Be committed to Getting it Right

Nothing is more aggravating to readers, agents, and producers than improperly formatted screenplays. Mistakes run the gamut from poor grammar, numerous typos, missing pages, huge blocks of text, and excessive camera angles. Though the new script formatting programs on the market have improved conditions a great deal, many writers, are still making costly errors that result in instant rejection. “Agents are half-blind from reading!” claims agent Marcia Amsterdam of New York based, Marcia Amsterdam Agency. Writers will often use worn typewriter ribbons or cheap dot matrix printers for submission scripts. “I’m not going to strain myself, ” Amsterdam continues. “It should be typed with a fresh ribbon and on fresh paper.”

After spending months if not years to get someone to agree to read the screenplay, it behooves the writer to make sure what he is sending is his best, representative sample of his work. It should be free of typos, poor grammar, and be easy to read. Agents and producers have very limited time in a day for script reading. Often scripts are set aside to be read on a weekend, or most likely are covered, i.e., read by a professional reader or an assistant. If the task of reading is made arduous because of senseless errors, the script will likely get a ten page or less glance and be quickly placed in the enclosed SASE. “If it’s a feature script, I’ll know after the first twenty pages whether or not I want to read any further,” admits agent Bruce Brown of Los Angeles based Bruce Brown Agency. “If it’s good enough then I’ll want to keep going.”

Deciding what is good is very subjective. No one knows what they like until they see it, and no one really knows what will sell until it is sold. A writer truly has the freedom to be creative and tell the story he wants to tell when writing spec scripts. The only requirement is that he follow a format that has been used for decades and is the standard of the industry. “I prefer an industry standard because that gives me a sense that the writer is professional,” adds Larissa Bills of New York based Gray City, Inc. “It’s insurance that [the writer] knows what he’s doing.” Basic formatting requirements are that the script be on white three hole punched paper. The top margin should be one inch, the left one and a half inches, the right margin should be half an inch and the bottom margin can range from half an inch to an inch and a half to two inches.

Only 12 point courier font should be used, no Times Roman, Orator, elite, or anything fancy. “The problem with an italicized or a Times font for that matter, is that it throws off the page count,” adds Max Rizzo of The Artists Agency in Los Angeles. “If something comes in at 120 pages in Times, you can add on 10 or 12 pages.” The script will invariably have to be reformatted and when it is, the true page count will be discovered. “It’s a cheat,” Rizzo continues, ‘you figure if the movie costs $12 million, at a 120 pages that would be $100,000 a page. If you throw in an extra ten pages, that’s a $1 million bucks! Somebody’s going to catch it before the money is invested, but it’s sort of a nasty surprise.” The page count is very important since production of the script is based on a minute a page. It is crucial that a writer be aware of line spacing, the use of CONTINUEDS, and blocks of text. Tab settings for dialogue, character names, and parentheticals can vary with the size of the carriage return when using a conventional typewriter. Click here for format example courtesy of the Nicholl Fellowships web site.

To maintain an accurate page count, dialogue should be started at about two and a half inches from the left margin and end about an inch or less from the right margin. Character names should be in CAPS and placed three and a half inches from the left margin. Make sure dialogue does not run more than roughly three inches wide. Action, description, and dialogue should be single spaced, except between elements and sluglines. When characters are first introduced names should be in CAPS as well as sluglines (INT. or EXT.) and SOUND EFFECTS. Avoid huge blocks of descriptive text and give your script a more open, inviting look by breaking up descriptive passages into two or three sentence blocks. This technique breaks down the scene into a series of shots, directing the eye of the reader without having to use camera angles. “No camera angles,” cautions Larissa Bills. “It makes it very confusing because we’re only looking for a screenplay.” It is the director’s responsibility to come up with camera angles and unless the writer will be directing the project, inclusion of camera angles serves as a distraction. “A screenplay is a screenplay, not directors directions,” adds Bills.

Alex Rose of Alex Rose Productions feels that camera angles are a “waste of time.” She adds, “Why burden your reader with something the reader doesn’t want to read and has nothing to do with the story?” The story can get lost if the writer is overly concerned with the look of the film. Developing strong motivated characters, a compelling plot, and believable dialogue is difficult enough. Figuring out the proper angle and how tight a close up should be only compounds the problem. The script should be written in master scene, i.e., the camera is fixed in a wide angle taking in everything. Moreover, rather than waste valuable time setting up angles, writers should use that creative energy to write an opening that grabs the reader. Too often writers believe that setting the opening scene means describing everything down to the finest detail. It is not unusual to find scripts that have the heaviest descriptive passages in the first ten pages. This is not to say that a writer should not detail key elements or characters, what he should try and do is make it interesting and open. “I find that scripts that have overly long descriptive passages tend to look forbidding,” admits Rose. “Scripts should not be overly long. They should be clear and easy to read so that our eye can just move down the page quickly.”

“For some reason I see a lot of this,” says Rizzo, “openings where the writer starts out in prose and sort of segues into the standard format.” Using prose without a slugline interchangeably with industry format is confusing and jarring. The writer should decide if he is writing a script or a novel. “I don’t think it’s the writer’s place to get too inventive with format. The creativity comes from the telling of the story.” adds Rizzo. It shakes the confidence of the reader when a writer gets too inventive with format. New writers do not have the luxury of breaking rules that were set way before he even had his first creative thought. “Most established screenwriters go by the code,” advises Jonna Jerome of American Filmworks. “They don’t do those things. They don’t need to.” The title page should also be on white paper with the TITLE of the script in CAPS and “quotes” in the center of the page. Two lines down include ‘by’ and your name two more lines underneath and centered. In the lower right about two inches from the bottom always include contact information, such as the agent’s name and phone number if the writer has representation, or the writer’s own phone number and address. This is necessary because scripts are often separated from the original packaging and correspondence.

The script should be bound with heavy conservative cover stock and two 1 1/4 inch round head brass fasteners. Any other binding method would be unacceptable and also considered the mark of an amateur. Copyright information can appear on the cover at the bottom of the script, however it is not necessary. Scripts must be registered with the Writers Guild or Copyrighted before submitting. It is also not necessary to put the registration number on the script, however, some agents prefer to see it included on the cover. “I know they believed in it enough to take the time to protect it,” adds Brown. “I don’t think fancy covers with the [title] embossed on it and all that and drawings are necessary,” states Jonna Jerome. “It takes effort and probably extra money, but if the story is not going to measure up, no nice cover is going to make up for that.”

Once the script is complete and properly formatted, it should be photocopied, preferably by a copy center equipped with duplicators that produced crisp, black type. A script may need to be duplicated by the agency or producer and if the copy submitted is poor quality, the copies from that copy will look worse. Writers should invest in a top quality laser printer or ink jet printer if computerized, or a good quality typewriter if not. Dot matrix printers, unless they can produce letter quality type, should not be used. It can take a few weeks or several months before an agent or producer responds. A writer must be patient with the process. Nothing happens overnight in Hollywood, and no news or late news is usually better than a fast response. The quicker they get back to you often means the script got a quick ten page look and that was it. The longer it takes the higher up the chain it goes. From the reader to the assistant, then on to the decision-maker. “They should have some patience,” adds Rizzo. “I don’t mind getting calls from people saying, ‘Have you read it?’ I’ve been on that side of the phone myself. Once it leaves your hands, the industry seems to be a black box.” Writers should have faith in their work and the people they entrust to evaluate it. A great deal of risk is involved in working with new writers. Without a track record to go on, agents and producers must invest valuable time and resources in a gamble that the script will match the quality of the query. Rizzo concludes, “If I get it, it’s in good hands. It’s just going to take me awhile.”

This article appeared in the 1998 Annual Screenwriters Guide published by New York Screenwriter Magazine. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.