Good to know you're out there!

I want to take a moment and send a big word of thanks to all you screenwriters who have stopped in to read my blog over the last couple of months. There are many, many of you all across the USA and Canada. Great! I’m also happy to say there are quite a few of you checking in from other parts of the world, such as…

Argentina
Australia
Austria
Belgium
Denmark
England
France
Germany
India
Japan
Korea
Malaysia
New Zealand
South Africa
Spain
Sweden
and
The Netherlands

As long as you fine folks keep stopping by, I’ll continue posting my screenwriting rants, raves, tips, and suggestions, as well as my in-the-trenches view of life as a working screenwriter.

Thanks, Everyone!

Does one page really = one minute?

I just got an e-mail from a writer who asked: “I want to write a comedy movie that’s two hours long. How many pages should my script be?” First of all, I let this writer know that very few comedies warrant a two-hour running time; 85 to 115 minutes would be typical. So I suggested that he re-think his chosen running time. That said...

Let’s say you want a 90-minute movie. Based on the so-called minute per page rule of thumb, how many pages would that be? About 90 pages, right? Well, actually, probably not. So much depends on the content of your script. Is there an abundance of dialogue? Is there lots of action? Also, much depends on your particular writing style. Do you use an economy of words—or do you overwrite? I find that most novice screenwriters tend to overwrite. They’ll use 80 words to describe a scene when 40 will suffice; and/or they’ll also overwrite their dialogue, providing superfluous exposition. So what they’re actually doing is pouring a 75-minute story into a 115-page script. (I have the opposite “problem.” My scripts tend to be fairly tight, so I oftentimes find it difficult going any higher than the 100-page mark. This can be a dilemma if your writing contract stipulates that the finished script must be a minimum of 110 pages!)

But the fact remains, a finished movie doesn’t necessarily have to correlate to the screenplay’s page count.

A major factor in determining the run time of a movie is how a director shoots/edits his scenes. Let’s say, for instance, you’re working on a scene for a thriller and write, “Jack and Jill walk down the long, dark corridor.” Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But the director milks the scene for purposes of suspense (can you say Kubrick?). Now that simple line of action – all nine words of it – takes up 45 seconds of screen time.

Speaking of suspense…my original draft of House at the End of the Drive was right around 103 pages. Due to budgetary constraints, we eventually cut the shooting draft down to somewhere in the vicinity of 88 pages. The first director’s cut of the movie came in at 110 minutes. The present “producer’s cut” is 92 minutes.

Just to further prove some sort of a point here (um, I think), I looked through a random sampling from my rather extensive collection of big-time movie scripts. Here’s what I found:

What’s Up, Doc? was a 94-minute movie with a 154-page script.

The Long Kiss Goodnight was a 120-minute movie with a 139-page script.

Crimson Tide was a 123-minute movie (extended version) with a 111-page script.

Young Frankenstein was a 106-minute movie with a 116-page script.

Jaws was a 124-minute movie with a 113-page script.

Secret Window was a 96-minute movie with a 118-page script.

Paper Moon was a 102-minute movie with a 126-page script.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was a 117-minute movie with a 134-page script.

The Mechanic (1972) was a 100-minute movie with a 113-page script.

Pacific Heights was a 102-minute movie with a 118-page script.

Three Days of the Condor was a 117-minute movie with a 130-page script.

And finally…

Rosemary’s Baby was a 136-minute movie with a 167-page script!

What’s the upshot here? Beats me, pal, but it sure doesn’t mean if you write a 100-page script you’re automatically gonna get a 100-minute movie.

So, you see, the idea of “one page equals one minute of screen time” isn’t really something you should overly concern yourself with as you write your screenplay. There are simply too many variables involved. (Let’s not forget the biggest variable of them all: If you’re lucky enough to sell a script, the production company is more than likely gonna have most of it rewritten anyway. Your 112-page/87 scene script will become a 91-page/75 scene script!) So...

Just write a properly formatted script with a story that’s interesting and entertaining, make it a brisk read, keep the page count within an acceptable range...and don’t worry about it. ("Gee, Jim, you're making this all seem sooooo easy.")

Here’s my suggested page range for scripts:

Action/Action-Adventure: 95-115
Comedy/Romantic Comedy: 90-110
Horror/Thriller: 90-110
Drama: 110-120

Happy writing!

* * *
APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.com and Kindle e-book! (You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!)

An observation (and some miscellaneous stuff)...

THE OBSERVATION: I get the feeling screenwriting has become one of the great participation sports of the 21st Century. Go into virtually any coffee house here in L.A., especially on the west side of town, and you’ll find at least three or four screenwriters toiling away on their laptops. Yes, these guys and gals are everywhere. Very recently, at one coffee house I regularly frequent, I counted seven 20-somethings hunched over scripts. There have been days I’ve counted more. This is one of the things – one of the few things – I truly love about Los Angeles: it’s the creative vibe that permeates so much of the town. Yes, the creative vibe – you won’t find it in Omaha, Nebraska, you won’t find it in Tempe, Arizona, and you certainly won’t find it in Dillsboro, Indiana. Nope, I think L.A. pretty much has a lock on high doses of artistic energy and creative output. To wit…

My friend and I were on a “writing excursion” in the lounge of a hotel in Beverly Hills not too terribly long ago. Our waiter noticed we were both working on scripts and promptly informed us that – surprise, surprise – he too has been working on a screenplay.

I went into a Starbucks last weekend and took a seat beside a young lady working on something that looked suspiciously like a movie script. Innocently I asked, “So, you workin’ on a script?” She told me, rather enthusiastically, that she was, and went on to explain that she was an actress and was “taking control” of her career by writing something she could star in.

A few nights ago I was in a downtown L.A. restaurant/bar with a friend. Our 20-something bartender got to talking about how he came here from Tennessee with a burning desire of becoming an actor and director. He told us he had written a couple of short film scripts, which he intended to direct himself.

I was killing some time at another Starbucks a couple days ago, and the 40-something guy sitting next to me was working on a script for actor/comedian Mike Myers. Apparently, Mr. Myers is attached to this particular project. Or so I’m told.

A while back, at yet another Starbucks (I should own stock in the place!), a guy saw me working on a script, sat himself down and started talking to me about movies and the movie business. He told me he worked in special make-up effects, but had recently been working on a couple scripts of his own. Since then, we’ve actually become pretty good friends.

But as much as I appreciate the creative vibe L.A. has, sometimes I just need to get out of town…see some different scenery…go somewhere where the film business isn’t the topic of every conversation. For example…

Last May my buddy and I took a fantastic 8-day road trip through the southwest (Arizona, Utah, and Nevada). Our first overnight stop was Sedona, Arizona. So we’re sitting in this restaurant/bar one night, and we get to talking to this older guy sitting next to us. He looks like…well, a cowboy. You know the type: rugged, face like leather. Anyway, he eventually asked me what I did for a living. I told him, “Screenwriter.” I halfway expected him not to know what that meant. But no, he perked up and said, “No kiddin’? I’ve been working on one of them myself!”

A few days later we’re in Mexican Hat, Utah. I had been there a few years before and wanted my buddy to see what a truly dreadful (yet interesting) place it was. Anyway, we’re sitting in this hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the edge of town…I’m diligently working on this rewrite, and the guy sitting near us said, “Script?” I looked at him, “Uh, yeah.” He sort of smiled. Well, it turned out he was a WGA writer repped by CAA, on a cross-country motorcycle trip with some of his friends. C’mon, a WGA writer, repped by CAA…in Mexican Hat, Utah?? I still chuckle about that one.

MISCELLANY 1: This past Monday I turned in a draft of a thriller I’ve been writing. Now I’m awaiting notes from the producer. During this waiting period, I’ll get back to work on another thriller I’ve been working on. I’ve already completed the outline, but I still want to tweak it a bit. I’ll probably start on the script this weekend.

MISCELLANY 2: In a couple weeks, House at the End of the Drive (a creepy little ghost story I was hired to write) will have a private screening at a theater here in Westwood. Most of the attendees will be from film distribution companies, though I’m told invitations will also be extended to members of the general public. We had a similar screening at the Director’s Guild Theater a while back, but that was the “director’s cut." This new version is the “producer’s cut.” Anyway, let’s hope the movie can get picked up for distribution!

MISCELLANY 3: Remember that critique I did for a friend of a friend a couple weeks ago? Well, my friend sent me a “Thanks…appreciate what you did” e-mail, but I never did hear anything from the guy whose script I critiqued. I’m told my somewhat scathing evaluation crushed him. He apparently thought his script was perfect as it was and not a single word needed to be changed. Well, what can I say? I feel bad for the guy. It’s not easy having your “baby” ripped apart. But he’s wrong about his script. It’s in no shape to be seen by anyone. Until he’s able to accept some constructive criticism, learn from it, and make the necessary adjustments, he’ll never progress as a screenwriter.

MISCELLANY 4: And oh yeah…I’m doing a screenwriter’s chat and book signing at 6:00PM, Tuesday, April 17th at JP’s Coffee House, located at 7310 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood (east of La Brea, next to Trader Joe’s). During the chat, I’ll discuss how writers can improve their chances of becoming a working screenwriter. Needless to say, I’ll have copies of my book Q & A: The Working Screenwriter available for purchase. If anyone actually shows up, it should be fun. So, if you live in L.A., please drop by!

ARRRRGHH!!!

With all the resources literally at our fingertips—all the websites, all the books, all the formatting software—so many budding screenwriters still don’t seem to get it. DON’T SEEM TO GET IT. Yes, I’m just a little bit upset at the moment. See, I’ve just completed my one millionth script critique. (OK, maybe it hasn’t been a million, but it sure seems awfully close.) I’m doing it for a friend of a friend. Seems this writer has been sending his script around town and the response has been dismal. He figured he’d send the script to me and get my thoughts on what might be wrong with it. So today I settled in at my favorite Starbucks…and I began reading. By page six I was ready to toss the darn thing in the trash bin. By page twenty I was ready to rip the kidneys out of the first person who looked at me wrong. By page fifty I was ready to pack my bags and move to Gilligan’s Island. Yup, I was mad. So now you’re probably asking, “But Jim, what was so wrong with the script?” OK, let me start with the small stuff, things I noticed approximately two seconds after opening the envelope:

1). No brads, loose pages
2). Wrong font type/font size
3). An incomprehensible script title

And then there was the stuff I noticed on page one:

4). Improper margins/spacing/formatting
5). Overly detailed description of character’s clothing and superfluous items
6). OVERUSE OF CAPITALIZED WORDS (sound effects and inanimate objects)

But whatever. This is all relatively easy stuff and I can deal with it. Unfortunately, the subsequent 90+ pages were mind-numbingly B-A-D. How bad, you ask? Well, remember when you were in high school and had to listen to your really boring history teacher drone on and on about some incident that took place in 1750? Remember how you got glassy-eyed and you fought—fought!—to stay upright in your chair? Remember that? (I know I sure do!) Well, this is how I felt reading this script. Reading just a few pages of this calamity was like eating straw. For example, let’s take a quick look at…

The ACTION/DIRECTORIAL PASSAGES: Not many interesting visuals going on there, folks. In fact, some of the more descriptive actions were: “He nods,” “he sips his tea,” “she shrugs,” “he closes his eyes,” “he sits up,” “she stares intently,” “he laughs slightly (not sure how you laugh slightly),” “he leans back.” So…how do these descriptions make a screenplay a riveting and interesting read? THEY DON’T!!

The CHARACTERS: I didn’t care. I just didn’t care. A coma patient would’ve been more entertaining. (No offense to all you coma patients out there.)

The DIALOGUE: Not quite the worst I’ve ever read, but still pretty bad. So much of it was flat, repetitive and roundabout, sort of like watching a really tedious ping-pong game. No loops, no slices, no lobs, no rushes, no hooks, no slam dunks…just back and forth…back and forth…back and forth. Ho hum.

The STORY: This thing was thinner than Olive Oyl after a two month fast. Thinner than a German joke book. Thinner than Paris Hilton’s resume. Thinner than…well, you get the point. And the subject matter? Believe me, nobody was gonna rush out and see (or rent) this concept. (Well, it might’ve worked OK as an art house film…in Istanbul.) Also, as I was reading the script, I realized I was no further along in the story by page 45 than I was on page 30. Floundering: it’s a death knell for a script.

I’ll tell ya, I really wanted to grab this writer by the shirt collar, shake him, and say: “Have you ever read a professional screenplay? Have you? Have you read Chinatown? Have you read Lethal Weapon? Have you read Boogie Nights or The Usual Suspects? Do you see how the characters, dialogue and action in those scripts are interesting? Do you see how the dialogue and character actions in those scripts continually push the story in a forward direction? Do you see how your script is accomplishing none of this? Do you? DO YOU?”

Ugh. I don’t know why I had such a negative reaction to this script. I mean, I’ve read scripts of this ilk many, many times before. Sadly, writing of this sort seems to be the rule and not the exception. I guess what really bothers me most is this particular writer had sent the script (or query letters touting the script) to agents and prodcos. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: There’s nothing wrong with writing a lousy script. It’s when you think that lousy script is “good enough” and you send it out into the world…that, friends, is where the problems start.

Please, please, please…don’t blow what will most likely be your only shot with the powers that be in the filmmaking community. You must learn the art and craft of writing a screenplay before you go on your quest to find (cough, cough) fame and fortune. Do your homework. Do. Your. Homework. Here’s some reading material I strongly suggest you read and study:

1). Real Screenwriting, an excellent book by Ron Suppa. It gives a comprehensive overview of the art, the craft, and the business of writing scripts.
2). The Screenwriter’s Bible, by David Trottier
3). Screenplay, by Syd Field
4). And, of course, my other popular blog: http://www.theworkingscreenwriter2.blogspot.com/

Then get your hands on some professional scripts. Read them. Study them. Pick them apart. Then, after you write your own script, get it critiqued. No, not from loved ones (unless they’re a pro writer). Then rewrite. Rewrite some more. If it takes ten, fifteen or twenty drafts, so be it. But get it as close to “right” as you can before you send it to anyone of importance in the film world. Get it right.

Rant over. I feel better. Thanks for listening, er, reading.

Additional "flaws" (and some books news, too)...

On my other blog I have a section dedicated to Fatal Flaws of the Novice Screenwriter. Here’s an a couple of additional flaws I should’ve included…

The Implausible Escape/Getting Out of a Sticky Situation

If your lead character makes an “amazing” escape in the latter half of your story, make sure you establish the escape route, or the plausibility of the escape, early on in the script. For instance, I once critiqued a script where the main character, a woman, was on the run from the law. At one point very late in the story, the woman drives to a small airport, steals a plane, and flies off into the wild blue yonder…leaving frustrated cops on the tarmac below. Problem was, for the first 90 pages of the script, the writer never hinted that this woman could fly an airplane. But there she was, at the controls, flying with ease. I’m not saying there had to be a previous scene with this character droning on and on about her years flying for United Airlines, but there should have been some indication that she had knowledge of piloting an airplane. Just clue us in so we’re not rolling our eyes, saying, “Oh, come on!”

In another scene from the same script, the woman, again on the run and with cops hot on her tail, rushes into a corridor. Just when it looks like she’s cornered, she pushes a hidden button on the wall…then a secret door appears and she ducks through it. Huh? I could understand it if this particular location had been her house or office, but it was a location she wasn’t familiar with and not previously established in the story. I’m still scratching my head at that one.

Yes, movies are supposed to be heightened reality, but puh-leeze, make it a plausible, non-eye-rolling heightened reality.

The set up & the pay off

In the James Bond movies, does Bond merely whip out some fantastic device and save the day? Sure, but the device is introduced early in the story by good ol’ Q. Well, usually. For instance, there’s a scene in You Only Live Twice where Bond needs to crack a safe. So he simply reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a rather bulky safe opening device. Two problems with this: 1) The device was never established, and 2) Bond wasn’t even expecting to open a safe! It’s a silly moment in an otherwise classic movie.

Remember in Jaws when Roy Scheider uses the compressed air canister to blow up the shark at the end of the movie? Of course you do, it’s a great scene. Anyway, we believe that scene because the canisters are established early in the story. About 45 minutes into the movie, Scheider accidentally topples the compressed air canisters. Richard Dreyfuss snapped at him, “Dammit…you screw around with these and they’re gonna blow up!” It’s a very brief moment, but it sets up the explosive ending of the movie.

Some new book news!

Yesterday I got word from the folks at The Writers Store that they’ve included my book, Q & A: The Working Screenwriter, in their print ads for the current editions of Script magazine and Creative Screenwriting magazine. (FYI: The Script ad is on page 29; the CS ad is on the last page.) The Writers Store is offering Q & A at the discounted price of just $11.95 (list price: $14.95), so if you have yet to pick up a copy of the book, now’s your chance!

Be prepared...

“Always be prepared.” This is the motto of the Boy Scouts. It should also be the motto of screenwriters everywhere. On a previous blog, I discuss how necessary it is to have more than just one or two scripts in your repertoire. If a producer or agent passes on one script, you need to have another available, and another, etc. If you want to have any real credibility as a screenwriter in Hollywood, you must have product. Yesterday an actor friend took me out for a post-birthday lunch. We got to talking about a couple of projects he’s trying to get off the ground (as a producer). He told me how he was looking for something for an actress he knows. He proceeded to explain the parameters of what it was he wanted to do. I told him, “I have the perfect script!” Then I pitched it to him. He thought it sounded like the right fit. When he dropped me at home, I ran inside and got a copy of the script (which, by the way, I wrote many years ago). Three hours later he calls and says, “It’s really good!” Anyway, he’s already put a call in to this actress. If she likes the script, he’ll take it to his money people. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. I’ll keep you posted on any progress.