Basic Screenplay Format

A lot has been written about screenplay format, much of it overly rigid. However, an improperly formatted script is going to get chucked faster than a properly formatted script. The basic points are as follows:

Again: in a selling script you do not need to put (MORE) at the bottom of the page where a scene continues on the next page, or a (cont'd) at the bottom of the page where dialogue continues. You should definitely not put (CONTINUED) at the bottom or top of pages where scenes continue. These, along with scene numbers, are formatting cues used only in scripts that are actually in pre-production or production, so that scene breakdowns can be done efficiently. They only clutter up a selling script.

Here is a page of a script you can download in Microsoft Word for Windows format, using my own personal formatting style sheet. You can easily import the style sheet from this document using Format/Define Styles/Import. If you use the styles, you should have more or less standard format. The styles use Keep With Next so that they won't break dialogue over two pages unless the dialogue is four lines or longer, and where possible they automatically send you to the next correct style. This means you have to do a minimum of dinking (adding "(cont'd)"s) when you print your script out. There is probably a way to do something similar in Wordperfect.

There are several programs such as Final Draft and Scriptware that will do your formatting for you as you write the script. Script formatting programs are crucial for a shooting script when you are in pre-production because they allow you to lock pagination, do "A" and "B" pages, OMITTED's, "X-changes" and a lot of other things you need to know about when you're in production. Personally, I find that for a selling script, which is what you're writing, a well-thought-out Word style sheet will do 98% of what a formatting program will do.

However, I got a copy of FinalDraft on a show I was working on, so now I use that. It is very easy to use, and has some nifty screenwriting tools, like a gadget that lets you (virtually) put your scenes on index cards and move them around. It's not cheap, though. $250.

Scriptware was kind enough to send me a review copy of their program. The manual is clearly written. The program seems to be simple and intuitive to use.

In theory you can import a screenplay from any other program that allows you to save your document as an RTF file, such as Wordperfect or Microsoft Word. Earlier versions of the program did not do this at all well, but you can download the latest version from their site. This has some small bugs I hope they will fix (it inserts random spaces, and doesn't like "smart quotes"), but it does take an RTF file and promptly and conveniently reformat it as a proper Scriptware file.

The Scriptware manual also states that you can import a Final Draft file without going through RTF, because Scriptware specifically knows about Final Draft. (If someone has tried this, please let me know.)

If you don't feel like shelling out for a formatting program, save the money, use a style sheet, and spend the money on a script doctor..

Screenplay Length

Standard screenplay format clocks in at a page a minute. The movies I've written that got produced really did come in at about a page a minute.

Exhibitors dislike any picture over two hours. Think about it. They have two really busy shows on a week night, say at 7:30 and at 9:45. A longer show pushes the 9:45 past 10 pm, which is a psychological barrier for people who have to work in the morning. Or, it pushes the 7:30 show back to 7, which doesn't give people enough time to come back from work, put on jeans, eat some dinner and go out for a movie. So the exhibs put pressure on the distribs (the studios), who put pressure on the producers not to have overlong pictures.

Amusingly, Titanic went out listed at 2 hours 74 minutes, just so they wouldn't have to say it was over 3 hours long.

So, a spec screenplay should be from 105 to 115 page. Anything over that gives them one more excuse to reject it. If you have a subject of great epic scope (e.g. I wrote an adaptation of The Odyssey), you can go over 120 pages, but anything over 125 pages is asking for trouble. A 130 page script just looks and feels fat. After you've handled a few thousand scripts, all printed on 20 lb. Xerox paper, when you pick up a script that's too long or too short, you know instantly from how much it weighs in your hand.

A low budget spec screenplay, something that is intended for straight-to-video production under $2.5 million, should be 95 to 99 pages or so. Video distributors require movies to be a minimum of 92 minutes long. More pages take more days to shoot, and days cost money.

Comedy scripts may also be shorter. Comedy movies are rarely over 100 minutes long. Woody Allen once said that that ideal comedy length was 87 minutes. On the other hand, people talk faster in comedies, so you may need to break 100 pages in your script. Bear in mind that a shorter comedy is easier to keep funny. If you have a comedy script that's over 110 pages, cut out the least funny 10 pages. (Just don't cut out the emotional grounding of the characters that make us care enough to laugh at them.)

Television scripts for direct-to-television movies (DTVs, once known as MOWs, or Movies of the Week), miniseries and one hour drama shows are essentially the same, except that they mark the act breaks (where each act begins and ends). Sitcom scripts are quite different and I couldn't tell you how to format them. A 22 minute sitcom script may be 50 pages long, as I understand it. Action is off on the right, dialog to the left. Don't try to fake it.

The Windows version of the Courier 12 font is about 10% bigger than the Mac version. It adds 10 pages to a script. There is some flexibility in the standards -- no one counts how many characters there are in a line of dialog unless it is obviously overlength -- so don't stress about it. This is only one of countless reasons I prefer Mac!

How to Bind and Send Your Script

Just like unorthodox screenplay format, unorthodox screenplay binding gets you off on the wrong foot. Actually, that's putting it mildly. If your script looks too much different from all the scripts coming from the studios and agencies, then people know you're an amateur and will read your screenplay last, or worse, give it to the intern to read. (You don't want an intern to read your script, because either she'll reject it, and it's dead, or she'll like it, and the person you wanted to read it in the first place will read it, so that's no help.)

Screenplays should be on 3-hole 20 lb. paper, bound with two (not three) 1 1/4" folding brass brads (ideally Acco #5 brads) with brass washers in back, and card stock covers. You should be able to get brads at your larger office supply stores such as Office Depot. Fade In: Magazine offers them at their site for $10 for a box of 100. Brass washers are a little harder to find, but I am looking at a box of Universal Office Products "Round Head Fastener Washers," part number 74120, so why not try to find them on the Net?

Why two brads and not three? Because you only need two to bind a script, and when you're making thousands of script copies a week, as the studios and agencies do, the cost and time of putting in an unnecessary third brad adds up.

Covers should be card stock. You can get card stock at Kinko's or any other print shop or paper store. Please don't use clear plastic covers. Please don't use 3" brads (too long) or those skimpy #7 brads (they don't hold the script together). A few people use screw brads ("Chicago screws"), which I don't mind, but it immediately identifies you as out of the loop. They also tend to be slightly too big for 120 pages. Please do flatten the sharp points of the brads so they won't catch. Bashing the brads with a hammer will accomplish this nicely if you have brass washers; otherwise, push the ends of the brads inwards as you fold them, jamming the two legs of the brad together. Best of all, use pre-creased 9 1/2 x 11" back covers that fold over and cover the points of the brads. Front covers that fold over are a nice complement to these. My printer (L.A. Print & Copy, (310) 445 3200), made fold-over covers for me out of my chosen card stock. If you're willing to pay shipping, I'm sure they'd do the same for you.

If you can't find Acco #5 or #6 brads, The New York Screenwriter, 545 8th Ave. #401, New York, NY 10018-4307, will sell you a box of 100 for $10.50 including shipping and handling. This is highway robbery, but they're a newsletter, not a discount office supply house, for heaven's sake.

Please never spiral-bind your script or use those funny folding metal strips with sliders to bind the script. Brads are the only thing used. Personally, I like to take the bottom brad out when reading so I can flop the pages over. That's impossible with these systems. Not to mention, have you ever tried to feed a spiral bound script into a copier? Ever tried to re-bind a spiral bound script you took apart so you could copy it? It's a real pain.

If you are sending a script from another continent, try to get 8 1/2 x 11" paper if you can. People are a little suspicious of scripts copied onto A4 paper. But if you can't conveniently get standard American paper, don't worry about it.

Xeroxing your title onto your cover is not done. Only pretentious people bind a selling script in leatherette; if it's your copy of a shooting script for a produced movie you wrote, that's a different story (Nick Meyer, are you reading this?).

The William Morris Agency was for a while copying scripts onto two sides of the page to save trees, postage and schlepping, but they stopped. People found double-sided scripts too hard to read, so I wouldn't do it if I were you.

Don't put a copyright date on the script. It makes the script seem old hat when people read it a year later. However, do copyright it by registering it at the Library of Congress.

Sending your script

Priority mail (2 or 3 day delivery) is $3.95 for a script. The Post Office gives out free script-sized 9 1/2" x 12 1/2" Priority Mail envelopes, made out of nice strong cardboard in patriotic red, white and blue. Special Fourth Class Rate (Printed Matter) is a little less than 6 first class stamps. It'll get there in a week or two. It will generally take 4-12 weeks for a company to read your script, so you might want to save the postage. I know you're excited to send it, but they have a stack of scripts that are more urgent than yours, because they came from people with whom they have relationships; so you may want to save a buck.

You do not need to use bubble-wrap envelopes. You do not need to protect your script with file folders. Just a plain 9 1/2" x 12 1/2 envelope (or that snazzy, patriotic, free Post Office Priority Mail cardstock envelope) will protect it just fine. It's a pile of paper, for goodness' sake, it's not bone china.

Getting it back

Some people like to include a stamped, self-addressed envelope (SASE) with their script. Unfortunately, this does not help the producer, because the Post Office does not accept stamped mail over one pound unless it is brought to a post office clerk who stamps it. (This is supposedly an anti-terrorism measure, but of course its main legislative benefit is to force everyone to lease postage meters from Pitney Bowes, as metered mail is still accepted in mailboxes everywhere. I guess the idea is that terrorists may have access to plastic explosives, but they sure don't have access to postage meters.)

I've never understood the point of getting scripts back, myself. It costs $3.50 to copy a script if you shop around a bit and make enough copies, and $3.20 to put a stamp on a 15 cent self-addressed manila envelope, so if you get your script back you might save 15 cents. However, your script is probably smudged and coffee-stained, and you're getting it back four months later when you have rewritten it, or ought to rewrite it the moment you get your script sent back with comments. What's the point? Let the producer recycle the paper. No muss, no fuss, no bother.

Some companies will, as a courtesy, send your script back to you at their own expense. Most don't, even when you are also an industry professional. Personally, I tend to mark scripts up when I'm reading them, bend the pages over, occasionally even hurl them across the room in frustration or elation, so they're pretty well thrashed by the time I'm done.

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