Screenplays: The Best Blueprint for Features?

by Fiona Wheeler

Filmmakers, cinema commentators, and academics often go on record questioning the suitability of the screenplay. In this digital era, should feature films have some other kind of primary source document?

Early films didn’t have scripts. Prior to a 1910 ruling, the studios hadn’t had to pay anyone for story ideas, successfully arguing that the actors merely came up with the ideas on set. If the screen stories were similar to popular stage plays or novels, well, that could be chalked up to coincidence.

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But by 1913 films were no longer just a reel or two long. Feature films were here to stay and required forethought and planning, hence the development and increased sophistication of the “scenario,” or screenplay, which hasn’t altered much in look or content since.

In the 1960s and ’70s, writer/directors were being given more autonomy, power, and money than ever before, but if they chose to work within the American studio system they still had to hand in a pesky screenplay for approval.

Famously, Francis Ford Cappola wrote an intricately detailed secret ‘bible’ for The Godfather (1972) which he didn’t show to the studio execs. They got to see, and approve, various drafts of a screenplay adaptation of Mario Puzo’s source novel, not written by Cappola.

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Many academics, such as Esther Lutterell in Tools of the Screen Writing Trade (1998), state that “the screenplay is nothing more than a set of notes to a production crew” and that a vital role of any screenwriting lecturer is to “teach a roomful of published writers the art of translating their prose into production notes.”

In her article “After the typewriter: The screenplay in the digital era” (2010), academic/filmmaker Kathryn Miller announced that the screenplay is too constrictive a blueprint for a film, suggesting instead that now, in the digital age, directors can form their own wordless script by compiling reference images into a PDF, easily distributed to all cast and crew.

I’m not sure the author of that article really thought things through. Can you image how many hours each day would be lost to arguments about whether the dress is blue and black or white and gold? Besides, it’s one thing to casually say you’re influenced by the aesthetic of Director A and Director B; it’s another to hand out stills from specific films and say, “Today, we’re copying this scene.”

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I like the written screenplay. That it’s non-visual is an essential part of its appeal; every reader has to use their own imagination in order to ‘picture’ it, therefore becoming co-creator of the images the script throws up in their mind.

As for changing the shape and look of a screenplay; if it were going to happen it would have occurred when the film and television industries phased out typewriters and transitioned to computers.

When I first started reading screenplays it was long after the last typewriters had been retired, I did wonder at all that white space on each page and the forests of felled trees required to produce the thousands upon thousands of printed scripts. But more and more production offices are now going paperless, working entirely with PDFs and fdx files (Final Draft), so there’s not the massive paper wastage there once was. Which also means it’s less likely than ever that the standard screenplay format will change.

Filmmakers who are self-funding their own productions, on which every cast and crew member are paid a fair wage, can get away with doing whatever they want. I imagine it would be creatively unfulfilling, and quite frustrating, for the cast and crew to stand around for months on end while the director makes each and every decision, but at least they’d have the knowledge they’re being paid.

If you’re making films with other people’s money, then screenplays are essential documents. As copyright law stands, we can only register (and therefore sell) an original idea when it’s expressed in tangible form. If we write a screenplay from scratch, the work is all our own. If we use images that other people created to describe our idea, we cease to be the sole creative author.

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Many directors still argue that a short story or a treatment of a film should be sufficient. It’s not. If you gave a copy of Cinderella or Snow White to twenty screenwriters, you’ll get twenty very different feature length screenplays of varying genres, tones, styles and budgets.

The numbers guys at a studio can take a standard screenplay and give you an incredibly precise breakdown of its budget. An A-list actor, or their agent, can read a screenplay and know exactly how many lines their character has. An experienced actor will know, just from reading the script, how long it’s likely to take to shoot their scenes, as well as a million other details.

Studios are able to take out insurance on the feature films they invest in based on the information provided by a screenplay. While this safety measure may be annoying to some directors, studios couldn’t operate any other way.

For better or for worse, screenplays work.

Junior staff at agencies and studios get promoted by discovering the next great spec. Screenwriters and producers have the script development process to tease out and clarify their complex ideas. Directors, above-the-line actors, the DP and the production designer have the pre-production period to refine their vision for the film.

The screenplay allows everyone involved in a production to have shared access to a vast amount of knowledge on the core story and how it’s to be told. As a film blueprint, the screenplay is best.

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Fiona Wheeler began writing for the stage, has a Master’s in Screenwriting from a top film school (VCA), and has a feature in development. Born in Australia, she’s lived in several different countries and cultures. This is reflected in the diverse, global screen stories she tells.

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