What to Look For in a Spec Screenplay
The first step in the process is the screenplay. Lots of people write screenplays. Way too many people, in fact. You have doubtlessly experienced this yourself. The moment some people discover that you are even remotely connected to some aspect of the film or television businesses, they know of a screenplay that their brother, mother, uncle or college roommate wrote, and what a great movie it would make.
The first skill essential to making good movies is learning how to say no to bad movies. When reading a screenplay, there is a simple checklist of factors to evaluate right off the bat to see if the script is worth consideration.
How long is it?
The average feature-length film is usually between 90 and 120 minutes. Many these days clearly go longer than that, and many low-budget independent films may come in between 75 and 90 minutes, especially non-fiction films (documentaries).
Generally estimate that one script page equals one minute of screen time. That means the average script should be 90 to 120 pages, and not much more or less. But this is just a general rule of thumb. In a major action sequence, several minutes of explosions and car crashes can take place, written in a single paragraph of stage directions. On one script page, there can be 8 or 10 of these imaginative paragraphs. That’s why the average cost of a big budget studio picture is above $100 million.
But in an intimate or comedic scene, a page of dialogue can go by quickly, as it does in a rapid-fire dialogue scene in films as diverse as All About Eve and Barbershop. The length of a screenplay does matter, and it can give off the first warning bell, if you’re attuned to listening for it.
Unless the film is a physical comedy, beware of scripts that have less than 80 pages – they are often not really scripts, but either plays (or written in the format of plays) or extended treatments, which nobody will buy except from very well-established (i.e., already successful) screenwriters.
If the script is longer than 120 pages an even louder warning bell should go off.
Yes, the screenplay for Heaven’s Gate was 150 pages long, and look where that got it. The longer the actual story, the better the storytelling has to be. Compression, telescoping of character and event, and revising scenes to their essence are the keys to successful screenwriting, not length and scope.
Does the screenplay look professional? Would you get a haircut from someone who doesn’t know the proper way to hold the scissors? Would you eat at a restaurant where the food was served in one big slop on a plate?
A professional looking script, properly formatted, is the first clue that the work you’re looking at should be taken seriously. There are about one thousand books on how to write and format your script, along with scores of computer programs that will do it all for you (for example, Final Draft), right down to handing you character arcs and act breaks. In other words, no excuses for not knowing.
If a would-be writer can’t get presentation right, including cringe-inducing typos and misspellings, then it’s worth questioning whether the script will follow down this slippery slope.
Looks matter, and professionalism should be demonstrated from the first query or solicitation onwards. Beware the amateur, in every respect.
The inevitable answer to the inevitable question of “What makes a script good,” usually translated on a personal basis as, “What do you like in a script?,” is always the same: a good story, well told.