I finished a rewrite yesterday of my screenplay after having been working with my producer about his comments. For reasons too long and unimportant for our purposes, we started the process when he originally wrote me that, "As long as you have to reformat the thing, why don't we go over a new draft, since we haven't done one in a long time." Again, for reasons too long and unimportant here, it was a reasonable suggestion, and I agreed.
He said that his comments should only take two days. I have no let him live this down, because that was four months ago. A large part of that was because life got in the way. But that's not the only reason. I did three drafts and a polish of tweaks. And each draft had weeks of comments. The end result was worth it, but still...it was more than two days...
What began the process, though, is the point here. A studio had had been given a very "informal read," not an official submission, and they liked it enough to say they'd they look at it officially -- but first, I had to reformat it to use a standard style. And also it had to by typed using a particular screenwriting software, Final Draft, not the one I'd written it in, Movie Magic Screenwriter. Oh, and it could be no more than 120 pages. And mine was 123 pages.
This is insane.
It's all insane, but especially the "120 pages" part.
It's insane that -- at this point, when it's just a "reading script," not a production script -- anyone should care about the format style. I use a style that's more readable. In fact, it's one I've adapted from William Goldman, and it's worked pretty well for him. Production scripts have to be a certain way for logistical reasons, but when a producer or executive is reading a script...it doesn't matter. You just want it to be readable. And good.
It's insane too what program a script is written with at this point, since you're sending out a PDF file, which is in essence a photocopying. The shooting script has to be in a specific format since it has to be compatible with production software the production manager uses -- but for someone reading the script?? It makes NO difference. Yes, the margins might be different, but you can set whatever margins you want to in both programs. And make them exactly the same. I've tested Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter and written a long review of them. They're similar, but I like Screenwriter better. But okay, I'll use Final Draft.
But that 120 pages thing?! That's so insane it makes the other insane things seem so rational that Sigmund Freud would have nothing to comment on.
I should note here that, making this all the more disturbing, I've since been told that this isn't the only studio with this "We won't read a script if it's more than 120 pages" admonition now. There's at least one other. God help us, especially if this becomes the gold standard.
I can see a studio saying they won't read a script that's 160 pages. (Though even at that, why not? If an executive is bored after 30 pages, they can stop. And generally do. And if you love it all the way through? Well, that should be considered A Good Thing.)
But if a script is 125 pages? Or 132? Who cares? You read, decide if you like it, and if you do like you say to the writer, "This is good, we'd like to consider it, but can you trim it down about eight pages."
Furthermore, there's no real need to say "cut" anything. Because if the studio likes it and wants to go ahead with it -- they'll be hiring a director and actors and the producer will be involved...and every one of them will be making comments that will change the script. And some of those changes will cut out material, and some will add. And when it's finally done, the studio can then decide if the want to go ahead or say it's too long, please cut eight pages.
I should also note here that this isn't a case of a writer whining about what studios are doing to Our Masterpieces. In fact, years ago I worked at Universal Pictures and was an assistant executive to the president of the studio, at that point a fellow named Bob Rehme, who later because president of the Motion Picture Academy. And I was given a lot of script to read -- and I'd read anything. As in, anything. Once I was sent a script by the story department that was in such a horrible format that they wouldn't touch it. Send it to me, I said. And "such a horrible format" is being kind. It was about 200 pages, all handwritten, some of it in script, some printed, and with drawings interspersed. I figured that it would either be a brilliant creative gem or an utter disaster. It was an utter disaster. But I read it. Only a about a third of the way through, mind you, because it was so truly horrible, but I still read about 70 pages. And that's all any executive has to read if something is that mind-numbing bad. More than, even. And these studios won't read a script if it not written in the right program, with the right margins and a page over 120. Spare me your "reasons." Been there, done that.
It is insane.
But even more, almost most of all, the whole concept of a page count that's "too long" and therefore would be too long a movie and too expensive to make is...meaningless. In fairness, not "totally" meaningless, depending on the page count and what's written, but as for the basic concept? Meaningless.
For instance, you can spend half a page describing the condition of a room because you think it helps define the character who lives there. It doesn't add one second to screen time. It's just the condition of the room.
Similarly, you can write, “The chase begins, through the city streets, crashing off cars and around corners.” And that could take five minutes on the screen when the movie is released.
You can have a script that’s mostly narrative and only 95 pages of description, but it might be a two hour movie. Or you can have a 120-page comedy with fast repartee of quick dialogue back-and-forth, that flies by on the screen in 94 minutes.
So, to say “We won’t accept a script that’s 121 pages” is insane. You can have a brilliant piece of work that’s 124 pages, and a piece of drivel that’s 107 pages – and you’re saying that your rule is you will accept the drivel but not the masterpiece, purely on page count.
Moreover, sometimes you put in fun, light-hearted comments in the narrative to make it more fun for the reader to get through. But when you have a 120 page border glaring at you, those tend to bite the dust.
Read the script. Do the rewrites. Then decide if you want it cut. It’s not a hard concept.
I made a quip suggestion to my producer. I said, “We should just turn in the first 120 pages and leave out the last three. If they make it to the end, that means they liked it – so when they point out that it’s missing the final pages, we just tell them that they said they’d only accept 120 pages. But if they waned to see how it ended, we’d be happy to give them the last three.” It was a joke. But only sort of.
Happily I was able to finish the final version in 119 pages. But it was a hellish process through four drafts. Every time the producer made a comment about how he wanted more material – a longer explanation, a moment that builds more, a needed scene, my heart would sink. Not because the suggestion wasn’t good – but usually because the suggestion was good. And I had no idea how I’d keep the script no more than 120 pages. He’d always say, “Oh, I have confidence in you. You’ll figure out a way.” And I would – but I’d say, “This is like making sausages, you don’t want to know how I did it.”
Fortunately, sometimes material would get cut, and that would save space. But it was still hellish. I’d explain to him that sometimes when you add just one single line to a page early in the script, it would have a snowball effect and end up adding a page to the final count. Or he’d ask why I wrote something the way I did – and I say, “Look at the last word. It’s on the right margin. One more word, and it would go over an extra line, and that would push a dialogue passage to the next page.”
Sometimes it wasn’t one word, but just one letter. “Why did you say ‘m’lord’ rather than ‘my lord’? he might ask. Because it’s one less letter, I’d answer. And than saved me a line.
And it was at that point when I say, “This is no way to write.”
And all the time, you have to make sure that the quality of the script comes first. You struggle and fight to find a way to keep the line count down, but if in the end you just can’t, the content of the script can’t be sacrificed. But when you find you’ve made a change that pushed the script over 120 pages – you just can’t have that. As in…can’t. Because it won’t be accepted. So sometimes, you have to page several pages earlier and start finding ways to trim. And get it back under that hovering number of “120” glaring down on you.
This is no way to write.
One time, the producer wanted me to change the name of an event in the script from “Gala Nationale.” I came up with “Jubilee Royale.” He liked that. I said I especially like it because…it was the same number of letters!
And then added, “This is no way to write.”
I did a bunch of formatting tweaking, as well – which has nothing to do with actual writing and takes time and a lot of thinking and effort. Time, thinking and effort which would really be better spent on, oh, y’know, actual writing.
When I write a script, I tend to not like to have more than three lines of narration in a passage. That’s because so many readers in Hollywood skip past narration and think it’s boring to read. And as a result, they might (and often do) miss something very important. And if there are four lines of narration – or more – that just looks so daunting to a Hollywood readers and exacerbates the problem. At three or fewer lines of narration, that looks more like, “Oh, okay, it’s just three lines, I can read that,” and they might actually do so. So, I’ll break up longer paragraphs of narration into short paragraphs. The problem with that – when you have the insane 120-page demarcation – is if you have four paragraphs of narration on a page, which is pretty reasonable, and you’ve split them all up, that’s four whole extra lines. (Oh, my…). Now that might not seem too overly-terrible, but over the course of 120 pages, that’s 480 extra lines! Which might be an extra 10 pages. Trust me, when you are scrimping over single letters to make sure you’re no more than 120 pages, an additional 10 pages is head-exploding.
This is no way to write.
And believe me, the process was SO much worse that what I described here, for many, many reasons which I don’t get into.
But it’s done. Finished with the content, hopefully, never sacrificed. And somehow, and I’m not even sure how, even though I did it, I got the script in at 119 pages.
But this is no way to write.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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