A screenplay or script is a blueprint for producing a motion picture. It can be adapted from a previous work such as a novel, play or short story, or it may be an original work in and of itself. A screenplay differs from a script in that it is more specifically targeted at the visual, narrative arts, such as film and television, whereas a script can involve a blueprint of "what happens" in a comic, an advertisement, a theatrical play and other "blueprinted" creations.
The major components of a screenplay are action and dialogue, with the "action" being "what we see happening" and "dialogue" being "what the characters say". The characters, when first introduced in the screenplay, may also be described visually. Screenplays differ from traditional literature conventions in ways described below, and in not involving emotion-related descriptions and other aspects of the story that may not be visually apparent in the end-product.
Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands out Oscars in both Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay categories. In the United States of America, the Writers Guild of America has final control on who may be awarded screenwriting credit for a screenplay in a union production.
- A script for a television program is sometimes called a teleplay.
- Someone who writes screenplays is a screenwriter.
- The art of writing a screenplay is known as screenwriting and is dealt with separately.
There is no unique "rule" for the writing of a screenplay, but throughout the world, within the relevant industries, several conventions are withheld and adhered to.
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Motion picture screenplays intended for submission to mainstream studios, whether in the US or elsewhere in the world, are expected to conform to a standard typographical format known widely as studio format which stipulates how elements of the screenplay such as scene headings, action, transitions, dialog, character names, shots and parenthetical matter should be presented on the page, as well as the font size and line spacing.
One reason for this is that, when rendered in studio format, most screenplays will transfer onto the screen at the rate of approximately one page per minute. This rule of thumb is widely contested -- a page of dialog usually occupies less screen time than a page of action, for example, and it depends enormously on the literary style of the writer -- and yet it continues to hold sway in modern Hollywood. Most experienced readers of screenplays can judge simply by weight and thickness whether the screenplay is 'too long' or 'too short'.
After weighing it in the hand, the next act of a harried reader or executive will be to flick to the last page to see the page count. Ideally a screenplay should be 90-120 pages long. Comedies and children's films tend to weigh in at the lower end. It is a common misconception that a screenplay 'should' be 120 pages long; in fact 120 pages is at the very top of the acceptable range for most purposes. 110-115 pages are usually better in the mind of most executives. Anything more than 120 pages will set off alarm bells unless there is a substantial balancing factor (for example, a major director is attached to direct).
Most experienced readers can tell instantly whether a script is in standard studio format or not simply by looking at a couple of pages. If it is not, they will assume that the writer is inexperienced and may not read any further. Therefore it is important to know the rules.
Unfortunately, there is no single canonical standard for 'studio format' although the definitions of the format are mostly very similar. Some studios have definitions of the required format written into the rubric of their writer's contract. The Nicholl Fellowship, a screenwriting contest, run under the auspices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has a useful and accurate guide to screenplay format. A more detailed reference is The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats (Cole and Haag, SCB Distributors, 1980, ISBN 0-929583-00-0). Most screenwriting software comes with a set of templates for various screenplay formats which are more or less standard.
Screenplays are almost always written using a monospaced font, often a variant of Courier although other fonts are sometimes seen, including special bitmapped fonts intended to resemble the output of an old battered typewriter such as a Remington Portable.
Detailed computer programs designed specifically for screenplays, but those also have templates for teleplays and stage plays, are DreamaScript, Movie Magic, Montage and Final Draft. These are the industry standards for professional screenwriters. An open source (free) option is also available: Celtx is designed for screenplays and collaborations, and useful for teleplays and stage plays. Furthermore, screenwriting software for handheld devices (Palm OS, and Windows Mobile / Pocket PC) is also available with ScriptRight Mobile Edition.
For American TV shows, the format rules for hour dramas, like CSI, and single-camera sitcoms, like Scrubs, are essentially the same as for motion pictures. The main difference is that TV scripts have act breaks. Multi-camera sitcoms, like Two and a Half Men, use a different, specialized format that derives from radio and the stage play. In this format, dialogue is double-spaced, action lines are capitalized, and scene headings are capitalized and underlined.
The script format for documentaries and audio-visual presentations which consist largely of voice-over matched to still or moving pictures is different again and uses a two-column format which can be particularly difficult to achieve in standard word processors, at least when it comes to editing.
American screenplays are printed single-sided on three-hole-punched letter sized (8.5 x 11 inch) paper, and held together with an industry standard of not three but two brass brads. In the UK, double-hole-punched A4 paper is often used, although some UK writers use the US letter paper format, especially when their scripts are to be read by American producers, since otherwise the pages may be cropped when printed on US paper. Despite the use of double-punched paper, it is common to see scripts in the UK held together by a single brad punched in the top left hand corner. This makes it easy to flip from page to page during script meetings and may have something to do with the taller page of A4.
Screenplays are usually bound with a light card stock cover and back page, often showing the logo of the Production Company or agency submitting the script. Writer's scripts are usually bound in a plain red or blue cover.
Increasingly, reading copies of screenplays (that is, those distributed by producers and agencies in the hope of attracting finance or talent) are distributed printed on both sides of the paper to cut down on their bulk, and occasionally they are reduced to half-size to make a small book which is convenient to read or put in a pocket. However, writers should generally submit on single sided, full sized paper and leave the way the script is reproduced up to the agency or producer.
Although most writing contracts continue to stipulate physical delivery of three or more copies of a finished script, it is extremely common for scripts to be delivered electronically via email. Although most production companies can handle scripts in DreamaScript, Final Draft, Movie Magic or MS Office format, it is better practice to supply scripts as a PDF file where possible. This is because it gives the writer final control over the layout of the script, which may otherwise vary depending on what fonts and/or paper size the recipient uses to print the script out. DreamaScript produces multiple formats of screenplays, including PDF.
Screenplays can be written either on "spec" or as assignment.
Writing on assignment
Assignments are commissioned by production companies or studios on the basis of pitches from producers or writers, or literary properties they already own. Most established writers do most of their work on assignment and will only "spec" scripts which they think no-one will pay them to write, or if they cannot find assignment work.
There are exceptions: some very famous writers only write on spec because they know that they can get a better price for their work this way. Other writers spec scripts that they care deeply about so that they do not have to bend to the whims of executives and producers.
An assignment may be for an original screenplay, or for a screenplay based on another work such as a novel, film, short story, magazine article, non-fiction book or, increasingly, computer game. It may also, however, be for a re-write of an existing script, and in fact this is how a large proportion of writers in the modern studio system make their living. Re-writing scripts is an art in itself and an extremely lucrative one at that: it is not unknown for trusted writers in the higher echelons of the industry to receive $200,000 a week (2004 numbers) for their efforts. $50,000 per week is not uncommon.
Re-writing is difficult because executives often have very clear ideas about what is wrong with a script, however, they are usually unable to provide detailed prescriptions for ways it can be fixed. This is not surprising, because screenwriting is not the expertise of the executive, but of the screenwriter. The writer is therefore usually expected to come up with a detailed prescription for how the script can be improved, and then execute this in a timely fashion. During the process of choosing a writer to rewrite a script the executives may ask several writers for their 'take' and choose the one who appears to have the greatest likelihood of moving the script forward to the point where it may be green lit for production.
Before 'going to script' a writer may be asked to write a treatment, an outline, or a step outline describing the script in various granularities of detail. Some writers resist this process and will do anything to avoid it and get down the writing the script itself; others embrace the process. It is fair to say that producers tend to be wary of the former and pleasantly surprised by the latter.
Spec scripts (short for speculative) are written independently by screenwriters in hopes of optioning and eventually outright selling them to producers or studios.
The process of 'going out' with a spec script can be an extremely tense and nerve racking one for a writer. The writer's agent will identify a number of prospective buyers who may range from small independent producers to executives working in the major studios, and attempt to build up 'heat' under the script. The script is sent out simultaneously to all the prospective buyers, usually to be read over the weekend, in the hope of attracting a bidding war.
Within a few days it is abundantly clear whether the script is going to sell or not. If it does, the writer may receive a payment of anything from a few tens of thousands of dollars to several million. If not, the script is often dead in the water because it is now in the databases of the studios and development executives, and has been marked as having being 'passed' on.
It is almost impossible to get a studio to read a script again which they have already turned down, even if it has been entirely rewritten. A popular vignette has an executive glancing at the title, saying "I read that", and tossing it in the trash. One strategy employed by some writers when resubmitting a script is to change the title, page count and the names of the major characters so that the script is not flagged up when the database is checked.
Sample scripts are not (usually) intended for production, but to showcase the writing skills of the screenwriter, in hopes of coaxing an agent to represent the screenwriter or a producer to hire the writer. Very often a spec script which fails to sell goes on to be a sample script.
Whether written on spec or on assignment, a ballpark figure is that 'script costs' should constitute no more than 5% of a film's budget. So the total remuneration for all the writers involved in the script for a $10 million dollar movie should generally be no more than $500,000.
For the above movie, written on assignment, the payments might typically break down as follows.
- First draft: $150,000
- First draft revisions: $50,000
- Second draft: $75,000
- Second draft revisions: $25,000
- Production bonus: $500,000 minus the total of the above payments
The first four payments are paid half on commencement of the writing step and half on completion. The final payment, the production bonus, is paid ONLY if the script goes into production and becomes due on the first day of principal photography. If a script is approved for production before all the steps have been completed, the production bonus is therefore bigger. This means there is an incentive for the writer not to drag out the process.
The above deal is referred to as "300,000 against 500,000", a form of words you will often see used in the business. Alternatively, one might say "low six figures against mid six figures" (these vague terms are usually used to keep writers from squabbling over minor differences in pay for similar projects).
The development process
Once a studio has purchased or commissioned a script, it goes through the process of revisions and rewriting until all stakeholders are satisfied and ready to proceed. It is not uncommon for a script to go through many, many drafts on its journey to production. Very few scripts improve steadily with each draft, and when a certain avenue has been exhausted the writer will often be replaced and another brought in to do a re-write.
Occasionally it becomes impossible to satisfy all such parties, and the project enters "development hell".
If a studio decides it does not wish to proceed to production with the script, the project enters 'turnaround'. Another studio may purchase the script from its original owner, but the script is encumbered with the development costs the studio has already incurred. At a certain point, it may simply be uneconomic for anyone to purchase the script, even if it is a very good one. This goes part of the way to explaining why some of the best scripts in Hollywood remain un-produced.
A shooting script is a version of a script from which a movie is actually shot; it includes scene numbers, camera angles and certain directors' notes -- and it is generally fiercely marked up by the script supervisor and other production workers, while the writer's draft is simply the skeleton around which the production is built.
Sometimes, it is far more practical and economical to shoot some scenes consecutively on the same day, even though the scenes appear in the original script far apart from each other. For example, consider two scenes from Jurassic Park: the first near the beginning in which a helicopter is used to bring the scientists to Jurassic Park and the second at the end of the movie when the scientists escape from Jurassic Park aboard the same helicopter. Even though the first and the second scenes appear far apart from each other in the original movie, in the shooting script for Jurassic Park, they probably appear consecutively with one another, with one benefit being the cost savings related to renting the helicopter for only a single day rather than two different days. At other times, the benefit may be that the location for the shoot is only available for a limited time in which all the scenes must be shot, even though they are not consecutive in the original script. Thus, once again, the scenes will be rearranged in the shooting script so that they may be shot consecutively on the same day. This is a main benefit of shooting scripts: they allow the best possible utilization of all available resources.
Once a script is approved for production, and pre-production begins, it is scene-numbered and page-locked. Scenes are numbered for easy reference, and page-locking allows everyone to keep the same copy of the script even if the script changes. Changes are supplied as colored pages which people involved in production insert in their script, replacing or adding to the pages already there. Since writing often goes on even during production itself, most real shooting scripts are a rainbow of gold, pink, blue, green and other colors.
The order in which colored pages (often referred to as pink pages regardless of their actual color) are introduced into the script is rigidly fixed for a particular production.
A screenplay is different from a transcript. A transcript is simply a copy of what dialogue finally appeared onscreen, without regard to the original script, the stage directions or action. A full post-production transcript may also include descriptions of the action on-screen, but since it is generally not written by a professional writer but either a production assistant or a fan, it may not be particularly entertaining to read.
Many published screenplays available at booksellers or downloaded from the internet are in fact glorified post-production transcripts rather than shooting scripts. Transcripts and screenplays often differ radically because scenes are frequently re-ordered or dropped entirely during the editing process. Moreover, actors may change lines or simply improvise dialog, and many directors will make their own changes to the script on the fly during rehearsal or shooting.
It can be extremely revealing to compare a shooting script with the film as finally distributed.