Unfinished Business: Development Hell for Movies!

“Abandon all hope, all ye who enter.” One can only imagine what was going through Dante’s mind when he entered the door with these words etched over it. Of course, he was a character in a book (the author himself) taking the reader on a journey into the abyss and ultimately, paradise. Dante Alighieri’s fictional account looked at what life would be like in the depths of hell for us humans, but there exists another hell…one that’s especially for films.

Plagued by issues of money, creative differences, copyright issues, power-hungry stars/producers, numerous script rewrites, casting issues — agony and torture await any motion picture that should find its way here. The damned here is primarily made up of adaptations of novels, comic books, videogames, plays and musicals.

It’s an interesting lot and some have been here for quite a while whereas others not so much. Some are sequels in the making, others big budget blockbusters…you name it and it’s here. So let’s see what lies in the depths of this pit and what has braved this damnation to finally find release in the paradise of box office success.

At the top and on its way out is Tintin. The rights to this Belgian comic were bought by Steven Spielberg in the 1980s and together with Roman Polanski, they planned to make a trilogy. That plan, however, completely fell apart when Polanski and Spielberg could not agree over creative visions, and Spielberg himself not being satisfied with the scripts. But now, after almost 20 years in limbo, Tintin is about to see the light of day. In May of 2007, Spielberg announced that he will team up with director Peter Jackson (both Lord of the Rings and King Kong served their time here) and release the trilogy back-to-back by using motion capture technology and computer animation. There’s no release date yet, but it seems that this project just might find its way out yet.

Next up is a sequel-in-waiting to two action-comedy-horror blockbusters which probably will never see the light of day because of creative procrastination. Ghostbusters 3 was announced sometime in the 1990s, and though initially dismissed as a rumour, writer/acter Dan Aykroyd has been acknowledging its release. Two scripts had been drafted but eventually the project fell through because Bill Murray simply did not want to bust ghosts anymore. There are plans, however, for a videogame to be made on the scripts for the potential film.

Rendezvous with Rama, a science fiction book by Arthur C. Clarke, spiraled into film purgatory after constant production delays. Morgan Freeman originally wanted to star and produce the film through his studio, Revelation Studios, sometime in the late ’90s. Though still in pre-production status and David Fincher’s name attached, the film only continues to spiral its way down deeper into the abyssal pit.

Recent years have seen the revival of many franchises from the 1980s, Starsky & Hutch, Swat, Dukes of Hazzard, to name a few. Producer and creator Paul Maslansky announced that he was interested in reviving his franchise of the Police Academy for an eighth outing. “I felt it was time to start again. I saw that Starsky & Hutch and a number of other revivals were doing really well. Police Academy has such a great history, so I thought ‘why not’?” he told news website, UGO.com. But that was over four years ago, and there hasn’t been a mention of Police Academy 8 since.

Another TV franchise unable to escape from the pit is the Six Million Dollar Man. Optioned in the 1990s, Kevin Smith provided several treatments for the script. Then, Jim Carrey was attached to the project and by that time the film had been reduced to something completely different from the original concept into a comedic and ironic adaptation.

The space at the bottom is reserved for one of its worst sufferers. Though by no means is any one film bad than the other, since it’s all about damnation here, this film has gained a sort of notoriety because of its subject matter and those who have seen it know that this is a disaster just waiting to happen. The Day the Clown Cried is an unfinished, unreleased, motion picture originally filmed in 1972, co-written and directed by Jerry Lewis. The story tells of a former circus clown in Germany during the Holocaust who makes a deal with the Nazis after finding himself in a concentration camp. Helmut Doork (Lewis) will lure children into the gas chamber for as long as he is in the concentration camp, and Nazis will spare his life. But Doork suffers a crisis of conscience and takes matters into his own hands by walking into a gas chamber himself with the children. This sort of stuff would make the Pied Piper give up his day job.

Harry Shearer (Simpsons) spoke to Spy Magazine in 1992, about the time he got to see a rough draft of The Day the Clown Cried in 1979. “With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This film is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. ‘Oh, my God!’ is all you can say.” Shearer went on to say that he told Lewis the film was, “terrible” which of course made Lewis furious.

Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton were the original writers of the script based on O’Brien’s novel of the same name. They unanimously agreed that they would never allow this film to be released simply because of the “ridiculous” changes made to the script by Lewis. The master comedian, on the other hand, has other ideas. He has told close friends that this film “will see the light of day” and that all he needs to do is to “get some establishing shots and make the title and end credits.”

Rumour has it that the only existing copy of this film is in Lewis’ office, where he keeps it in a vault and occasionally shows it to journalists and friends. To this day no one knows where the original negatives of the film are being kept.

What if the leading punk band of its time decided to follow in the steps of the Beatles and make a film about a day in their lives? Then you’d have punk rock legends Sex Pistols, screenwriter and critic Roger Ebert, and tawdry film-maker Russ Myer making Who Killed Bambi? Only a day-and-a-half worth of footage was shot before the film’s studio saw the footage of the dailies and pulled all financing from the film and ordered all sets built to be destroyed.

Though these are just some of the damned, there are many, many more. A recent new entry Spinning into Butter, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex in the City though, a TV series, found itself in development hell due to the unwillingness of Kim Cattrall but was the biggest chick flick of 2008), has found its way into film puragtory after no studio sanctioned it for release.

There are newcomers and films that may have stayed here for forever, but there are some films that manage to escape and live an almost dream-like success life at the box office. There is a picture that found so much success after it escaped film hell that it spawned two sequels (and a fourth one in the making), a gigantic entertainment franchise, transformed its founding company from a comic book company to an entertainment company, launched the careers of its actors as blockbuster stars and established its director/producer as a Hollywood bigshot. The film is Spider-Man.

Originally a dream project for James Cameron, the film changed numerous studios, from Cannon films, to Carolco, to 20th Century Fox until finally to MGM/UA where it found itself stuck in a tangled web of litigation and legalities. It wasn’t until 1999 when there was a trade-off between MGM/UA and Sony Pictures: Sony won’t make its version of James Bond and MGM/UA will relinquish all rights of the Spider-Man franchise to Sony. Free at last, Spider-Man swung its way into box office glory after years of being entangled in a web of red tape.There you have it. Just some of the denizens of film purgatory waiting to see the light of day. There are, however, many more. All it will take for them to see salvation is time, a whole lot of money and even more determination, for the path to box office paradise is a long and tedious one.

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