The growing reliance on feature-film production that displaced the dominance of short films required an increasing upfront commitment of financial and human resources. Allocating and using these resources effectively required planning, which resulted in greater attention given to development and preproduction within the US studio system than had existed previously.
During the studio era, development and planning was undertaken by company executives and was shaped by two factors: first, by the estimates made by the head of distribution as to the number and nature of films required to meet theatrical exhibition needs; and second, by the need to make optimal use of internally held resources such as specialized staff, sets, and costumes. Top studio executives decided the overall budget for the year, and based on this budget, allocated expenditures for individual motion-picture projects.
Once the range of projects was decided in terms of budget and genre, work commenced on planning the individual films. Projects normally originated with the script department, a unit all major producers had instituted by 1911. Normally, potential scripts were selected by readers from existing sources such as novels, plays, radio shows, or even existing movies. The Wizard of Oz (1939), for instance, had previously existed in all these forms by the time it was put into production. Other films began life as original screenplays, normally by writers under contract to the studio, since producers rarely purchased original screenplays from freelance writers for fear of copyright infringement.
Whilst some projects were selected on their individual merits, many were genre pieces or sequels that capitalized on proven success and available resources. Examples include the Warner Bros.' musical Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Universal's horror franchise entry, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Some scripts were commissioned as vehicles for contracted stars, such as Road to Morocco (1942), which was one of a series of original scripts written for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
Once the script department had made its recommendations for potential productions, selected scripts were allocated to associate producers who oversaw the development and production process. This process normally began with a scenario describing the plot in prose form. It was followed by a treatment providing more detail about individual scenes. Next a screenplay was prepared which included dialogue. Finally, a shooting script broke the action down into individual shots and provided guidance for staging and camera positioning.
Scripts conformed to a standardized format, with brief camera and set instructions in the left-hand column and dialogue to the right. Each step of the process was subjected to detailed critical evaluation and numerous revisions before it was allowed to progress to the next stage of writing. As the project evolved, other elements of the production, such as casting, were discussed and decided, and these decisions in turn often led to further script development. The successive drafts were often the product of different writers. Some received on-screen credit and others did not. Carried to an extreme, this process resulted in films such as Forever and a Day (1943), which credited the contributions of an astonishing twenty-one writers.
The meticulous process of script development was intended to ensure not only that the story would be entertaining and engaging, and hence popular with audiences, but also that the resources needed to transform it into a film were available, and that the entire process could be performed within budget and on schedule. The continuity script acted as a blueprint for the tasks required during preproduction, such as casting and set building. Once filming began, it functioned as a detailed template for the day-to-day activities involved in shooting the film. The tasks to be performed, such as the creation of different camera setups, were known in advance and therefore could be scheduled for maximum efficiency. The continuity script also had the added virtue of making it far easier for the production office to monitor the progress of the shooting, and to intervene early when problems arose. This often occurred when scenes proved unexpectedly difficult and expensive to shoot, and could lead to ongoing script revision.
During the studio era, planning and resource allocation decisions were made within the context of multiple projects. The logic was one of portfolio investment in which decisions on individual projects were strongly related to what the studio intended to produce and release in a given year. The breakdown of the studio system in the early 1950s saw a return to the planning of films as individual units, a process known as the "package-unit system." This approach became dominant through the 1950s and 1960s when the studios began to cut back production. The cutback was partly a response to antitrust decrees that forced the studios to dispose of their exhibition business, with consequent loss of control over release. It also responded to the decline in cinema attendance, which was caused by a range of factors such as the baby boom and the growing popularity of television. The production cutbacks meant it was no longer viable for the studios to retain costly personnel under contract. Nor was it worthwhile, once control over exhibition was lost, to maintain an infrastructure that depended on a continuous flow of film production.
Personnel were therefore let go, physical assets were sold, and in-house departments such as wardrobe and props were shut down. Filmmaking returned to the logic of individual production that prevailed during the earliest days of the industry. When planning a film, it became necessary to negotiate for the main elements—stars, director, and script—separately. Once the main elements were secured, production finance was sought on a film-by-film basis. In the contemporary film industry most film projects originate with entrepreneurs. As a rule, they are financed largely on their individual merits, instead of by virtue of their contribution to the production and distribution strategy of a large studio.
The change in the way the industry is organized has had important repercussions for the development stage of film production. Because the key players are all independent contractors rather than attached to a studio, it has become harder to ensure that all of them remain committed to seeing a project through to completion. As a rule, key personnel such as actors and directors become contractually committed to a film only when financing has been obtained and a date for principal photography has been set. Unlike the studio era, when financing for individual films came from internally allocated budgets, in the poststudio era it is usually negotiated piecemeal from a variety of companies or individuals. This process may take so long to conclude that directors or actors who were originally enthusiastic about a film may move on to other projects.
The impact of financing uncertainty on the commitment of key personnel paradoxically tends to increase the uncertainty of financing itself. Financial backers often make their participation contingent on stars or high-profile directors. If key individuals exit the project financing arrangements may unravel—which may lead to postponements which, in turn, may lead to further exits by key personnel, bringing to an end a project originally seen as highly promising.
The problems of obtaining and committing sufficient financing for production have increased exponentially since the breakdown of the studio system. The multiple sources of finance which prevail in the twenty-first century increase the probability of endless postponement and ultimate failure. If the financiers do not have confidence in the way development is progressing, or if their financial situation changes, they may choose not to make the movie, putting the project into "turnaround," a stage at which the producer may seek finance elsewhere. Monetary uncertainty, combined with constant changes in personnel, often means that the development process can be extremely protracted. Director Richard Attenborough's pet project, Gandhi (1982), went through twelve screen-plays and seventeen years of development before it reached the preproduction stage.
Conversely, some films of the poststudio era have had much shorter periods of development than films made under the studio system. This has sometimes resulted in critically and/or commercially successful films. Some of the best-known examples were made by the American entrepreneur Roger Corman, who achieved particular renown in the field of low-budget exploitation films. The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) was inspired by standing sets. It was conceived and written in the space of a couple of weeks and filmed in slightly more than two days in order to take advantage of the sets before they were torn down. Another director who capitalized on standing sets was Wayne Wang. Immediately after shooting Smoke (1995), he filmed Blue in the Face (1995) in six days, based on ideas noted down by writer Paul Auster during the shooting of the first movie. It was assembled from largely improvised scenes and used many of the same actors along with a host of quickly marshaled celebrity cameos.
Short periods of development may appear attractive at first sight, but they often have negative consequences for the integrity of the film. When Corman filmed The Terror (1963) using the sets and stars assembled for his production of The Raven (1963), it was based on only a handful of hurriedly written scenes without a clear idea of narrative. Far from replicating the efficiency of The Little Shop of Horrors , this project required a further nine months of shooting scenes piecemeal to accumulate enough footage to transform it into a feature film. The filming of this jumble of sequences was completed by another five uncredited directors, including Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Monte Hellman, Dennis Jacob, and Jack Hill, and became one of the most protracted production processes of Corman's career.
Many independent productions have suffered from too little time spent in development, since the producer may not receive payment until the film goes into preproduction, encouraging the fastest possible progression to this stage. Yet even large-budget studio productions have sometimes been marred by insufficient development, such as the $35 million Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), which began shooting without a completed script.