Development hell or development limbo is media industry jargon for a project that remains in development (often moving between different crews, scripts, or studios) without progressing to completion. A film, video game, television program, screenplay, software application, concept, or idea stranded in development hell takes an especially long time to start production, or never does. Projects in development hell are not officially cancelled, but work on them slows or stops.
Film industry companies often buy the film rights to many popular novels, video games, and comic books, but it may take years for such properties to be successfully brought to the cinema, and often with considerable changes to the plot, characters, and general tone. The original creators of the source material usually have very little to no involvement in the films' creative control, creating a divide among fans.
This pre-production process can last for months or years. More often than not, a project trapped in this state for a prolonged period of time will be abandoned by all interested parties or canceled outright. As Hollywood starts ten times as many projects as are those released, many scripts will end up in this limbo state. This happens most often with projects that have multiple interpretations and affect several points of view.
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In the case of a film or television screenplay, generally the screenwriter has successfully sold a screenplay to producers or studio executives, but then new executives assigned to the project may raise objections to prior decisions, mandating rewrites and recasting. As directors and actors join the project, further rewrites and recasting may be done, to accommodate the needs of the new talents involved in the project.
It may also be the case that the initial concept, such as key action scene or game feature, once being implemented, fails to meet expectations, making the whole premise moot. At any point, a project may be forced to begin again from scratch.
It may also be the case that the screenwriters have an issue with the final rights agreement after signing an option, requiring research on the chain of title. The project may be stuck until the situation is resolved and project participants are happy with the full terms, or the project is abandoned.
When a film is in development but never receives the necessary production funds, another studio may execute a turnaround deal and produce the film to make it successful. An example of this is when Columbia Pictures developed, but then stopped production of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Universal Pictures then picked up the film and made it a success. If a studio completely abandons a film project, the costs are written off as part of the studio's overhead. Sometimes studios or producers will deliberately halt production in order to stop competition on a different project, or to ensure that people invested will be available for other projects that the studio prefers.
As a potential writer's strike loomed in 2001, major studios wanted to spend less time and energy bidding on longer-term developments, such as film rights to books. Instead they focused more on buying projects that would immediately receive a green-light such as big budget action thrillers, and high concept comedies written by established and credible writers. Studio executives put all uncertain scripts and pitches on the shelves during this time to avoid taking a chance on a long-term development, and only wanted projects that were ready to go into production. Some studios and producers still bought film rights to books, but only ones that had successful sales. Examples of this are Dino De Laurentiis' $9 million acquisition of Thomas Harris' Hannibal and Miramax purchasing Mario Puzo's Omertà for $2–$3 million.
The concept artist and illustrator Sylvain Despretz has suggested that "Development hell doesn't happen with no-name directors. It happens only with famous directors that a studio doesn't dare break up with. And that's how you end up for two years just, you know, polishing a turd. Until, finally, somebody walks away, at great cost."
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- Alien vs. Predator: Alien vs. Predator was first planned shortly after the 1990 release of Predator 2, to be released sometime in 1993. It was halted for more than a decade, with constant actor changes, restarts, and failed promotions of the film until it was finally released in 2004.
- Akira: Warner Bros. has been developing a live-action American version of the animated film for years. As of January 6, 2012, Warner Bros. has "shut down" production for the fourth time.
- Atlas Shrugged: Film and later television adaptations of Ayn Rand's novel were in development hell for nearly 40 years before the novel was finally brought to screen in the first part of a trilogy in 2011. Part II appeared in 2012, and Part III was released in September 2014.
- Atuk: A film adaptation of the novel The Incomparable Atuk. Several principals involved in the film have died during the film's development time, now over a decade.
- Austin Powers 4: The possibility of a third sequel to the film Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery was first announced in 2005 by Mike Myers, who stated "There is hope!" and "We're all circling and talking to each other. I miss doing the characters." In July 2008, Mike Myers stated that he had begun writing Austin Powers 4, and that the plot is "really about Dr. Evil and his son." In September 2013, when asked about the future of Austin Powers, Myers answered "I'm still figuring that out."
- Beverly Hills Cop III: Went through multiple script revisions, including a treatment that had Axel Foley teaming up with a Scotland Yard detective (to be played by Sean Connery), until finally being released.
- Batman Triumphant: The failure of Batman & Robin in 1997 also hindered many attempts to produce a fifth Batman movie until Warner Bros. opted to reboot the franchise in 2005, resulting in Batman Begins, which met with far greater success.
- The Brazilian Job: A sequel to the 2003 remake of The Italian Job was in development by the summer of 2004, but has faced multiple delays. Principal photography was initially slated to begin in March 2005, with a projected release date in November or December 2005. However, the script was never finalized, and the release date was pushed back to sometime in 2006, and later summer 2007. Writer David Twohy approached Paramount Pictures with an original screenplay entitled The Wrecking Crew, and though the studio reportedly liked the idea, they thought it would work better as a sequel to The Italian Job. Gray was slated to return as director, as well as most, if not all, of the original cast. At least two drafts of the script had been written by August 2007, but the project had not been greenlit.
- Dallas Buyers Club: The screenplay was written in September 1992 by Craig Borten. Throughout the 1990s, he wrote 10 different scripts, hoping for it to be picked up. It was unable to secure financial backing, going through three different directors, finally being released in 2013, with Jean-Marc Vallée directing.
- The Dark Tower: An adaptation of The Dark Tower had been in development since at least 2007. The film was eventually released on August 4, 2017.
- Deadpool: Deadpool was in development hell for more than 10 years. In May 2000, Artisan Entertainment announced a deal with Marvel Entertainment to coproduce, finance and distribute a film based on Deadpool. In February 2004, New Line Cinema attempted to produce a Deadpool film with writer/director David S. Goyer working on the spin-off and actor Ryan Reynolds in the title role; Reynolds himself became interested in the character after finding out that in Cable & Deadpool, Deadpool refers to his own scarred appearance as "Ryan Reynolds crossed with a Shar-Pei". By August, Goyer lost interest in favor of other projects. In March 2005, after New Line put Deadpool in turnaround, 20th Century Fox became interested in moving forward on production for the project. Fox considered a Deadpool spin-off early in the development of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which had Reynolds cast in the role, and after the opening weekend success of that film announced that it was lending Deadpool out to writers, with Lauren Shuler Donner acting as a producer. Donner wanted the film to reboot the character of Deadpool, ignoring the version in X-Men Origins: Wolverine and including attributes that the character has in the comics, such as breaking the fourth wall. Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick were hired to write the script in January 2010, and Robert Rodriguez was sent an early draft of the screenplay that June. After negotiations with Rodriguez fell through, Adam Berg emerged as a top contender to direct. In April 2011, visual effects specialist Tim Miller was hired as director, making the film his directorial debut. In September 2014, Fox gave the film a release date of February 12, 2016. The film was released on that date to positive reviews and became the ninth highest-grossing film of 2016 worldwide, as well as the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time.
- Foodfight!: In 2004, the CGI film Foodfight was announced. Described as "Toy Story in a supermarket", the film promised to bring together over 80 famous advertising characters with voice talent including Charlie Sheen, Christopher Lloyd, Eva Longoria, Hilary and Haylie Duff, and Wayne Brady. Director Lawrence Kasanoff expected it to be a commercial hit and merchandise for the movie appeared on store shelves before the film had a release date. However, the film ran into many problems. In late 2002/early 2003, Kasanoff reported that hard drives containing unfinished assets from the film had been stolen in what he called an act of "industrial espionage". After several years, a trailer was finally shown at AHM in 2011, a company bought the DVD distribution rights for the film in Europe, and a quiet video-on-demand American release came in 2012, to extremely negative reviews and was a financial failure.
- ID Forever Part I and II: The sequels to Independence Day were in development hell from 1997 until 2009, when director Roland Emmerich announced the pre-production of the films, which were planned to be shot back-to-back. However, ID Forever Part I was renamed to Independence Day: Resurgence for its release on June 24, 2016.
- The Jetsons: A live-action adaptation of The Jetsons was first announced in late 1984 by Paramount Pictures. The film was to be executive produced by Gary Nardino and released in 1985, but failed to do so. In the late 1980s Universal Studios purchased the film rights for The Flintstones and The Jetsons from Hanna-Barbera Productions. The result was the animated film Jetsons: The Movie, which was released in 1990. In May 2007, director Robert Rodriguez entered talks with Universal Studios and Warner Bros. to film a live action film adaptation of The Jetsons for a potential 2009 theatrical release, having at the time discussed directing a film adaptation of Land of the Lost with Universal. Rodriguez was uncertain which project he would pursue next, though the latest script draft for The Jetsons by assigned writer Adam F. Goldberg was further along in development. The film was to be released in 2012. However, in early 2012, Warner Bros. Pictures delayed indefinitely the release of the film. Also in 2012, Warner Bros. hired the screenwriting duo Van Robichaux and Evan Susser to rewrite the script. Producer Denise Di Novi said in 2011 that Rodriguez was off the project as his vision for the movie "wasn’t a mainstream studio version". Kanye West reported via Twitter in February 2012 that he was in talks to be creative director on The Jetsons.
- The Keith Moon Movie: A biopic of The Who drummer Keith Moon was first floated by The Who's singer Roger Daltrey in 1994. A competing movie by Keith Moon's personal manager, Peter "Dougal" Butler, produced by Robert De Niro and written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, was cancelled in 1998 after Daltrey had Pete Townshend deny the use of music by The Who. Since then, some major names have been attached to the movie (a script by Alex Cox among many written, and a starring role for Robbie Williams or Mike Myers) but no script has yet gotten Roger Daltrey's approval. As of 2013, the movie is attached to Exclusive Media and Da Vinci Media Ventures.
- Love & Mercy: Named after the 1988 song, a biopic of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson was proposed that year with William Hurt as Wilson. Discussions for a feature-length biopic continued over the decades, but production did not take off until 2011 with director Bill Pohlad and screenplay writer Oren Moverman at the helm. The film was eventually released in 2014 starring Paul Dano and John Cusack as Wilson in a dual role.
- The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: A loose adaptation of the Don Quixote tale co-written and directed by Terry Gilliam. Production originally started in 1998, but during the shooting in 2000, a significant number of difficulties such as set and equipment destroyed by flooding, the departure of the film's lead due to illness, problems obtaining insurance for the production, and other financial difficulties, led to a sudden suspension of the production and its subsequent cancellation. Seven additional attempts to date have been made by Gilliam to revive the project.
- Me and My Shadow: An animated fantasy comedy film from DreamWorks Animation that would feature the studio's signature CG animation mixed with traditional hand-drawn animation. Was announced in December 2010 and slated for a release date in March 2013. It would then see two release date changes, first to November 2013 and then to March 2014. In February 2013, it was announced that the film had gone back into development with an unknown release date. After the accession with NBCUniversal, DreamWorks announced they had revived the film's production for a 2019 release, retitled as Shadows.
- The Postman: Author David Brin described the ten-year effort to get his novel produced as a film. Production began in 1987, but the final film was not released until 1997. In the process, the screenplay went through so many revisions that the shooting script only loosely resembled the book, and later writers "borrowed" elements from the book to improve the film. The film was a box-office bomb and was negatively reviewed.
- Sin City: A Dame to Kill For: A sequel to Sin City, announced for a 2008 release, did not enter production until 2012, and was released in 2014.
- Superman Lives: The name given to a project begun by producer Jon Peters in 1993 as Superman Reborn. The proposed film would have followed the comic story line known as The Death of Superman. Jonathan Lemkin was hired to write the initial script, but Peters brought on a series of additional screenwriters to overhaul the script, including Gregory Poirier in 1995 and Kevin Smith in 1996. Director Tim Burton became attached to the film, with Nicolas Cage cast as the Man of Steel, and several more screenwriters were brought on board for several more rewrites. Burton backed out in late 1998 citing differences with producer Peters and the studios, opting instead to direct Sleepy Hollow. Additional writers and directors were attached to the project at various times over the next few years. Peters' project went through several more permutations before evolving into Superman Returns, released in 2006, 13 years after initial development began. The film's journey through development hell was later explored by a documentary on the topic, The Death of "Superman Lives": What Happened?, released in 2015.
- Timeless: Timeless is a story written by Michael Bartlett (author of The Zombie Diaries). In 2009, a poster and concept art were released. Film production was completely halted with the release of Looper, as Bartlett felt the two were too similar. As of 2013, Boundless Pictures had optioned the Timeless script.
- Warcraft: A live-action adaptation of the Warcraft series was first announced in 2006. The film spent several years in development hell before the project advanced. It was scheduled for a 2016 release. The film was released in May 2016.
- The X-Files: I Want to Believe: The second film based upon the popular American television show The X-Files began pre-production planning in 2001 and was announced for release in 2003 to follow the show's ninth season, but languished in development until it was finally produced for its release in the summer of 2008, six years after the television show had ended.
- The Smile Sessions: Archival recordings of the Beach Boys unfinished album Smile took nearly 45 years to compile for a dedicated release. Numerous complications contributed to its excessively protracted delay, including bandleader Brian Wilson's irrational fear of the album. Brother and bandmate Carl Wilson compared the album's structuring to editing a film, as compiler Alan Boyd explains, "I think he was right about that. The kind of editing that the project required seemed more like the process of putting a film together than a pop record."
- Chinese Democracy: Rock band Guns N' Roses began work on this album in the late 1990s. In the time between its conception and release, nearly the entire lineup of the band had changed numerous times. It was once dubbed by The New York Times "The Most Expensive Album Never Made". Recorded in fourteen separate studios with reported production costs of $13 million, Chinese Democracy was eventually released in November 2008.
- Time I and II: In 2006, Finnish melodic death/power metal band Wintersun began work on their second and third albums, Time I and Time II, which were initially intended to be released as a single album. Recording began in May of that year, but the albums would be the recipient of years-long delays for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which was the complexity of each song's mix. Time I was released on 19 October 2012. Time II was expected to be released in early 2014 but ended up getting delayed much further, and it's still in the middle of production. Time II has recently been confirmed to not be the next Wintersun album, but instead the band will release a different project in 2017.
- Aliens: Colonial Marines: First announced in 2001, Aliens: Colonial Marines spent over 12 years in development hell. The original game which was announced in 2001 to be in development by Check Six Games, was cancelled. The video game rights for the Alien franchise were sold in December 2006 to Sega. Gearbox Software subsequently announced that it would take over development of Colonial Marines, intending it to be a direct follow-up to Aliens. The game would spend another 7 years in development, during which Gearbox's resources were also being consumed by other projects, such as Duke Nukem Forever, as well as its own franchise Borderlands, resulting in much of the game's development being outsourced to other studios. The game was released in 2013, where it was criticized for having various bugs and gameplay issues, low-quality graphics, as well as a lack of consistent continuity with the Alien film franchise. Further controversy emerged when it was found that Gearbox and Sega had presented demos of the game at conventions that had a noticeably higher graphics quality than the final product.
- Duke Nukem Forever: The sequel to the 1996 game Duke Nukem 3D, Duke Nukem Forever, was in development hell for 14 years: from 1997 to its release date in 2011. The long development time was caused by numerous factors, including a switch from the Quake II engine to the Unreal Engine, having a relatively small development staff by modern standards (3D Realms' co-owners George Broussard and Scott Miller infamously maintained that the game would be released "when it's done"), conflicts between 3D Realms and its publisher, Take-Two Interactive, over how it had been handling the constant delays, and the eventual bankruptcy of 3D Realms. In 2009, the rights to the Duke Nukem franchise were sold to Gearbox Software, who eventually completed the game and released it in 2011. The game was ultimately a critical disappointment, with most of the criticism directed towards the game's clunky controls, long loading times, offensive humor, and overall aged and dated design.
- Final Fantasy XV: Originally titled Final Fantasy Versus XIII, it was announced in 2006 as a spinoff of Final Fantasy XIII exclusively for PlayStation 3. Following a long period with little news on the game, it was re-announced as the next mainline installment of the series on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One which underwent large changes in direction such as making the game a self-contained story and replacing the main heroine. The game was released worldwide on November 29, 2016, more than 10 years after it was initially announced.
- The Last Guardian: The Last Guardian was announced in 2007 to be in development at Team Ico. A short trailer released in 2007 shows a young boy who befriends a giant bird/cat-like creature. Creative conflicts between the developers and the publisher Sony, caused the game to remain in development hell, particularly after project lead Fumito Ueda left Sony but remained active in the game's development. Further, the development delay caused Sony to switch the target platform from the aging PlayStation 3 to the newer PlayStation 4, further extending the time to rework the game's engine. Sony assured fans that the game was still in development over the next six years, but were sparse on further details, until June 2015 when the game was formally re-introduced as a PlayStation 4 title which was released in December 2016.
- Mother 3: A sequel to the 1994 Mother 2 (released as EarthBound in 1995 in North America). The game was initially intended to be released on the Super Famicom like its predecessor, before shifting focus to the Nintendo 64 Disk Drive. Following the failure of the Disk Drive, the game was shifted to the standard Nintendo 64, before the development team's inexperience with 3D-oriented video game creation and a large series of delays led to the game being quietly cancelled in 2000. Eventually, assets from the cancelled project were later collected and converted to a 2D format, and the project restarted development on the Game Boy Advance. Nine years after its conception, Mother 3 was finally released on the Game Boy Advance in 2006, but only in Japan.
- Team Fortress 2: Was announced in 1999 and took 8 years to be released. With a complete change in gameplay and art direction, the North American release took place on 9 October 2007. Unlike the overwhelming majority of games that became trapped in development hell, Team Fortress 2's development was fairly structured and it received widespread critical acclaim upon release.
- Prey 2: The original 2006 Prey was developed by Human Head Studios; considered a success shortly after release, plans for a sequel Prey 2 were made. The rights to Prey were transferred from 3D Realms to ZeniMax Media (owners of Bethesda Softworks) in 2009, and the sequel was fully announced in 2011 for a planned 2012 release. Demonstrated screens showed both gameplay and narrative that were only loosely connected to the original game, a decision made by both Human Head and Bethesda to better met the developers' vision arrived at after the transfer of ownership to ZeniMax. Issues occurred behind-the-scenes that caused Human Head to stop development in late 2011, and in early 2012, Bethesda affirmed a delay in the game's development. Rumors began to circulate that Human Head had been taken off the project with development duties given to Arkane Studios. By October 2014, Prey 2 had been officially canceled by Bethesda. However, rumors persisted that Arkane were still involved with a Prey project. This was revealed in mid-2016 to be a new game titled Prey, a re-imagining of the Prey concepts but having otherwise no connection to the original game or canceled Prey 2; this new title was released on May 5, 2017 for Windows, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4.
- Owlboy: Starting development in 2007, it was formally announced in 2008 with a short gameplay trailer. The game spent the better part of a decade in development and the team was worried about the expectation of fans and thus started over several times. Simon Andersen also had to deal with suffering from depression, which he had since childhood. It wouldn't be shown off again until PAX 2013. with a release window of 2013, however D-Pad Studios shifted focus to their other game Savant Ascent which would be released in December 2013. Finally at PAX 2016, it was announced that the game would be released on November 1, 2016.
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