There's a depressing equation which exists for any would-be screenwriter, and it goes like this: for every thousand scripts which are written, only one makes it into the hands of someone with the power to make it. For every thousand that make it into such hands, only one is produced. That makes every movie, like Rocky's whole life, a million to one shot. So what happens to all the scripts that get finished, make it into the right hands, get announced in the press - and then wind up on the scrapheap?
Occasionally, as in the case of Clerks director Kevin Smith's unproduced Green Hornet script, they wind up published in another medium, in this case comic books. Occasionally, like William Goldman's The Ghost and the Darkness, they get dusted off years after the fact, and filmed with stars (in that case Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer) with enough box office clout to get them made. Mostly, however, they wind up in books like Tales from Development Hell [Titan Books, $15.95] and my earlier volume, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, which go behind the scenes of film projects which, for a variety of reasons, never saw the light of a film projector.
So why do so many films start out on the fast track to production, only to be derailed and shunted into a siding? The main reason, of course, is money: now more than ever, it's far more prudent for a cash-strapped Hollywood studio to write a "small" cheque - a million dollars or so - for yet another rewrite of a project on their slate, than to write "the big cheque" required to actually make the film. When legendary screenwriter William Goldman coined the Hollywood adage "Nobody knows anything," he wasn't talking about the fact that nobody could call whether Speed Racer ("from the makers of The Matrix!") or Transformers ("from the maker of, uh, Pearl Harbor) would turn into a billion dollar franchise - but he could easily have been.
It takes courage to write "the big cheque," and courage - at least, outside of the independent film sector - isn't exactly Hollywood's stock-in-trade. Why risk a hundred million dollars on a brand new idea, when you could make a movie based on a popular video game, comic book, or - the latest trend - boardgame? (Ridley Scott's Monopoly anyone? Anyone??) "Films carry with them a certain amount of fear," explains Neil Gaiman, whose critically-acclaimed comic book series The Sandman has had umpteen screenwriters and millions of dollars thrown at it, without getting anywhere close to a green light, "because if you say 'Yes' to something and you're wrong, you're out on your ear, whereas if you say 'No' to something, you're never going to get into trouble, [especially] if everything is always defensible. So you wind up in development with people trying to make things more like things they know, because that is a defensible position: you will probably not get fired for it. Unfortunately," he adds, "that's why you wind up with films that look like other films."
In the last few months alone, Alex Proyas' adaptation of John Milton's Paradise Lost, Universal's planned multi-film epic based on Stephen King's The Dark Tower series, and Guillermo del Toro's H.P. Lovecraft adaptation At the Mountains of Madness - the latter with Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise attached - became the latest victims of Hollywood belt-tightening, adding to the ever-growing list of Movies That Never Were. But at least those projects, on paper at least, seemed to make some kind of sense. But here, drawn from the pages of Tales from Development Hell, are seven unproduced films that rotted in development hell.