Don’t lose hope just because no movie studio has picked up the rights to your seven-part political-military saga about a species of space colonizing cats; it could turn out to be the perfect idea for a new TV series. And with shows like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead amassing some of biggest fan followings in media, television is currently the hottest platform in show business.
All the shows listed below started out as rejected movie projects that eventually found a fitting home on the small screen. From an abandoned Scream sequel to an old Michael Crichton story that sat on the shelf for nearly two decades, here are eight TV shows that had a cinematic premise.
8. Mr. Robot
Mr. Robot is a smart and polished cybercrime thriller featuring an embittered and paranoid hacker who meets a mysterious cyber-vigilante who wants to utilize his skills to start a revolution by taking down a powerful mega corporation. But showrunner Sam Esmail’s first vision of Mr.Robot was as a feature film. In an interview with Fastcocreate, he says “I was writing it as a feature, 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 then revised the screenplay and made it into what became the pilot episode of Mr. Robot.
In television, new shows typically start out with a solid premise but don’t have any real over-arching story or conclusion in mind, which can often lead to a show becoming dry and repetitive in its later stages. The good news is that, according to Esmail, since Mr. Robot was originally intended to be a movie, he already has a comprehensive story in mind and he knows exactly where it’s headed.
Ian Brennan, Glee co-creator, writer, director and executive producer, reportedly came up with the idea back in 2005 for a movie centered around a high school glee club. However, he didn’t have much luck selling this idea to film studios and it wasn’t until one of Brennan’s TV producer buddies put the movie script in the hands of Ryan Murphy that its potential as TV show was realized. Together Brennan, Murphy and Brad Falchuk re-wrote the original script for a television audience and it was almost immediately snatched up by FOX who kept the musical comedy-drama series running for six seasons of high ratings.
Tom Kapinos, the creator behind Californication, says his original concept would have seen David Duchovny star in a movie about a womanizing novelist who recently relocated to California. In an interview with online magazine The Interrobang, actress Natascha McElhone, who plays Karen on the show, explains that Kapinos’ wife was the one who suggested that he option the screenplay to studios as a potential TV series. As it turns out, Kapinos’ wife was completely correct. Showtime picked up the idea and made it into a TV show that ran for seven strong seasons.
5. Sports Night
With acclaimed hit series like the The West Wing and The Newsroom under his belt, writer/producer Aaron Sorkin is no longer a stranger to the world of television. But back in the late ’90s, when he was working on Sports Night, he was still mainly writing for the big screen. In fact, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Sorkin revealed that he originally intended Sports Night to be 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.””
In the end it did become a TV series. And although Sports Night only lasted for two seasons, it received a lot of critical recognition and was largely thought to have been cancelled before its time.
4. The Following
Kevin Williamson’s original concept for Scream 3 would have involved a group of serial killers who come together and form a Woodsboro fanclub based on the events depicted in Stab 1 and Stab 2 (the in-movie movie franchise built on the Woodsboro murders). As Williamson describes it, “They were all doing the killings, 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.”
According to Williamson, this premise was tweaked and eventually became the FOX drama The Following, starring Kevin Bacon as an FBI agent on the trail of a charismatic cult leader who turns his followers into fanatical serial killers.
3. Mad Men
At a special Mad Men exhibition held in New York over the summer, show creator Matt Weiner contributed three pages of hand-written notes from an unfinished screenplay he wrote in the early ’90s called The Horseshoe. Had it gone through to production, The Horseshoe would have told the story of a man from a meager, rural family who, after coming back from the war, steals the identity of a fallen soldier and completely recreates himself.
In a transcription of one of the sections, the would-be film’s protagonist, Pete, is described as a “character who 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.”
Although it would be over a decade before Weiner returned to develop the idea into a TV show, that description sounds an awful lot like the Don Draper we’ve now come to know in Mad Men.
2. The Sopranos
David Chase, creator of The Sopranos, has always had a lot of misgivings concerning mainstream television. He often dismissed the TV shows of his early careen as nothing more than capitalist propaganda full of senseless repetition. As such, Chase was often geared towards writing feature films, which is exactly how The Sopranos was first conceived on paper.
The movie version was about a mobster who’s trying to deal with all the problems resulting from his crime business while at the same time remedy a strained relationship with his mother. After the idea sat on the shelf for years, Chase was asked by a studio if he would consider writing a TV show based on The Godfather. Chase declined the project but the apparent interest in gangster related material from studios prompted him to return to his original idea and revise it for television. After adding a host of new characters and family members, it eventually became what we all know as the HBO smash hit The Sopranos.
Back in 1974, Michael Crichton had just finished directing his first movie, Westworld, and was hoping to do something completely different for his next project. So he got to work writing a documentary-style film about what happens over the course of 24 hours in a hospital emergency room. According to Crichton, the screenplay was excellent but nobody seemed interested in making the movie since it was too technical, and moved at a frenzied pace. He stuck a pin in the idea and for the next two decades it went unused (although it was occasionally updated and revised to keep it as a viable option for any studios shopping around for new projects).
It wasn’t until the early ’90s that NBC finally took a look at the script and thought it would work well as a TV series. Had they known it was going to turn into a 15 season prime time juggernaut that would launch the careers of countless Hollywood stars and eventually come to to define the medical drama genre, they probably would have paid a lot more attention to it sooner.