It’s important for rookie writers to keep in mind that all screenwriters, even the most successful, get rejected. It happens to everybody –it’s normal. It’s something you try to get used to, and something you never really get over.
Let’s look at some of the most famous examples where film projects written by very successful writers stalled out at points in development or production.
1. True Romance, Natural Born Killers. These two early Tarantino original spec scripts were both rejected by virtually every studio.
According to Tarantino, the low-level readers at the studios were passing on those scripts, he figured because his screenplays had long passages of dialogue and way to much swearing. Those were apparently deal-breakers at the time.
During this period, Tarantino attempted to make a low-budget film that didn’t turn out well. Fortunately, he loved to talk about movies –and this was his genius. Smart movie people started to really take to him. He pitched Lawrence Bender, the basic idea behind Reservoir Dogs and got greenlit to film it. He was able to direct the film, which became a big hit.
After that, everyone in town was interested in Tarantino. Harvey Weinstein helped him raise the money to shoot Pulp Fiction, which solidified his place in the pantheon of filmmakers.
Again, to demonstrate how much rejection every writer encounters, here’s a quote about Pulp Fiction. “The worst thing ever written. It makes no sense. Someone’s dead and then they’re alive. It’s too long, violent and unfilmable.” – Columbia TriStar Executive.
Pulp Fiction went on to win the best original screenplay Oscar and the Palm D’or at the Cannes film festival. Since then he’s been able to write his own ticket, and has filmed a long list of unique and edgy films, several of which have been nominated for best original screenplay.
2. Star Wars. Lucas’s early drafts weren’t all that great –the studio’s reaction was lukewarm. In addition, they felt the film was considered “too expensive to make.”
However, the executives at Fox liked American Graffiti, and it was a huge hit. They bought the script, but kept Lucas busy for two years on rewrites. Lucas got the idea to fashion it after Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress which gave the film its theme of mastery of “the force.”
Fox really invested in Lucas, not Star Wars. The summer of 1977, Star Wars became a huge hit. Lucas would be making sequels and prequels the rest of his career.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark was seen by the studios as a movie about an archeologist looking for relics during World War II. The script was written by Lawrence Kasdan from ideas by Lucas and Spielberg. The project was rejected all over town. And this was after the success of Jaws and Star Wars.
Lawrence Kasdan’s brilliant screenplay (with input from Spielberg and Lucas) was rejected despite having those two epic filmmakers attached. One problem was that Spielberg had just made a film about World War II called 1941, and it was a flop.It was also considered too expensive. Finally, Paramount agreed to fund Raiders, as long as Spielberg could shoot it for under $18 million. That’s right, $18 million.
Spielberg had no big stars, and had to shoot the film quickly and inexpensively. He kept the number of takes to a minimum. It turned out Spielberg could shoot fast, with a minimum of retakes.
That’s eventually what made Raiders work, and it became another huge hit, followed by equally successful sequels.
4. Back to the Future, written by Bob Gale, unbelievably, might never have been produced. In the 80s bawdy teen comedies were big successes at the box office. Many studios viewed the film as a “cute, warm and fuzzy film without enough sex.”
Ironically, Disney passed on it because the idea of a teenager going back in time, and fending off advances from his own mother seemed too perverse for them.
Somewhere along the line, director Robert Zemeckis became a fan of the script. After filming the hit movie Romancing the Stone, Zemeckis could choose his next project. He chose Back to the Future, and Universal bought the script.
Shooting was rocky at first. Zemeckis had to let Eric Stoltz go and hired Michael J. Fox. Finally, the film wrapped. Back to the Future and the two sequels went on to be huge hit films, and became among of the most popular films of the 80s.
5. Ted written by Seth McFarlane, who had a development deal at Fox. He tried to get them interested in Ted, (co-written by Alec Sulkin). The screenplay told the story of a single guy who happens to have an obscenely funny talking teddy bear.
McFarlane wanted a $50 million budget. At that price tag, Fox wasn’t interested. In fact, they felt much better about another comedy, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
Ted was dropped from Fox’s development schedule. Once something like that gets around Hollywood, no other studios wants to be perceived as scrambling to pick up a rival studio’s “castoffs.”
Luckily for MacFarlane, his TV show Family Guy was very popular with studio insiders. He shopped the Ted script around town for a while, until Universal finally took an interest.
They didn’t balk at the $50 million price tag. With Mark Walberg starring, and Seth voicing Ted, the film went on to make almost $200 million.
To make matters worse for Fox, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was a flop at the box office. Meanwhile, McFarlane has already done a sequel, Ted2, for Universal.
6. The Usual Suspects, written by Christopher McQuarrie was rejected by every major and minor studio in town. It was an extremely complex script. No one understood a word of it, except Kevin Spacey, for whom it had been written.
The Usual Suspects screenplay had a maze-like complicated storyline. Many studio executives couldn’t quite follow it. Luckily for McQuarrie, his old friend Bryan Singer, a director, struggled to find the movie a financier.
Singer directed another McQuarrie script that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Suddenly, film financiers became more interested in the next Singer/McQuarrie project.
Finally, Singer found the funding to shoot the film, and was able to get Kevin Spacey to play the key role of the man who turns out to me the mysterious Keyser Soze. When the film was shot, the jury was still out. McQuarrie remembers another film executive telling him, “remake it with Mel Gibson in there and you’ll have a hit.”
Singer stuck with Spacey and The Usual Suspects became a huge hit. The screenplay won both the British and American Academy Awards. Spacey won the Academy Award for best actor as Keyser Soze. The film was eventually voted one of the 100 Greatest Screenplays by the Writers Guild of America.
William Goldman once said “nobody knows anything” in Hollywood. Studio executives make decisions based on what worked last week, what their interns think, or which scripts their girlfriends liked. Keep that in mind. And there’s a lot of random luck involved. You can get 1,000 “no’s,” but all you need is one “yes.”