Revealed (but unseen): the best movies never made

The contenders on the 2009 Brit List of yet-to-be-realised films are in excellent company

No one in the film business knows anything, the Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman famously said. This is possibly why scripts from some of Britain's best-known writers and film-makers appear on a list of the best screenplays not to have been made into movies.

The Brit List is compiled annually and is based on the secret votes of around 40 UK film industry insiders. Any screenplay that garners more than two votes is included.

This year's list shows that even writers with the stature of Deborah Moggach – whose Best Exotic Marigold Hotel received four votes – or the singer Nick Cave, whose The Wettest County won two votes, have trouble seeing their scripts translated on to the big screen.

It's not unusual for great scripts or ideas never to see the light of the projector, however. The history of cinema is littered with the skeletons of promising movies slain by budget problems, arguments, egos and deaths.

Simon Beaufoy, who wrote last year's sleeper smash, Slumdog Millionaire, will be hoping his Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, which garnered six Brit List votes, doesn't join this roster of the great unmade. As will the James Bond writing duo Neal Purvis and Rob Wade, who scripted Casino Royal and Quantum of Solace, but who find themselves on the list with Corsica 72, a mafia tale, also with six votes.

Terry Gilliam, currently enjoying good reviews for The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus starring the late Heath Ledger, finds his much-troubled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, receiving the thumbs up from two voters, although he is currently casting and scouting locations, with plans to restart shooting the film next year (see below).

The list is topped by Good Luck Anthony Belcher by George Kay, an intended vehicle for James Corden. Corden wrote and co-starred in the BBC comedy Gavin and Stacey but suffered a critical backlash for his BBC3 series with Mathew Horne and their film Lesbian Vampire Killers.

With film producers caught between their terror of splashing millions of pounds on a flop and their fear of missing out on a cheap smash such as Slumdog Millionaire, the Brit List is a good way of ensuring that great films do not slip through the net.

One industry insider – a Bafta producer – said that the names on the scripts illustrated the difficulties of film-making. "The list is really an indication of the financial state of the British film industry," he said. "Many of the films haven't been made because it's just so difficult to set them up."

The good news for Corden is that last year's list-topper, Nowhere Boy, about John Lennon's early life, has now been directed by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, and 2007's winner, The Men Who Stare at Goats, has just been released, starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor.

THE FILMS...

'Halo'

Computer gaming fans' thumbs were itching in anticipation when the Oscar-winning director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson, said in 2005 he'd be producing a film based on the popular Halo game. A script was written by the author of The Beach, Alex Garland, but an astronomical budget and artistic wrangling with Microsoft meant it was soon game over for the project.

'Barbarella'

Remaking the 1968 erotic sci-fi classic, starring Jane Fonda, seemed a good way to stuff a modern leading lady into a tight leather bodice. Plans were first hatched in the 1990s and two years ago it looked as if the director of Sin City, Robert Rodriguez, was to go ahead with Sienna Miller slated for the title role. The project was cancelled amid budget wrangles. It was revived this year with the director Robert Luketic in charge.

'Wonder Woman'

Batman made $1bn, X-Men had the X-factor, and Spidey spins more money than webs, so why haven't the studios – always on the lookout for a cash cow comic-book franchise – brought Wonder Woman to the big screen? They've tried. In 2007 Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon was working on a script, but dropped the project. More recently Megan Gale was due to star as the tiara-wearing-one - a big budget Justice League of America film, until it, too, was cancelled.

'Up Against It'

In 1967 playwright Joe Orton, a Quentin Tarantino figure for the stage, wrote a film script for The Beatles in which they became "involved in dubious political activity, dressed as women, committed murder, (were) put in prison and committed adultery", according to Orton's diaries. It was too subversive for the Fab Four and they passed.

'William Tell'

By 1953 the career of Errol Flynn had lost its swashbuckling momentum. Desperate for a comeback, he put half a million dollars into a movie version of the Swiss folk tale. The rest of the cash came from a fake Italian nobleman. The set and cameras were repossessed during filming.

'Megalopolis'

Francis Ford Coppola has long planned an epic about how New York is rebuilt into a Utopia after a devastating incident. Paul Newman and Nicolas Cage were lined up, but the 2001 Twin Towers attack made it untenable.

'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote'

Terry Gilliam's quest to film Cervantes' classic is a modern legend. Shooting began in 2000 but was dogged by bad luck – the irony of which will not be lost on those familiar with the 17th-century masterpiece – Gilliam was forced to abandon his dream. But he's not given up. The ex- Monty Python star is now casting to start filming again.

'Night Skies'

Hollywood wizard Steven Spielberg conjured this sci-fi horror up in the late 1970s as a sequel to 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, only this time the aliens were not so friendly. Instead, the little monsters terrorised a Kentucky family. Spielberg was always lukewarm about the project, and it never flew, although the film's ideas seeded other classic movies Gremlins, ET and Poltergeist.

'Atlas Shrugged'

Producers have been trying to make a movie out of Ayn Rand's 1957 tome about a dystopian US for 35 years. Rand began adapting it, but died in 1982 before finishing a screenplay. Several plans for mini-series have come and gone. By 2004 a script was ready, with Angelina Jolie touted as the possible star. Talk is now of a mini-series in 2011.

'Something's Got to Give'

Marilyn Monroe, Cyd Charisse and Dean Martin signed up for this 1962 screwball comedy in which Martin marries Charisse, believing his wife, Monroe, to be dead. Only she's not. But the comedy turned to tragedy as Monroe's drug abuse caused long delays. She died before the film was finished.

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