It is no secret that the film industry is a cut-throat world, and the process of making films can be almost bizarrely complex with ideas, stories, characters and even actors proving interchangeable in the process between the original pitch and the cutting room floor. The production of the film depends on many things – financial backing, good time management and concise creative decisions being the most essential. Many films fight to make it to general release, and even if they get there box office failure is still a darkly looming possibility.
‘Development Hell’ is film industry slang for a film that is stuck in production, delayed by problems and financial issues. Famous examples of films that were stuck in this creative limbo include E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Gangs of New York, Iron Man and Disney’s Frozen. Securing the rights to a script or a novel is a common difficulty, which can often take a number of years. Films can also be affected by strikes within the industry – writers strikes are a common occurrence. Most importantly, a huge amount of financial backing is essential in order to get a film up and running. Of course, production companies are probably right to be wary about committing to investments, as a film that becomes stuck in Development Hell can easily drain a company’s finances.
If a film finds itself in this cinematic purgatory, it’s a gamble if producers decide to move forward rather than cutting their losses and dropping the project. Given the amount of time and money that’s been invested in a film of this kind, a financial and critical success is crucial to make it worthwhile. The following are 5 of the most extreme examples of Development Hell, all of which took 10 years or more to make and eventually managed to make it to cinemas. Did the time, energy and financial investment pay off? We’ll let you decide.
5. Under The Skin, 2013 – 10 years
Jonathan Glazer’s ‘Under The Skin’ is the sci-fi phenomenon coming soon to US cinemas, having just been released in Europe. The film is a loose adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel of the same name, which was released in 2000. The film stars Scarlett Johansson playing an alien who has been sent to earth as part of a mysterious experiment. Driving a transit van around remote areas of Glasgow in Scotland, she preys on men by luring them into her van, with the intent of trapping them and harvesting their insides. The film has been well received with many critics citing it as Glazer’s best yet. However, it almost never came to fruition.
Glazer began planning his film adaption of the novel in 2001, aged 35, unaware that he would spend most of his 40’s making it. The project was put on ice many times, and numerous changes to the script complicated the process. The original novel has both male and female protagonists. Brad Pitt signed for the role of the husband, but he eventually left the slow-moving production. Glazer then wrote Pitt’s character out of the script. Glazer’s consistent indecision about how the novel should be adapted and the level of special effects used meant that the film was severely delayed – for a full decade. Luckily for Glazer, his work seems to have paid off as many critics are now hailing him as the new Stanley Kubrick.
4. Boyhood, 2014 – 12 years
Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood is set for release this year, after a lengthy production process. It has already screened at the Sundance Film Festival, receiving a wave of positive reviews. The drama film follows the story of two divorced parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, as they raise their son, played by Ellar Coltrane. But why did this relatively simple, low-budget film take so long to create?
Back in 2002 when production began, Linklater decided to do something that few directors would dream of. Instead of hiring separate actors to portray Mason, the son, at different stages of his life Linklater decided that he would film a small amount of footage every year for 12 years. This way, Mason actually ages naturally throughout the film. The result is stunningly realistic viewing that’s a truly new experience for most cinema-goers. It seems there’s no doubt that Boyhood will make Hollywood history as one of the most painstaking, dedicated and original projects in cinema. Linklater is positive that the film will do well in the box office and with his unique approach this movie shouldn’t fail to impress.
3. Blood Tea and Red String, 2006 – 13 years
Stop-motion animation was one of the first ever animated film techniques to be developed, in use since before 1900. Remarkably, despite technological advances and CGI, stop-motion has remained a popular method of animation. The past couple of decades have seen a huge number of stop-motion animation films meeting both critical and financial success: Chicken Run, The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride and Fantastic Mr. Fox are notable examples. It is no secret, however, that stop-motion animations entail an extremely time-consuming process and often take years to produce. Producing one second of stop-motion animation uses 30 still frames – thats about 1800 frames per 1 minute of film!
Blood Tea and Red String is a stop-motion animated fairy tale for adults that was released in 2006. It details the relationship between some aristocratic white mice and the creatures who live around them. Meticulous attention to detail is very clear in this film. The movie had a long production process, not just because of the painstaking nature of stop-motion animation, but also due to the fact that the film was basically a solo project by director Christiane Cegavske. Cegavske states in the commentary of the film that she plans for the film to be the first instalment of a trilogy so, given the time frame for the first film, we can expect the next installment around 2019.
2. Avatar, 2009 – 15 years
All the way back in 1994, James Cameron drew up his first plans for what was to become Avatar, a futuristic story about humans who journey to another planet to extract natural minerals, threatening the planet’s indigenous Na’vi tribe. Cameron was already actively planning the film in the late 1990’s, and he originally planned to start filming it after he had finished making Titanic. However, Cameron had a change of heart. He felt that the computer animation technology available at the time would not justify his vision, and decided to wait it out until technology caught up with his imagination.
In 2002, after seeing the animation of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Cameron felt that it could finally be possible to realise his vision. However, the process would be continue to be a lengthy and difficult one. By 2006, Cameron was still working on the script. The film was a huge financial risk for Cameron, as it was to be one of the most expensive films ever made. It cost almost $250 million just to make, along with an estimated $150 million injected into marketing the film. However, this is one example of a Development Hell gamble that paid off. Avatar became the highest-grossing film in history, taking in a staggering $2.7 billion in the box office alone.
1. The Thief and the Cobbler, 1993 – 28 years
The Thief and the Cobbler was released in 1993, after taking a shocking 28 years of Canadian animator Richard Williams’ time. The cartoon tells the story of two thieves who rob an Arabian city, leaving a princess and a shoemaker to catch them. The film’s production is one of the most complicated stories in the history of film. Williams called the film his “reason for living”, and was determined for it to be the greatest animated feature of all time.
Financial backing for the film was scarce. After Williams repeatedly failed to entice investors, he tried (and failed) to produce the film himself, using money he earned by doing odd jobs. Eventually, Warner Brothers decided to back him financially, but turned the film over to the Completion Bond Company after Williams failed to meet numerous dealings. Warner Brothers were also worried about the film’s similarity to Disney’s Aladdin, which had just been released. The Completion Bond Company then fired Williams, and the film was sold to Miramax, quickly finished, edited and changed, and given a limited cinema release. After an estimated $24 million spending, the film flopped, grossing an embarrassing $300,000. Williams was so heartbroken that he now refuses to speak about the film. There have been discussions about restoring the film to closely match Williams’ original innovative vision, and a ‘Recobbled’ cut was unofficially released online in 2006, but this remains a tragic tale of Development Hell stifling what (at least Williams believes) could have been.