Who's Afraid of Formatting? Part One

Stephen Norrington


Part One | Part Two

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Also, be daunted. Be quaking in your boots. Be paralysed. Be stricken. Because formatting is difficult, right? Right. Formatting’s terrifying. Imperative. Mandatory. Obligatory.

Except it isn’t. In truth, formatting is a bit of a red herring, a test that sorts the wheat from the chaff. Those who pass know formatting is irrelevant. Well, almost. Certainly it’s irrelevant in the beginning stages. That’s because writing a screenplay is nothing more than writing a story. Sure, there’s some structural niceties and, at some point, the story will have to be understood by studio bean-counters. But in the first place there’s no need for formatting at all, least not till you’re ready for sale. So relax, stuff formatting, and start fretting about page count.

Ah, page count. The iron fist of the studio process. Page count is all-important because of a cherished industry iROT (iROT = idiotic Rule Of Thumb):

1 page = 1 minute running time = $250,000 upwards

That’s the equation for a 100minute/$25million studio picture, which is cheap as far as they go. A 100page/100minute/$100million movie will cost $1million per page. Of course, all first-time screenwriters denounce this iROT as idiotic but the fact is, studios put a lot of stock in page count and it’s not what you think that matters. So get with the programme. Aim for a 100 page screenplay. And don’t think you can cram three pages onto one to trick them either. They’ve got that covered - all scripts are formatted the same. All scripts are formatted the same. Are you feeling me yet?

Still, it’s not all bad. You don’t have a film deal so why be your own studio exec? Formatting only matters when your script becomes a paid-for project-in-development and the bean-counters need labels and numbers. But the first stage of the process, the first draft, exists purely to excite and entertain, to be visceral, to get the cash hooked, which is not to say no formatting is necessary - certainly a lightly formatted document is mandatory if you want to be taken seriously. But for now, for your first draft, stuff formatting and start typing.

Still not convinced? Ok, think of it this way - a screenplay goes through three stages:

Stage one - all drafts before you snare a deal. During Stage 1 you get to tell your story your way and have fun doing it. Call this the Script Frenzy stage. Just keep the page length under 125 max. Aim for 90 and you’ll probably be at 110 by the time you’ve finished. 100 pages is tricky. A well told screen-story in 90 pages or less is a real achievement.

Stage two - all drafts once a studio has purchased the project. Now the story has to be presented as a technical document. Here’s where you’ll add the scene numbers, the slug lines, the cont’s, the change indicators. Here’s where your script will be line-counted, cost-counted, character-counted, bean-counted, after which the studio will pronounce it too long, too expensive, and you’ll be requested to cut pages, an order which will come as a suggestion. And you’ll have to make it “20% funnier.” And “clearer.” And “more universal.” And “(insert asinine idea here).” Basically, in return for your pay check, you’ll have to Make Changes. Stage two is a drag.

Stage three - the editor’s draft. Don’t worry about this. Suffice to say the film editor generally works from an amended version of stage two, marked up with all the changes that were made during shooting. Bottom line, if your script has made it this far, congratulations! Just keep thinking of all those back-end residuals when you view the final product.

Ok, Part Two's in sight so, quickly, here’s another iROT: character arcs. Apparently Indiana Jones doesn’t have a character arc, meaning he’s basically the same character at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. This kind of thing drives the suits nuts because they think all characters must have arcs. It’s how they understand human behaviour. Presumably, in their own lives, they start their family vacations self-absorbed, insular and angry and by the end of two weeks they’ve gotten in touch with their compassionate side. Yeah, right. Blame Dickens’ Scrooge for arcs. What the hell does Dickens know anyway? Don’t give characters arcs if they don’t need them. Just have characters behave realistically in the context of the story. If they happen to change over time, then great, that’s their arc. But don’t shoehorn an arc into draft one if you’re not feeling it. The studio will shoehorn it into draft two for you. That’s their contribution to a healthier society. Part Two coming soon...

Winner: Script Frenzy 2008
Writer: “Speeder”, “Small Magic”, “Silver Surfer”.
Writer/Director: “Death Machine”, “The Last Minute”.
Director: “Blade”, “League of Extraordinary
Gentlemen”, “Clash of the Titans” (fired).
Currently about to write and direct “The Crow”.