It’s hard to make a film, but it’s even harder to get a film made. The period between pitch and the first day of shooting can be a long one, and many potentially great movies never find their way out of Development Hell.
The average cost of shooting a film is around $65 million, and many films come in at over $100 million. With such huge costs involved, production companies will only go ahead with a shoot if they are completely happy with every tiny detail.
And even after the project has received the green light, there are still plenty of opportunities for the studios to pull the plug. Here we look at 10 movies that might have been great, if only they had made it out of Development Hell.
10 When The Perfect Location Isn’t
Some films get all the way to shooting before they fail.
Terry Gilliam spent 10 years trying to get The man Who killed Don Quixote out of the starting blocks and on to location in Bardenas Reales in Spain.
The desert location had unique sandstone hills which had been eroded over time to form strange and beautiful shapes. Could there be a better place to tell the story of the great Spanish dreamer, Don Quixote?
Well, actually, there probably could.
The location scout must have missed the NATO airbase nearby. And the constant noise of aircraft carrying out target practices.
Gilliam decided to plow on, and try to replace the audio in post-production.
That was Day One of the shoot. When cast and crew arrived on set for Day Two, they discovered that a flash flood and gigantic hail stones had damaged all the equipment, and, what’s more, changed the beautiful landscape, so that it no longer matched the shots from the day before.
Not only that but Jean Rochefort, who was playing Quixote, had developed a herniated disc and couldn’t sit on his horse.
It was the end of the line for the production. A second film crew, who had been filming a Making Of documentary, made a different kind of film about the debacle, titled Lost In La Mancha, later released to critical acclaim, which must have been a kicker.
Terry Gilliam did manage to complete his film in 2018 with a different cast, almost 30 years after first pitching it. However, its troubles were not over as he had trouble releasing the film due to a legal dispute and only managed a limited release in 2020 and as a result had very poor box office receipts.
9 When Old Enough Isn’t Good Enough
Guillermo del Toro wanted to make At The Mountains Of Madness, an adaptation of a novel by HP Lovecraft about a group of explorers in the Antarctic who discover sinister ancient ruins. The book had long been considered unfilmable, but if anyone could bring it to life, del Toro could.
In 2006, while everyone agreed that the screenplay looked great, Del Toro could not get Warner Bros to put up the money. They were concerned at the lack of love interest and the downbeat ending.
He tried again in 2010 with a different studio. Universal, after protracted negotiations, and with producers and stars lined up, decided not to green light the film because Del Toro insisted that the film should be R-rated, rather than the PG-13 the studio wanted.
Del Toro wouldn’t compromise, and the movie was cancelled. He later said he wished he had lied, until it was too late. He said, “The R [rating] was what made it. If ‘Mountains’ had been PG-13, or I had said PG-13 … I’m too much of a Boy Scout, I should have lied, but I didn’t.”
He made Pan’s Labyrinth, instead.
8 When The Money Runs Out
In the 1980’s the production company Carolco became a major Hollywood player, focusing mainly on action movies. They scored a hit with their first movie, First Blood, the first movie in the Rambo franchise, and they went on to score notable successes with, among others, Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Fortunes change, however, and by the early nineties Carolco was beginning to struggle financially, largely due to having to buy out one of its partners.
In 1994, Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed on to star in Crusade, which was billed as a cross between Spartacus and Conan The Barbarian. Sets were already being built when the director, Paul Verhoeven, went to a finance meeting at Carolco.
The meeting, which was said to last only twenty minutes, did not go well. Verhoeven refused to guarantee that he would not exceed his $100 million budget. It may be that Verhoeven thought that the production company were bluffing.
They weren’t. They plugged the plug on Crusade and decided to place their bets on another action film, Cutthroat Island, instead.
That film bombed and Carolco declared bankruptcy shortly after.
7 When A Sequel Just Doesn’t Work
Gladiator was such an immense hit that the possibility of a sequel was always going to be considered by someone. There were a couple of hurdles, however, the first being, did Maximus Decimus Meridius actually die (Yes).
But that is just a minor detail, surely.
Ridley Scott, director of the first Gladiator, wanted a sequel that was set in the world of Gladiator, but without Russell Crowe’s character in it. Russell Crowe had other ideas. He hired Nick Cave to come up with a script that he could actually have a part in.
Although Cave was primarily a musician, he had produced one screenplay before, so he took on Crowe’s challenge to ‘sort out’ the minor snafu of mortality.
Cave did his best. His screenplay turned the Elysian Fields from the end of the first movie into a kind of miserable purgatory on the edge of a black sea. But, being Maximus, he manages to find a spirit guide to take him to a meeting with the Gods where he is offered the chance to be reunited with his family if he just kills one of them.
And then he is somehow (not quite clearly defined) transported back to the real-world Rome, ten years after his death, and he sets out to find his son (the one who also died in Gladiator 1)
There is some incidental persecution of Christians, just to set the tone, and a fight scene in the Colosseum, which has been flooded with water and filled with 100 alligators (don’t ask)
Finally, Maximus, that great warrior does a kind of time travel through the centuries, stopping off at every war along the way, before he ends up sitting behind a desk in the Pentagon waiting for the next big fight.
Even Russell Crowe found this script hard to swallow. When asked what he thought of the final script, he replied with his famous terseness, “Don’t like it, mate.”
However, Ridley Scott is still said to be developing his own sequel, so you never know.
6 When Life Imitates Art Imitating Life
When Francis Ford Coppola wants to make a film, you might think that nothing would be easier. But it seems that no matter how bankable you are, your projects can still fail, especially when real life gets in the way.
Coppola wanted to make Megalopolis, a sci-fi film about the rebuilding of New York after a major disaster. Talks had gone well, and he had begun to screen test actors. That was in 2001. And then, on September 11 of that year, disaster really struck New York when the twin towers where hit in a terrorist attack.
For a while, Coppola considered continuing with his project, but in the end felt that he couldn’t make Megalopolis without it turning into a film about 9/11, and he shelved the idea.
In 2019, he announced that he was finally ready to begin developing the film again, although to date no further progress seems to have been made. Coppola is now over 80, so if shooting doesn’t begin soon, it is unlikely to ever happen.
Coppola is largely retired. But he can rest on his laurels. Not only did he bring us Apocalypse Now, he also made The Godfather II, still regarded as the best Mafia movie ever.
5 When Someone Else Had The Same Idea
Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a movie about Napoleon.
After the huge success of 2001: A Space Odyssey, he “sent an assistant” to travel around the world in Napoleon’s footsteps.
Nice work if you can get it.
Kubrick himself had done a lot of research on his subject, and had an all-star cast lined up. He had even arranged to ‘borrow’ tens of thousands of real-life soldiers as extras.
Things began to fall apart when, in 1970, another film was released on the same subject. Waterloo, which starred Rod Steiger and Orson Welles, among others, bombed at the box office. Producers began to get nervous, and quickly withdrew the funding.
Kubrick tried again to revive the project during the 1980’s but in the end, like Napoleon, he had to admit defeat.
4 When The Director Really Doesn’t Want To
Close Encounters Of the Third Kind had been a massive hit for Steven Spielberg, and Columbia Pictures were anxious to have a sequel. Spielberg wasn’t so keen.
However, he knew from bitter experience, that if he turned down the opportunity to make a sequel (Close Encounters of the Fourth Kind?) they might offer the film to another director. When he had declined to make Jaws 2, they gave the movie to Jeanot Swarc and the result was horrible.
So, Spielberg came up with Night Skies, a dramatization of the so-called ‘Kelly Hopkinsville Encounter’, a real-life farm that was, allegedly, besieged by aliens. The script aliens were lost on a strange planet and terrorized first the livestock and then the humans.
OK. Spielberg then announced he would produce, rather than direct.
Although Night Skies was roughly in the same ballpark as Close Encounters – i.e. they both featured aliens, it was definitely not a sequel, which, Spielberg hoped, would be enough to preserve the reputation of the first movie.
A rather dark script was written, and NASA announced that Spielberg had booked a slot on their next space flight from which to film the opening shots of earth from space.
Possibly because of Spielberg’s lack of enthusiasm for the project, however, Night Skies ultimately did not go ahead. However, it was not all bad news. The script inspired several other projects, including Critters, about livestock terrorizing aliens, which was not made by Spielberg, and ET, which was.
3 When The Source Material Isn’t Film Material
Adaptations are always tricky. An adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman was almost impossible. First there were the 75 comic books, none of which were traditional stories, and all of which would be extremely difficult to translate to film.
Roger Avary. He hired Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, the team that had created Pirates of the Caribbean, to write the screenplay based on the first two volumes of the graphic novel.
Roger Avary liked it.
Warner Bros didn’t.
The producer, Jon Peters, in particular, didn’t seem to understand the Sandman premise and kept asking for more traditional film tropes. Another draft was called for.
Another screenplay was produced, this time by William Farmer. This script went down slightly better, but the studios still had issues. Who is the bad guy? Where is the love interest?
At one stage the studio wanted superhero capes, fistfights and a plot based around the Y2K disaster theories.
Thankfully, the project was put on hold indefinitely.
Since then, the rights to Gaiman’s most famous work has been acquired by Netflix. It is hoped the TV format, combined with Netflix’s big budget productions will finally bring The Sandman to life.
2 Sometimes an idea is just too weird
We all love new innovations in movies. A new way of telling a story, a never-before-seen special effect, or a cool new stunt.
Sometimes, however, writers can get a bit carried away.
Take The Tourist, for instance.
Not the Johnny Depp-Angelina Jolie travelogue for Venice, but the screenplay written by Clair Noto in 1980 about a hidden world of alien refugees, living beneath Manhattan. It has been described as one of the most influential sci-fi movies ever.
Which is pretty impressive when you consider that it was never made.
HR Giger, the artist who helped bring Ridley Scott’s Alien to life, produced concept art for the screenplay, which was considered a hot property in Hollywood. Francis Ford Coppola signed on to produce the movie, which was described as a kind of alien-erotica
The studios were worried that alien-erotica, however, would be something of a niche market. Noto refused to compromise on the script, and the studio backed out. The screenplay has influenced a number of later sci-fi films, including, it is said, Blade Runner.
Meanwhile, Clair Noto has barely been heard of since.
1 When The Script Just Doesn’t Make Sense
In 1977, after Eraserhead was released to widespread, uh, acclaim, and its director David Lynch announced that his next film would be Ronnie Rocket, a movie inspired by his favorite 1950’s sci-fi movies.
The film is listed on IMDB as having been ‘in development’ ever since.
Lynch found it difficult to raise the money he needed for the project. Possibly, the problem was the script, which was certainly on the strange side. The elevator pitch would have gone something like this: “A detective is able to enter the Second Dimension, by standing on one leg. However, when he gets there, he is chased by Donut Men, and gets lost in a never-ending maze of rooms. The detective is chasing Ronnie Rocket, a teenage rock-star of small stature, and his tap-dancing girlfriend, who uses his ability to control electricity to make cool music and kill people.”
In an interview in 2012, Lynch said he was still considering Ronnie Rocket, but there were still a few things he “hadn’t figured out yet”.
Things like, what the hell is going on in this film?
About The Author: Ward Hazell is a freelance writer and travel writer, currently also studying for a PhD in English Literature.