The first step in the process is the screenplay. When reading a screenplay, there is a simple checklist of factors to consider for immediate evaluation to determine if the script is worth consideration.
How long is it?
Feature- length films have historically been between 90 and 120 minutes. Many go longer than that and there are the occasional exceptions that come in under 90 minutes, but we shall use 90-120 as the rule of thumb for this lesson.
In thinking about run time, it is a typical equation to 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.
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.
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.
It’s easy to believe that there aren’t thousands of great, scary, exciting, heartwarming, sexy, thrilling, side-splitting, and important screenplays floating around in the blogosphere or some other literary Bermuda Triangle these days. And there are great stories that are not made into movies. But there are thousands and thousands of poorly written, weak stories that lack the universality that makes a story a good movie. The trouble here is that determining what is a good and bad script is subjective and based on the opinions of the beholder. In the studio system, this starts with a Script Reader.
Script readers, hired by the major studios and agencies, are the first hurdle that a writer must get past. Script readers (often writers themselves) conduct what is referred to as “coverage” on an incoming script or treatment. Coverage is quite standardized and roughly speaking is made up of a “logline” (a one or two sentence description of the story; a brief synopsis – a paragraph or two; and a full synopsis that is 1 ½ to 3 pages. This is followed by the Reader’s assessment – to pass on the project, to consider the project, or to recommend the project, as well as a paragraph or so giving reasons for the assessment. Getting a “recommend” is a major hurdle for a writer and while by no means a green light, it does have significance and generally means that the script has made it through the first or many gauntlets.
There may be lots of good ideas out there, but the ability to turn them into a screenplay that is entertaining, enlightening and/or meaningful is actually quite rare.
What makes a story work?
Script readers generally state that one should know in the first 15-20 pages if the story in the script will translate to a good production. If you don’t feel engaged in the plot and involved with the principal characters by then, whatever content when translated to film will not engage a viewer. Like any good story, whether one you tell while you’re barbecuing or the last great short story you read in the New Yorker, the writer needs a hook, an element that entices the audience to come along in this mutual exercise of suspended disbelief.
Good stories generally follow a three- arc structure. A producer reading a script looks at around page 25-30 for the major obstacle the lead character(s) has or have to overcome. If it isn’t there by then, or never shows up at all, that’s another point at which you can stop reading. Western narrative structure almost demands that characters learn and grow in the course of the story, and obstacles are the easiest way to dramatize and visualize this process.
By about page 90 (or earlier when reading a comedy), there should be some surprising incident or plot turn that throws the last part of the story into high relief, and a final conclusion or catharsis. Once again, if no such device occurs, the script may be a brilliant exception to the rule, or more probably it will join the growing stack of rejected material.
Those pages between 30 and 90 will also tell you a lot (the lengthy second act is the downfall of many an ambitious film), but if you don’t sense a third act break, the writer doesn’t really know how to end the story. Many successful filmmakers have started movies this way – Billy Wilder had no idea how he would conclude Some Like It Hot until he and writing partner Izzy Diamond, the day before the movie wrapped, came up with Joe E. Brown’s immortal closing line, “Well, nobody’s perfect,” said to his new fiancée Jack Lemmon.
The Bottom Line
Films are usually made only because the people who want to make them are passionate about the stories they want to and have to tell. If a story doesn’t make someone laugh or cry, excite or thrill, it may not be a film worth making. If one doesn’t really believe in the product, the gargantuan effort needed to have a movie made will rarely be rewarded.