by Fin Wheeler
I had a heated debate with a would-be screenwriter recently about script length. Actually, I didn’t really get a word in. I simply stood there as he waxed lyrical about his epic opus and how it needed 140 plus pages to do it justice.
For the record, I genuinely do not care how long anyone’s screenplay is. But if you want readers and producers to read and consider your screenplay, then it is best to respect industry standards.
TV – Pilots
There’s a different page requirement for each type of pilot script: one camera sitcom, multi camera, half-hour drama/comedy for cable, network drama, BBC or cable drama, etc. Any writing for television guide published in the last two years will break it down and explain each for you. There are also many scripts available in each style. Download the PDFs and study them. They are your best guide.
Film – Specs
Film has changed an awful lot over the past few years. Piracy and the rise of digital streaming have meant that the studios have had to slash their development budgets just to keep financially viable. Add to this that the number of aspiring screenwriters seems to increase exponentially each year. Also, audiences have shorter attention spans, and higher visual comprehension levels than ever before in history.
All these factors mean that studios, as well as the independent producers who feed into the studio system, are now searching for leaner screenplays. Yes, less pages, but also cleaner, clearer, more concise print. Scripts with more white space and less black ink.
It’s true that Academy Award winning screenwriters can still get away with handing in much longer, much denser scripts. When you win an Academy Award, you too will probably be able to do that. Until then, if you want readers to actually read and consider your work, it’s best to hit a page count of 90-100.
If you feel you can’t do your story justice in 90 pages, perhaps you could try writing the story as a novel first, then write the screen adaptation based on that.
Because the novelist can write about their protagonist’s inner life, many writers find that penning a novel first helps them to figure out what their story is really all about. It’s also easier to be ruthless and cut the fat off your screenplay if you know that you still have the “full” novel version.
Another thing that can be frustrating to early-career screenwriters is that the line in the sand keeps moving. I only graduated from film school a few years ago. Back then we were told that you can’t go over 120 pages and that your first 30 and last 30 pages have to be riveting because that might be all that gets looked at.
And all the produced screenplays we studied were at least 120 pages. Most were longer.
But read a screenwriting handbook published in the past few years or listen to any well-respected producer being interviewed and you soon realize that information is out of date.
If we early-career screenwriters want producers to seriously consider our work, we need a 90-100 (or 105) page count. And it’s the first and last 10 pages that need to reel them in. In some cases, it might only be the first 1 or 2 pages that get glanced at.
It seems like an impossible, unfair task. New screenwriters, still learning their craft, with almost no experience, are expected to write the most poised, distilled screenplays ever written in the history of film. To add to our frustration, hardly any of the produced screenplays that are available for us to study and read have a page count in the 90-100 page range.
What’s an aspiring screenwriter to do?
Part of being a professional screenwriter is not complaining. Producers aren’t just making up random new rules for their own amusement. The shape and length of screenplays has always been in evolution. Because society, consumerism, and technology are changing at faster rates, screenplays are also.
A few things for the early-career screenwriter to be clear about are.
- Investors aren’t likely to invest in a 120-minute feature by an unknown. They see less risk in a 90-minute feature by a new writer.
- The average audience member in 2015 can absorb more visual information per minute than the average person from 2000 or 1970 or 1940. Keep that in mind when you are reading screenplays written in those eras.
- Even just one generation ago, there were relatively few people who called themselves screenwriters. Today there are hundreds of thousands of people who buy script-writing software, a screenwriting manual, and call themselves a screenwriter. If you want to stand out, you have to know and respect the industry standards.
- There are fewer professional films being made and distributed than ever.
It is worth reading Sophia Coppola’s Bling Ring script. (Blue Revision, Shooting Script March 16, 2012.) Even if you don’t like her choice of themes or her style, the script is a great format guide. The amount of white space that each page of the script has is what you should be aiming for.
I also find it really useful to download all the Oscar-nominated scripts when they come out each year. I dutifully read one or two a week until I’m through them all. I also keep them on my screenwriting computer and reference them whenever I have a problem with a current project.
For example, a few months back I was working on a feature. There was a section of the script that needed a montage. I had to show a significant amount of time passing, so I needed at least eight different times and locations, but I didn’t want to eat away at the screen/page time with all those slug lines.
I recalled the script for Wes Anderson’s heartbreaking and humorous The Grand Budapest Hotel (2013).
A few clicks later, I had the PDF open and was tapping through the pages until I got to the montage where the Concierge shags a range of rich old ladies. In general, Wes Anderson’s print is more text-heavy than we early-career screenwriters could get away with, but his montages are concise gold.
My montage is about something entirely different, but the format works perfectly.
(Reminder: Montages are relatively expensive. They burn through several sets and several hours of on-set setup and shooting hours. Don’t have more than one or two montages in a screenplay. And only then if they’re essential.)
It is hard for up-and-coming screenwriters to know what the unwritten rules are, and to know how to follow them, but if you read a lot of produced screenplay, and listen to what producers say on audio commentaries and in interviews, and use common sense when you sit down to write (and re-write), then you have as good a chance as any of having your specs read and considered.
Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.