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10 Movies That Made It Out of Development Hell, From ‘Dune’ to ‘Avatar’

By Britton Perelman · June 23, 2022

10 Movies That Made It Out of Development Hell - Dune

Even the most famous films, like Dune, Avatar, and Frozen, have gone through Development Hell.

Ah, Development Hell. The bowels of Hollywood. The dreaded purgatory you hope your beloved project doesn’t fall into.

While screenwriters generally fear Development Hell, I’m here to let you know that it’s not all doom and gloom. Sometimes the years (or, god forbid, decades) spent languishing in the back rooms and forgotten basements of Hollywood can really help a story find its true form. 

The screenwriting universe works in strange ways, and occasionally the script gods conspire to delay a project so it can find the audience it deserves.

Here are 10 famous films that survived the horrors of Development Hell and lived to tell the tale.

Frozen film still

‘Frozen’

Frozen

Time in Development Hell: 73 years

Good ole Walt Disney conceived the idea for an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s snowy tale back in 1940. But the writers encountered some trouble with the Snow Queen story that delayed production, and when the U.S. entered WWII, Disney shifted their strategy to help with wartime propaganda and the project was put on hold indefinitely. 

The Snow Queen was almost brought back during the Disney Renaissance era in the 1990s but was scrapped in favor of the project that eventually became 2010’s Tangled. Chris Buck got involved in 2008 and the success of Tangled finally gave the project legs — the new title was announced in 2011 and, after a few more years of development, casting, and production, Frozen made it to the big screen in 2013.

Talk about trusting the process and learning to let it go, let it goooooooo.  

Dune film still

‘Dune’

Dune

Time in Development Hell: 50 years

Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction story was originally published in 1965 and instantly identified as having great film potential. Throughout the 1970s, various studios and producers attempted to bring the project to life, to no avail.

Over the next several decades, Richard P. Rubinstein and David Lynch both completed and released adaptations, but both were poorly received and basically written off by fans. The project came to be widely considered “unfilmable” around Hollywood and was forgotten about.

Then, after the success of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises in the early 2000s, interest in another Dune adaptation was renewed. Legendary secured the rights in 2016, and director Denis Villeneuve joined the project late that same year. Villeneuve spent the next few years focusing on Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 but eventually turned his full attention to Dune in 2018. In conceptualizing his adaptation, Villeneuve went back to the source material for inspiration, which paid off.

The first installment of his two-part adaptation was released in 2021 and received praise for its faithfulness to the original novel.

Gangs of New York film still

‘Gangs of New York’

Gangs of New York

Time in Development Hell: 32 years

If I were bestowing Martin Scorsese with some kind of award, it would be for Achievement in Persistence in seeing his projects through the bowels of Development Hell. The Irishman, Silence, and The Last Temptation of Christ all spent time in Development Hell, but for this list, I’m going to focus on Gangs of New York.

Back in 1970, Scorsese came across a Herbert Asbury book from the 1920s about the criminals in New York’s 19th-century underworld and envisioned the film epic it could become. With no credibility to his name (yet), Scorsese kept the project in the back of his mind and waited. He nabbed rights to the book in the late 70s and planned to turn it into a punk musical. As the project bounced around Hollywood for the next decade, his vision changed. He considered making it a trilogy, before finally settling on the adaptation we know today.

Production began in 2000 and wrapped in 2001, but the terrorist attacks on September 11th delayed the film’s release. Finally, after decades of development, planning, and production, Gangs of New York hit the big screen in December of 2002.

Dallas Buyers Club

‘Dallas Buyers Club’

Dallas Buyers Club

Time in Development Hell: 21 years

Screenwriter Craig Borten wrote the first draft of Dallas Buyers Club in 1992 after visiting and interviewing the real-life Ron Woodroof before he died. Borten wrote 10 versions of the script in as many years while trying to land financing for the project.

It was another nine years before Matthew McConaughey joined the project and got things moving once again. 21 years later, Dallas Buyers Club was released to critical acclaim. Talk about sticking with a project for the long haul.

Mad Max: Fury Road

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’

Mad Max: Fury Road

Time in Development Hell: 16 years

George Miller created one of the best franchises in cinema: Mad Max. He originally had the idea for his 2016 Academy Award-winning film all the way back in 1999. The movie had the greenlight and was ready to go when a series of delays pushed the project to the sidelines.

After an extended hiatus (Miller was busy making Happy Feet), casting began again in 2010 and the movie began shooting in 2012. Sixteen years after its inception, Mad Max: Fury Road hit theaters in 2015 and took home a slew of Oscars the following year.

Deadpool

‘Deadpool’

Deadpool

Time in Development Hell: 16 years

Believe it or not, Deadpool was announced back in 2000 and Ryan Reynolds was attached to the lead role starting in 2004. To put that into perspective, Robert Downey Jr. wasn’t even cast as Iron Man until 2006. 

Deadpool toiled away in development for years, and Reynolds’ turn as Green Lantern in 2011 actually almost killed the project entirely. But director Tim Miller got enough money to shoot some test footage, which was leaked to the public in 2014.

People loved Reynolds’ take on the snarky character so much that it finally convinced the studio to move ahead with the project. Took ‘em long enough!

Avatar

‘Avatar’

Avatar

Time in Development Hell: 15 years

James Cameron’s epic began as an 80-page treatment way back in 1994 and was slated to be shot right after Titanic. But Cameron didn’t feel like the 90s technology of Hollywood adequately fit his vision for the project, so the writer/director put the project on hold to wait for the tech to catch up.

The budget increased exponentially as the years went by, but Cameron finally started production in 2007 and the film was released in 2009. Considering it’s the highest-grossing movie of all time, I guess it was worth the wait. We’ll see if that holds true for the sequels…

The Princess Bride

‘The Princess Bride’

The Princess Bride

Time in Development Hell: 14 years

Though he eventually penned the Academy Award-winning scripts for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, William Goldman actually started his career as a novelist. His most beloved novel is The Princess Bride, which was published in 1973.

Goldman himself tried to get a big-screen adaptation of the story off the ground for a decade, but the deals fell apart in various stages of development.

Only when Rob Reiner came aboard the project in the mid-80s and helped secure financial support from Norman Lear did the project find its way out of the Pit of Despair. Goldman and Reiner worked closely together to bring the magical fantasy romance to life in 1987. 

In the Heights

‘In the Heights’

In the Heights

Time in Development Hell: 13 years

When Lin-Manuel Miranda’s debut musical hit Broadway in 2008, it immediately garnered Hollywood attention. Universal originally planned to release a film adaptation in 2011, but the project was canceled over casting issues.

As In the Heights bounced around Hollywood, Miranda began working on another project about one of America’s founding fathers. The success of that project (one guess what it is!) gave the In the Heights adaptation new momentum. The Weinstein Company was set to produce and Jon M. Chu joined the project as director, but it stalled again in 2017 amid the sexual misconduct allegations against Weinstein.

The film rights were auctioned off to Warner Bros., and the project was completed in 2019 and slated for release in 2020. The global pandemic delayed-release another year, but In the Heights finally danced its way into movie theaters in the summer of 2021. Paciencia y fe!

Superbad

‘Superbad’

Superbad

Time in Development Hell: 12 years

Childhood friends Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg wrote the script for Superbad as teenagers in the mid-90s to prove they could write a feature film. They revised the script throughout high school, but the project was put on the back burner as Rogen got his career off the ground.

After years of collaboration with Judd Apatow, Rogen and Goldberg pitched Superbad to him in the early 2000s but had a hard time finding a distributor. By the time Columbia finally came on board, Rogen was too old to play the role based on himself, so the part went to an unknown actor named Jonah Hill.

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