“Never throw anything away” goes the Womblin’ logic of creative writing.
So what if nobody right now is interested in your nine-film franchise set at an intergalactic animal rescue center (twist: the humans are the animals!). It’s probably just ahead of its time. Stow that baby in a desk drawer, wait a few years, and get busy planning the Hollywood Hills swimming pool you’re going to have built in the shape of Tina Fey’s face.
And if Hollywood doesn’t come through, perhaps it’s because your project is better suited to television. The TV shows below all started life as unmade movie projects that eventually found their perfect form on the small screen.
From a discarded Scream sequel to a Vic and Bob road movie, the following TV shows were once destined for cinema…
The Following (FOX)
Before Ehren Kruger took over script duties on Scream 3, original writer Kevin Williamson had conceived a story for the sequel involving a group of killers who “were basically a fanclub of Woodsboro kids that had formed because of Stab 1 and Stab 2 [Scream’s movie franchise-within-a-movie-franchise]”.
“They were all doing the killings,” Williamson continues, “and the big surprise of the movie was when Sidney walked into the house after Ghostface had killed everyone…and they all rose up. None of them were actually dead and they’d planned the whole thing.”
As Williamson tells it, that premise partially morphed into FOX serial killer drama, The Following (2013-2015) starring Kevin Bacon as Ryan Hardy, an FBI agent hunting down James Purefoy’s Joe Carroll, the charismatic leader of a murderous fan cult.
Mad Men (AMC)
One of the highlights of the superb Mad Men exhibition at Queens, NY’s Museum of the Moving Image this summer were three pages of hand-written notes by showrunner Matthew Weiner’s for his unmade feature screenplay, The Horseshoe. Written in the early nineties, The Horseshoe was to tell the story of a man from a poor, rural background who returned from war under the stolen identity of a dead soldier and completely reinvented himself.
Here’s a section, kindly transcribed by The Gothamist, describing The Horseshoe’s protagonist, Pete:
“My character has reached the end of a long circle, which has been filled with spirals. He has fought his inner desires, to act on them would be suicide (he has fought this also). all the time embracing the promises of the post-depression America. He is raised with hope and an almost arrogant belief that anything can be achieved. He is apathetic about history and politics, he doesn’t even follow money. For him the great pleasures of sex + alcohol (the latter usually to deaden the lack of the former) work into his decisions on everything.”
Sounds familiar, right? Wait until you meet Pete’s mother, Peggy. Weiner abandoned the movie screenplay after 50 or so pages, only returning to it years later when he began work on Mad Men.
Mr. Robot (USA Network)
Sam Esmail’s cyber-thriller Mr. Robot is comfortably the critical hit of the summer. Starring Rami Malek as a paranoid, disillusioned hacker and Christian Slater as his mysterious accomplice on a mission to take down a mega-conglomerate, Esmail’s show is smart, surprising, stylish stuff. USA Network obviously think so too, which is why they renewed it for another ten-episode season before its second instalment had even aired.
Esmail, whose only other major credit is on 2014 movie Comet, first envisaged Mr. Robot as a feature film. “I was writing it as a feature,” he told Fastcocreate, “but I think around page 90 I realized I wasn’t even halfway through the first act, and that’s when I knew this really couldn’t be a feature.” Esmail’s solution was to turn the movie into an episodic series. “I chopped 30 pages off and said, okay, this will be the pilot episode of whatever this becomes.”
The benefit of first having conceived the show as a stand-alone movie, according to Esmail, is that he knows where Mr. Robot is ultimately heading. “I think with television, generally you start the pilot without knowing where you’re going.” No danger of that here, which should be music to Mr. Robot fans’ ears.
In 2005, Glee executive producer, co-writer, director, and sometime narrator, Ian Brennan, is reported to have dreamt up the original idea for a movie based around a high school glee club set in a town that was very “suburban, normal, and plain,” peopled by characters who each have a “desire to shine.”
Brennan had no success in selling the pitch, and it wasn’t until years later that a chance meeting at their gym, so the story goes, saw a TV producer pal of Brennan pass the feature script on to Nip/Tuck’s Ryan Murphy. Seeing the movie’s potential, Murphy, along with writing partner Brad Falchuk, pushed for it to be made instead into a TV series.
After a full re-write of Brennan’s original script, and with Murphy and Falchuk on board, FOX picked up Glee the TV series in record time. The rest is six seasons and over one hundred and twenty episodes of history.
We’ll hand it over to the much-missed Michael Crichton to tell this story, via his official website:
“In 1974, I had just finished directing my first movie, Westworld, which was a science fiction story about a theme park with robots. For my next project, I wanted to do something completely different.
I wrote a documentary-style movie about what happened during 24 hours in an emergency room. I thought the screenplay was terrific, but nobody would make the movie, finding it too technical, too chaotic, and too fast-moving. It sat on the shelf for the next nineteen years-brought out every five or ten years, for updating, and for the studios and networks to look at, and reject yet again.
Finally, NBC made it as a TV pilot. And then it became a series.”
That last line has to go down in the understatement hall of fame. ER didn’t just become a series, it became a fifteen-season monster hit that launched countless careers, won over a hundred awards, and makes regular appearances in “Best TV drama” lists.
Sports Night (ABC)
Before The Newsroom, there was Sports Night, the acclaimed Aaron Sorkin series following the production of a fictional cable TV sports news program. Only two seasons of the half-hour comedy drama starring Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman, and Josh Charles ran on ABC in the late nineties, after which Sorkin went to work on some show set in the White House and was never heard of again.
As told to Entertainment Weekly in this well-worth-a-read Sports Night oral history, Sorkin’s original idea was for a feature film: “I had a very vague idea for a movie, sort of Broadcast News at an ESPN-type network. Any time a story would occur to me, it would be a short story. I eventually mentioned that to my agent, who said, “It sounds like you’re talking about a TV series.”
As it turned out, he was. ABC picked up the show lickety split, and it went on to garner critical praise and a position on just about every “cancelled too soon” list ever published.
Watching all six parts together, you can see how the characteristically odd road trip story would have worked as a feature. Its story of two estranged (and just plain strange) brothers reuniting to track down one’s abandoned son is serialized, unlike the pair’s current sitcom, House of Fools, which has a standalone episode formula and wraps up each week’s plot with a natty song.
Like Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, both runs of which aired as six-part series and were also edited down into feature films, perhaps Catterick could have enjoyed the best of both worlds. As part of BBC Three’s early experimental comedy remit though, it made a kind of sense. Given a cinema release, this strange fish would have likely struggled to find an audience and a place.
Before David Duchovny was cast in the TV role, hedonist author Hank Moody was originally the lead character in an abandoned movie script by Californication creator Tom Kapinos.
Natascha McElhone told The Interrobang in 2013 that Kapinos had had problems finishing his feature screenplay, which told the story of a womanizing novelist’s arrival in California. According to McElhone, it was Kapinos’ wife who suggested that he take it around the studios to “see if anyone wants to do it as a TV series.”
Anyone did, specifically Showtime. With Duchovny in the lead, Californication went on to seven seasons of success.
The Sopranos (HBO)
The Sopranos creator David Chase has made no secret of his disdain for mainstream TV over the years. According to C.W.E Bigsby’s Viewing America, Chase viewed the TV shows of his youth and early career as mindless capitalist propaganda, characterized by lowest-common denominator repetition. Writing for movies, as he’ll tell anyone, was originally Chase’s creative goal.
And the movies were where Tony Soprano started life, the story goes. Chase conceived a feature film idea about “a mobster in therapy having problems with his mother, who’s also involved in some sort of gang war or business problem.” That idea lay dormant for years until Chase was approached about writing a TV version of The Godfather, something he declined to do, instead resurrecting his mob-boss-in-therapy premise for the small screen. Fleshed out with other family members, that concept became The Sopranos, a series that made American cable drama a world leader.