protagonist. A powerful, emotional, or funny, and eventful journey for the main character(s). Additionally, the journey itself should be clearly established, have significant obstacles along the way, and lead to the most satisfying resolution (or a possible path to resolution, in the case of a television series, where the character’s journey might last for many seasons).

Don’t get me wrong; this is a lot of agreement. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of other decisions where opinions will differ, often vigorously. A lot of these conflicting opinions can be grouped under the first topic above — different strokes for different folks. And even if the (often) strong personalities in the room can agree on a goal, they just can’t all agree on how to get there. So what’s the solution to this problem? I don’t know. What is the sound of one hand clapping? Why isn’t “palindrome” spelled the same way backwards? Who the hell knows. Maybe there is no answer to why people disagree. And in the development process there are often many conflicting voices in the room. The only advice I can give you is that when trying to find what is “best” for a project it might be better to start by identifying “best for who.” Sometimes the “who” are the people in the room and what they think is “best.” Sometimes it’s what’s best for the studio or network’s “brand.” But other times the “who” refers to the intended audience. A lot of people in development try to channel what’s in vogue in the marketplace — the current audience’s taste. And in many cases that audience is a global marketplace. Daunting, I know, but here is the takeaway: try to get to understand the perspective of your development partners. Sometimes, if you can figure out whom they are trying to satisfy, getting there will be easier than you think. And don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, as Voltaire used to say. Good is hard enough. Unfortunately, the truth is that getting it “good” sometimes takes a back seat to just “getting it done.”

Everyone loses perspective.

I mentioned this problem in my introduction, but let me broaden it out here just a bit. During the development process it is easy to lose sight of the big picture as you grind through the complex process of making projects better. And if the process goes on for years, as it often does, it’s even easier to lose sight of what you’re really doing. In The Hollywood Pitching Bible, Doug Eboch and I discuss this topic in detail, mostly as it relates to a kind of tunnel vision that can occur when creating a pitch in isolation over the course of many weeks. But in development it can happen in all kinds of ways, at any stage, even before the project is technically in development. Many years ago, when I was a production executive, my boss tried to sell me on the idea that we should buy a script he read by saying what made it unique was that it was a “reverse ‘Fatal Attraction’.” Now, for those of you who don’t know this film let me first say that I have no respect for you. For God’s sake, the film was iconic, it grossed over $150 million at the US box office — and that was in 1987 dollars. If you want to be in showbiz, see everything, subscribe to Netflix and let all of film and television history pour into your living room. Okay? That’s the only warning you get. But back to “Fatal Attraction.” The only thing that made this film conceptually interesting was that the female lead (played deliciously by Glenn Close) was the increasingly deranged predator in a romantic tryst that had gone horribly awry. Now, my boss wanted to do something he thought was fresh and original — a “reverse ‘Fatal Attraction’ ” — which meant he wanted to do what? That’s right, a familiar woman-in-jeopardy story; a bad sub-genre of film that we’ve never managed to kill by driving a stake through its misogynistic heart. I tried to explain this to my boss, while also keeping my job. He didn’t really see my point. But you do, right? Everyone loses perspective. It’s just human nature. And the sooner we all acknowledge this about ourselves, the more we will be open to true collaboration, other people’s ideas, and developing better projects.

Seek out other opinions, but consider the source.

Always try to seek out the opinions of others regarding the projects you develop. This is related to the above topic. Often it comes next; right after you’ve heeded my advice, accepted that you’ve lost perspective and attained a Zen-like “beginner’s mind” state of being. And even if you haven’t lost perspective, sometimes you can get some useful feedback and great new ideas — for which you will then take all the credit, of course.

Most film and television creative people understand the value of feedback, even if they know the opinions they will get are sometimes painful to hear. And it is frequently the case that development partners will become locked into seeing something in a certain way and resist new ideas. With screenwriters, I sometimes try to break through this resistance by telling them (jokingly) that they should think of me as the “dream writing partner” they don’t have to actually write with or pay half the money. This is just my light-hearted attempt to get them to break out of a certain mind-set. I want them to see me as someone there who will help them do what they are already there to do, and that I am not just trying to dictate to them. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. Why do development partners get locked into a point of view? Sometimes it’s tunnel vision, sometimes ego. There are many reasons why people become entrenched in their point of view. Certainly this is a primary reason a writer will get replaced on a project in a development deal. They just can’t see the project with fresh eyes to make the requested changes. (Note: As I said, replacing a writer is more rare in series pilot development. More likely the project will just be abandoned.) So get another opinion and try to see around the creative blinders we all wear from time to time.

I have two big caveats about getting feedback from others, both related to “consider the source” in the subject line of this section. First, not all opinions should be weighted equally. This doesn’t mean a good idea can’t come from anywhere — the assistant, the valet parking guy, or even the Sr. VP of Production — it can. But if the feedback is coming from the Sr. VP who is paying you, that’s an opinion where you should really listen. In fact, they may insist you listen. Second, if you solicit opinions from outside of the entertainment industry, the opinions you get may be from people who are not familiar with the creative traditions and vocabulary of showbiz. In other words, your podiatrist may have great notes, but the good doctor is unlikely to tell you “the script is missing an amplification of stakes at the end of the second act.” Normal people just don’t talk this way, thank God. So you might have to interpolate the notes you get from a non-pro. Or you might need to spend some time drawing out what they really think. But don’t worry; I am sure your mom will love your script.

Follow the rules, but don’t be a slave to the rules.

As I said previously, there are a few narrative guidelines that are broadly agreed upon in development. But there are many other narrative guidelines in Hollywood, and problems can arise when these guidelines evolve from just guidelines into someone’s rules — the elements they think are essential to making a story work best. This can be almost anything, so a list of examples will sound random and ridiculous. But I’ve heard things said like “the lead should never run,” or “voice over narration isn’t cinematic,” or “if the fate of the world isn’t at stake, the stakes are too small.” Don’t get me wrong; all of these may be the right choice at one time or another. But as immutable rules? I don’t think so.

Sometimes you will hear rules like these espoused after someone has just read a book or attended a seminar on screenwriting or story structure. The telltale sign? Look for the over-use of “technical” terminology coming from one of your development partners. I attended one of these seminars once, so I speak from experience. I didn’t learn much, but I did start referring to my girlfriend as my “love interest.” Yeah, we broke up.

There’s no formula for every project and usually the best projects take some chances. Psychologist Abraham Maslow used to say if you only have a hammer you’ll tend to see everything as a nail. In my experience the rules in television are more ridged and codified than in feature films. I am not sure why this is. It might just be the way networks and cable channels try to brand themselves. Or it might be the only way they can filter the massive volume of projects they encounter and develop: the more rules they have the more efficiently they can assess projects, make changes, and move them through their system, no matter how arbitrary it might seem. My advice is this: think of the narrative guidelines as your “tools.” Fully appreciate why they exist, but don’t be a slave to any one of them.

Be afraid of people with one good idea.

I added this topic because it’s a pet peeve of mine. I have been in a few development situations where one of the partners has a good idea, and only that one good idea. Nothing wrong with them having a good idea, but sometimes they will hold onto it like a junkyard Rottweiler locked on to a hubcap. It can be insufferable. When I was starting out as a young executive, I was lucky enough to sit in on a meeting with one of the greatest filmmakers of all time and hear his thoughts about a project of mine. (I won’t drop names, but his initials were Steven Spielberg.) The thing that impressed me most in that moment was this filmmaker’s ability to have lots of ideas and not censor himself: He wasn’t afraid of having a bad idea — and he had a few — but many more were brilliant, and that was the difference. Development is all about solving problems with good ideas. And every project has a lot of problems. But there are usually many solutions to any problem. Never be precious about any one idea.

Find a common creative vocabulary.

If you’re going to develop projects you must know how to speak the creative language of Hollywood. You can learn some of it by reading a book or attending a seminar, as I (lovingly) disdained above. But it’s more than that. You should also immerse yourself in the rich history of film and television entertainment. Whenever I speak to film school students about film and TV semiotics (which is never) I invariably take some time out to berate a few of them for not seeing every film and TV show ever made. As you’d guess, I start out with the avuncular “back in my day…” and then segue to insulting them for not appreciating how easy it is to be a film and TV buff today. (See my above rant about subscribing to Netflix.) I am sure these students find my rants deeply nurturing and they just haven’t gotten around to inviting me back, for some reason. In any case, it’s depressing that some film school students no longer seem to come to their interest in showbiz by being a buff. Don’t believe me? Find some film students and take a trip down the AFI’s 100 greatest films of all time — see how many of they’ve seen, or even heard of, for that matter.

Now don’t get me wrong, it’s impossible to see every film and TV show ever made. But the reason you should try is because the people in the entertainment business (especially in development) are always trying to find a common creative vocabulary, and a big part of that effort is being able to reference the things that already exist. So if someone suggests that the solution to a scene in your pilot is to do something similar to what they did in “Ordinary People,” and you haven’t seen it — well, I just hope I am there to witness your shame. (Assuming shame hasn’t been eradicated by reality TV.) At the very least, if you are developing a project you must become familiar with the similar films or TV shows that came before yours. For example, if you’re developing a sci-fi space adventure and you’ve never seen Star Wars, I don’t even want to know you. Get out of my office.

Giving notes, getting notes.

Some people hate getting notes. Actor/comedian Louis C.K. hates network notes so much, that he famously agreed to deliver his series “Louis” for only $200,000 per episode — substantially below the norm — if he retained creative control, with no network notes. This is very atypical and for the rest of us the notes process is a fact of life. I’ve been on both the giving and getting ends of the process more times than I could possibly remember. And giving notes can sometimes be almost as unpleasant as getting them. Here are a few tips for giving notes:

Be kind. Remember the person who will be reading your notes might have spent months of their life working on what you’re about to critique. Overtly respect their efforts and remind them why you loved the project in the first place — assuming you took my advice about remembering what you loved.

Be positive. If the goal is to get more work from someone, they won’t be doing their best work if you crush their hopes and dreams. That’s what marriage is for. And if the project is a lost cause, why they hell are you giving them notes?

Be clear. Ultimately you have to make sure the person on the receiving end understands what you want. It’s always best to get all partners to agree on the nature of the problem before any solutions are proposed. Always start by framing the major issues before you give suggested changes. It is much easier to get people to agree on the problems, than the solutions. You might also need to explain why these issues matter. For example, changing the lead from a 30 year old to a 5 year old might be artistically brilliant, but it will make star casting impossible. And try to avoid conflicting notes.

Get them on your team. Ideally you want the recipient of the notes to agree with the notes. But sometimes it takes a while for them to absorb it all. If time is not a factor, I like to let my general impressions wash over the recipient before I actually generate notes. This does two things: First, it allows the recipient time to acclimate to my ideas, and it often takes time for people to see things in a new light. Second, it will allow me to cater my notes based on feedback. If I get no resistance to an idea I’ve floated, I won’t make it an emphatic centerpiece of my notes.

Get the form right. If you work for a production company, sometimes they will want you to generate notes in a certain way. But if you have the option, I like to collaborate with the recipient regarding their preferred form of notes. Sometimes it will be old school traditional, 10 pages of written notes. Or sometimes they might want me to mark up the script — usually helpful if there are lots of suggested edits. Sometimes it’s better to go verbal. I’ve found this works well enough for me if I have a long-standing and trusting relationship with the recipient. And if the development partnership is more casual or informal, sometimes this is the only option. For example, if a writer is not being paid to work, they may actually resent you dropping 10 pages of written notes on them. Go figure.

Now let’s move on to getting notes. In some ways this is just as tricky. Here are some tips if you are getting notes:

Be gracious. You may or may not love the notes to get, but there’s a good chance someone spent a lot of time and effort reading your project and drafting them. Thank them for their work and for trying to help you out with the project. Also, it is likely the person giving you notes is a fan of yours, and we can all use more of those, right?

Don’t respond right away. There’s always a good chance there will be something in the notes that pisses you off. My advice: take a beat, sleep on it, and respond the following day. As I will discuss below, sometimes the notes are not as bad as they seem.

Get clarity. If you disagree with a note, don’t get in a fight. It almost never helps and it can sometimes get you fired or marginalized. Instead, I recommend you ask the person who gave you the note to kindly explain further. Do this verbally. Many times you will find they are not as committed as they seem or they might even back down entirely. Also, the brevity of notes can lead to misunderstandings. It’s not as bad as texting, but at least there are no stupid emojis.

Handling major conflicts. This is one of the tougher things to navigate. It will often happen that member of the development team vigorously disagree about notes. The conflicts can range from slightly annoying to near apocalyptic. The situation can be made worse by the parties trying to manipulate each other. For example, I have seen grown writers have near-nervous breakdowns when a powerful producer tries to get them to make the producer’s script changes that everyone knows the studio will hate. The number of possible scenarios here makes it hard to give specific advice, but very often the solution to the problem is less about the notes themselves and more about resolving personality conflicts, as in my example. My advice? Sometimes you have to stand up to a bully.

Sometimes the notes are better than they seem.

In most development situations you will get notes or give notes along the way. Sometimes both. If you’re on the receiving end, sometimes it can be overwhelming if you get 10 pages of notes for something you thought was already perfect. Don’t freak out. Sometimes notes are better than they seem. First of all, not all notes are weighted equally, meaning that while some notes can be significant, many others might just be someone floating an idea that popped into their melon at 2am, and even they don’t care about it. Second, I’ve seen many situations where tough notes are given (by a producer or network exec, for example) only to have them change their mind or even forget their own notes at some later time. In fact, this is very common. It happens all the time. Thank God for showbiz, or there’d be a lot of people with ADHD who couldn’t get a job.

Lastly, and most annoying, I have seen people give notes delivered with absolutist comments like “the script doesn’t work,” or “the script is a mess,” only to soon discover that their proposed solution to fixing the “mess” is changing all of three lines of dialog, etc. Ugh. My only explanation is that some people are prone to hyperbole or use the development process to bolster their own self-worth. Maybe both. Sometimes various development partners just want to give a project their own personal “spritz.” It’s annoying for sure, but if the solution is changing three lines, my advice is to make the changes and leave the psychoanalysis to a trained professional. One extra related piece of advice: if you get a note you don’t like but if saying “yes” to the note will cost you nothing, don’t fight it. Say “yes” and move on. In fact, this strategy has broader implications for survival in Hollywood, and life in general.

Sometimes the notes are worse than they seem.

So some notes are better than they seem, but sometimes they are worse. Hollywood is a place that can kill you with kindness, and sometimes your development partners will be disinclined to give you direct and honest feedback if they think that their honesty will crush your spirits or be counterproductive in some other way. Put yourselves in their shoes. Sometimes a script is delivered that is so bad, that the only possible honest response would be to prostrate oneself and mourn the trees that died to print it. Now this example rarely occurs, but there are many situations where there is serious work that needs to be done on a project and someone has to figure out a way to deliver this bad news. When it’s time to write up notes, the people writing the notes will sometimes sugarcoat it or speak euphemistically — anything to avoid telling the reader the truth — that they have just wasted months of their life going in the wrong direction. And it’s not just producers or executives doing the sugarcoating. Sometimes it’s the writer. In The Hollywood Pitching Bible, Doug Eboch and I discuss the strategies that writers should adopt when they meet to pitch an assignment. In this situation, it’s the writer giving the notes. Our advice is never trash the source material, no matter how bad it might be. For example, it would be a mistake to open with “wow, the script really sucks. You must have been rocking the ganja when you bought it.” Rather, it would be much better to accentuate the positive and explain that, while the script as some issues, you will help bring the project’s “aspirations” (a euphemism) into the foreground, etc. As you can see “worse than it seems” goes both ways. The only problem with the way Hollywood sugarcoats notes is that you sometimes have to learn how to read between the lines. If you are inexperienced or susceptible to praise and adulation, this might be tough for you. The best strategy is to first want the truth, and then ask a lot of questions. You will eventually get to the bottom of it.

Solving creative conflicts.

Where to begin on this topic? It’s so vast that any suggestions I make are destined to seem like the “idiot’s” version. Admittedly, this risk has never stopped me from looking like an idiot, but people tell me it is part of my charm. In any case, readers who really want to dig into this topic should know that there are entire books on the subject, written by people far wiser than I. One more caveat, and then I will stop stalling and get to it: It is often very hard to separate the creative conflicts from the ego conflicts, if only because people’s egos get wrapped up in the creative choices they make. In fact, sometimes Hollywood can seem less like a business and more like just a collection of egos: a place where massive ego can live side by side with massive self-doubt in the same person. Here’s my advice:

  • Don’t get crazy: The longer you can sustain an atmosphere of civil discussion, the better your chances for peaceful resolution.
  • Always try to frame the problem: Before giving a creative comment, always try to frame the nature of the issue your notes are trying to address, or you risk having your point appear arbitrary.
  • Start by highlighting were people agree: Before diving into criticism, try to sketch out where everyone broadly agrees. It is often the case that creative differences exist only around the edges; so spend some time on the Kumbaya of it all. If there is 90% agreement, it makes the 10% disagreement seem less daunting.
  • Let people talk: This is a matter of respect, of course, but it also let’s people fully explain their points of view before misunderstandings can derail the creative process.
  • Don’t make it personal: Always make your criticisms about the ideas, not the people who have the ideas. Development is not a schoolyard flyting contest. (Don’t ask. Look it up.) If your parents raised you right, you should already know this. If not, well, I’m sure my dad can kick your dad’s ass.
  • Sell a criticism with a compliment: For example, if a character’s actions or motivations are confusing it might be better to say how “complex” the characters are — maybe (ahem) too complex.
  • Delay some decisions: If conflicts are getting out of hand in a meeting, it is often better to kick the can down the road on some decisions. At a later date calmer heads may prevail, the issue might resolve itself, or just matter less for any number of reasons. It works.
  • Live to fight another day: Sometimes you just can’t get your way. Be gracious about it and go off to lick your wounds. It may seem like the apocalypse in the moment, but it’s rare that losing any single battle has a lasting impact.

Ultimately decisions are made by a handful of people.

I could have added this topic to the above section, but then you might have missed the bigger picture. The aspect of this topic that belongs with the above section is that sometimes a conflict is resolved when the boss makes a final decision. The challenge is to know when that decision has been made. Very often the people in power are very good at managing volatile personalities and conflicts. That’s kinda their job. They know they have the power but don’t want to appear to be a dictator to the other accomplished players. But usually they are also good at knowing what they like and don’t like, and usually those decisions are final. Be a good listener, learn the difference between a note and a “no,” and don’t fight a lost cause.

The bigger picture is that the decisions that determine what movies get made, and what series get on the air, are made by a relatively small group of individuals in Hollywood. This situation has become more pronounced over the last few decades, as media companies have consolidated and become more vertically and horizontally integrated. I’m not sure what this has to do with development, but who can resist the allure of sounding like an MBA.

The politics of development.

I call this section “the politics of development” to try to capture some of the Machiavellian aspects of the development process. I could have also called it “the diplomacy of development,” and that has a nice alliteration, but it makes showbiz sound more genteel than it really is. If you are new to the business you might not be aware of some of the structural changes that have occurred over the last few decades. For example, take a look at the production company credits on most studio movies and many television shows and you will often see two or three companies listed, and sometimes more. Welcome to the world of modern film and television financing and production. As film and television production has become more expensive and the marketplace more global, many productions are now financed or produced by multiple, powerful media companies. In practice this means that development partners can find themselves in the middle of some mighty corporate forces that don’t always agree, but are used to getting their way.

Say a thriller is being co-produced by two companies — one domestic-based, and the other foreign-based. As the project is developed and nears production, the foreign-based company might start running their international revenue estimates and find the project has less foreign appeal than they hoped. In such a case the foreign-based company might insist that the project be reworked to include more action — a genre that travels well. This happened on one of my films after it was already shot and the results were a disaster, at least artistically.

On a less byzantine level, it’s not usual for a development partner to find him or herself caught between the conflicting demands of other development partners. I mentioned this previously. This often happens when a writer has to navigate the incompatible script demands of the studio versus the producer on a project. Rather than the studio and producer duking it out and making a decision, they will each try to bend the director or writer to their will. (Torturing a writer beyond script changes is usually just for sport.)

There’s no one solution to both of the above kinds of scenarios. In some cases there may actually be no solution. If you’re stuck between two powerful forces, and those forces are paying your salary, you can fight the good fight, but it may not work. Legally it will probably be their decision, not yours. In other (more limited) situations, it may be possible to convince both parties you’ve found a middle ground. Hallelujah. In other situations you may just need to pick a side, and sink or swim.

I have experience all these situations and many more. Perhaps you have too, or will. My attitude is always to try to do my best to sort it out, but always be thinking about my next project, or maybe the one after that. As God is my witness, that’s the one where I will get it right!


Ken Aguado is a studio executive, producer and author. His most recent film, “Miracle on 42nd Street” is now in post-production. He is also the co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible, with screenwriter Doug Eboch. You can follow Ken on Twitter @kaguado.