Thursday, November 4, 2010

What’s the Big Deal About Screenplay Format?

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


FADE IN:

INT. NYC APARTMENT – SMALL ROOM – APRIL, 1951 - DAY

JACK KEROUAC types away at an old, decrepit typewriter.

INSERT TYPING:

He types “The End.”

Above it the TEXT is typed SINGLE-SPACED, WITH NO MARGINS, AND NO PARAGRAPH BREAKS.

BACK TO SCENE

Jack reaches behind the typewriter and tears the paper feeding into the carriage, then removes it.

He stands, walks around to the other side of the table and begins to roll up the paper he's typed on.

It’s a long sheet, TELETYPE PAPER, in fact, cobbled together from several shorter ones, all taped together.

LATER

He has it all rolled up, one large roll of paper. He ties it up with TWINE and shoves it into a BOX.

INSERT ROLL:

The title shows: “On The Road by Jack Kerouac”

INT. VIKING PRESS - OFFICE – DAY

An EDITORIAL ASSISTANT opens a large package, pulls out the huge roll of paper, looks at it a moment, shakes his head, and tosses it into a BIN marked “Submissions.”

INSERT TITLE:

“The Rest is History.”

INT. GINORMOUS PRODUCTIONS – TODAY

A DEVELOPMENT ASSISTANT opens a package and removes a SCREENPLAY and a MULTI-PAGE COVER LETTER.

Behind him is a WALL CALENDAR SHOWING THE YEAR TO BE “2010.”

The script has garish “DAYGLO” GREEN “leatherette” covers and is held together by THREE BRASS SCREW POSTS.

He glances at the letter, then shoves it aside. He shakes the envelope upside down. No SASE (Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope) falls out.

He opens the script and looks at the title page:

INSERT COVER PAGE:

HUMDINGER

“An Original Screenplay by”

“John Q. Screenwriter”

“First Draft”

“Copyright 2007”

“Reg. WGA #9776512-bb”

BACK TO SCENE

He opens to the last page.

INSERT LAST PAGE:

The page number shows as: “131”

BACK TO SCENE

He shakes his head and tosses the script, the letter, and the packaging into a BIN labeled “RECYCLING.”

INSERT TITLE:

“The Rest isn’t History”

So, what’s the big deal about script format? I mean, so what? As long as it’s in English and runs 90 to 110 pages (i.e., minutes; 2 hour lengths are now toast for spec scripts and newbs).

I admit, years ago I used to complain about it. I typed on a typewriter that had an Elite 12 pt. high typeface with 12 characters per inch, and I was damned if I was gonna go out and pay the going rate for an IBM Selectric with Pica 12 pt. high typeface with 10 characters per inch using the distinctive Courier font. Back then a Selectric cost many hundreds of dollars. Adjusted for inflation, it was well over $2,000 in today’s money.

I still complain about the stupid insistence on scripts being three-hole punched, but having TWO BRASS BRADS (and no more!!!). Or white card stock covers (nothing else!!!). Utterly Lilliputian!  (Jonathan) Swift’s egg-openers (Gulliver’s Travels)  may well be less anal; at least they believed they had good reasons for their positions: fewer broken yokes. Our screenwriting egg-openers (“two-bradders”) are all about fashion. It’s enough to start a war over. But I digress.

No, there are good and substantial reasons for the rules about format, particularly when it comes to font type and size, page count, and margins. It’s all about matching a standard so that budgets and running times can be consistently estimated. It forces everybody to “get on the same page,” so to speak.

My first script on that old Elite typeface typewriter came in at 118 pages, so I thought it was right on target (i.e., under 121). Much later, I decided to create an electronic copy, so I scanned it as an Adobe PDF document. Then I hit “Select All” and copy/pasted it into a Microsoft Word screenwriting template .doc file using Courier 12 pt. After cleaning up the result, I had a 148 page screenplay!

It was an epic comedy.  I thought, at 118 pages, it still might need some trimming, but, being epic, but under 120, it was good enough to show. Now, at 148, it needed a nuclear strike! Comedies, after all are generally in the 90 to 100 minute range. I had something approaching It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, but written by Jack Newb (not Jack Kerouac). And they didn’t know Jack. Neither did I, apparently. For all you carpenters out there, it’s sort of like trying to build a house to code without using standard-cut dimensional lumber. It just don’t fit!

Bottom line: producers have almost no way of knowing you or your script. For the busiest, it’s one of perhaps dozens received that day, hundreds received that week, tens of thousands received that year. They need a way to get through that torrential downpour. If you give them one…

…the rest will never be history. #  

FADE OUT 
Lee A. Matthias 
Quote of the Post: 
100 pages are the new 120.
             ---The Last Reveal

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