Development Hell is an early stage in the film-making process, wherein a book or a script has been sold to a production company but development
has not yet begun. For most books, the writing must be tweaked
in various ways before actual development can begin. Normally this tweaking is done in order to attract certain directors or actors to the project. Almost every book spends a little time in Development Hell
However, when you hear the phrase in the press, it usually means a project is having difficulties and is spending longer than usual in this phase. The difficulties can be just about anything, from legal battles over the rights to a comic book character to fights between the director and the author. Yes, sometimes the author has a say in the process. It helps if you’re Harlan Ellison or Orson Scott Card.
EXAMPLE - “A Sound of Thunder”. This movie, an adaptation of a Ray Bradbury story, was set to begin production early last year, with Pierce Brosnan starring and Renny Harlin directing. Then the rewrites began. A series of rewrites pushed the filming dates back to an expected conflict with SAG strikes. Filming was accordingly rescheduled for 2002. Then Harlin was fired by Bradbury! The reason? Harlin wanted to remove the butterfly from the story. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with this story knows that the accidentally slain butterfly, a very literal example of the Butterfly Effect, is the single central image, the core around which the entire story revolves. There was no way it could be removed from the script without changing the name of the movie. Harlin had to go. Then Brosnan had to go off to film the new Bond movie, during which process he apparently decided there was a better opportunity in a different sci-fi production to start filming this fall, so he wouldn’t be gracing “Thunder” with his magnificent smile after all. So the search was on for a new director, new lead actor, and new just about everything. The words ‘Development Hell’ were made for situations like this.
But if you think this is some sort of disaster, let me set you straight. It isn’t even an extreme example. ‘Thunder’ started out pretty well, since both Brosnan and Harlin claimed to be fans of the story and were quick to sign on. Now that they are gone it has found new talent and is moving ahead, with the inimitable Ben Kingsley coming fresh from his bad-ass role in ‘Sexy Beast’ to replace Brosnan. Barring major asteroid impacts or a world war, it should begin filming on June 24, 2002, just about 18 months late. ‘Spiderman’, on the other hand, was tied up in legal battles for at least five years and eventually lost James Cameron. ‘Batman’ languished in DH for ten years before Tim Burton managed to make it happen, and Batman 5 seems to be trying to tie that record.
But the all-time record has to be ‘Interview with the Vampire’. Anne Rice's book was published in 1976, and the film rights were snatched up immediately. But one thing led to another, as they do, and the movie didn't come out until 1994. You never know how long a project can be stuck in DH. That’s why they call it Hell.