The Path to the Cineplex Screen: aka ‘Mommy, Where Do Movies Come From?’
I don’t know about where you live, but here in L.A. people are always talking about getting movies made. Outside the studio gates, though, many people are unclear about the process by which a movie is produced and released. It’s time to shed some light on the mysterious process.
Picture a tiny zygote movie idea swimming frantically in a Petri dish. Now picture a full-grown feature-length film marching, Transformer-style, into theaters across the country.
Here’s the middle part-
In the case of an independent film, the script is written and the film is made outside the studio system, without distribution in place. The film is financed through independent producers with angel investors, family money, and/or other sources, or by selling off some of the rights in some parts of the world.
Once completed or mostly-completed, the movie is shopped around to potential buyers who will distribute it. The key place for this is at film festivals where a great audience response can get a bidding war ignited. The Cannes Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, and Toronto International Film Festival are three notable festivals where high profile sales are made, though sometimes just getting a movie into one of these festivals can attract offers and the sale can be completed before the festival screening.
Sometimes, additional work is done on an acquired film, whether it’s shooting additional footage or having unclear dialogue looped, or color correction redone. It is rare that anything significant is done to a movie after it is acquired, though it sometimes happens. Usually the studio just puts the full force of its marketing and distribution machine behind its acquisition and releases it.
NAPOLEAN DYNAMITE, an ultra-low budget film shot by a first-time director with a group of fellow Brigham Young graduates in key crew and cast positions, was bought by Fox Searchlight and Paramount at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and went on to make almost $50 million at the domestic box office. LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, another Fox Searchlight acquisition from the Sundance Film Festival (2006), had an original budget of $8 million and earned just over $100 million at the domestic box office.
Movies that are produced within the studio system have one of three origins:
1.) They are bought as an idea, called a “pitch,” by the studio or a studio-affiliated production company, often with key talent (top writers, director, or stars) attached. Producer/directors like Judd Apatow and Steven Soderbergh sell pitches. It is rare for unproduced writers/producers to sell an idea, unless they somehow have A-list talent firmly attached and are willing to have it in their contract that they can be replaced by more seasoned writers or teamed with more seasoned producers, respectively.
2.) They are bought as a completed “spec script” (a script written speculatively, not for money up front). It is rare that a spec script, even a great spec script, by an unknown writer is bought, unless they have firm A-list talent attached or something else going for them, though having great representation to position the material in the right way and get the right buzz going can help.
3.) They are created from source material (a book, TV show, earlier movie, etc.) or a concept that comes from within the studio or affiliated production company. Anything that comes out of Marvel Studios, such as CAPTAIN AMERICA or IRON MAN, is developed that way.
Once the pitch or spec script is bought, or a writer is hired to adapt/flesh out the source material/concept, the development phase begins. In the case of the pitch or spec script, the studio or production company can either use the writers who brought it in or hire new writers. (This is established during the initial negotiations.) Drafts are written, notes are given by development department executives at the studio and/or production company and more drafts are written. Sometimes new writers are brought in, attached talent leaves the project, new talent gets attached, and/or completely new ways of writing the material are explored. This phase can go on for a few months or several years and can become what some writers and producers call “development hell.”
Often, projects are shelved at some point, called being put “in turnaround.” This can happen when there is a regime change in the creative leadership of the studio or production company, when high-profile talent leaves the project and cannot be replaced, or when a similar project either bombs at the box office or gets fast-tracked by a competing studio. Sometimes projects in turnaround are brought back to life at the same studio or bought by a competing studio, and put back into the development process. This does not mean the project will get produced. It may be put back into turnaround again later.
But sometimes against all odds that little zygote keeps swimming long enough and is nurtured in just the right way and results in a movie being “green lit.” A budget it created and revised, crew is hired, actors are cast, and the movie is shot. It goes through the post-production phase and is put on the release schedule. A marketing plan is created and executed. And one day the little zygote emerges into the world as a big studio movie to meet its fate at the box office.
Find out more about how Hollywood works in “Breaking Into the Biz: The Insider’s Guide to Launching an Entertainment Industry Career,” coming soon from Your Industry Insider.