Wednesday 1 July 2015

One page equals one minute?

One page of a screenplay equals one minute of screen time. Everyone knows that. It's in all the screenwriting books, starting with Syd Field and moving forward. All the gurus repeat that mantra. So why bother thinking about it for yourself?

My introduction to the question came through Terry Rossio. He devoted Column 17 of Wordplay to the question of: "Fudging," meaning, "fudging the page count." 
Any script with a page length over 125 is suspect. Over 130, and the script is, at best, an interim draft with "Lots more work to be done." And it may not even get read. "If it's too long, it goes to the bottom of the pile," a Disney executive told me once. "At one o'clock in the morning, a 105-page script can look a lot more appealing than a 135-page script."
   The bias isn't just due to how long it takes to read the script. The classic rule of thumb says that one page of script will average out to one minute of screen time. This isn't always true -- sometimes a single descriptive line such as 'the horses stampede through town' can take more than a minute, and some dialog scenes will take less. (It's said that screen time eats up dialog, and action eats up screen time.) But over the course of a script it's supposed to average out to that magic page-a-minute. So a 135-page script is automatically considered to be a longish movie, more expensive to produce, and may limit the number of screenings the exhibitors can schedule in the course of a day. Bad things all.
   In addition there are structural concerns. Quite often in a 135-page script, the spin into Act III won't come until after page 100. It can feel a bit odd to head off in a brand new direction at a point where some movies are winding up. The script, then, may be thought to be paced too slowly.
   Oh, and I should mention that none of this actually makes any damn sense whatsoever, of course. There are many films that work just fine at 150 minutes or longer. And the screenplay for the first Terminator movie was, I believe, 170 pages long. But these are the biases we deal with, whether they have merit or not. If your script is under 105 pages, all the notes you get will be about stuff that needs to be added. If your script is over 130 pages, all the notes will be about stuff that needs to be cut. At 115 pages or thereabouts, the notes tend to be confused and cancel out, because no one can figure out whether to add stuff or cut stuff.
   So what do you do when your screenplay is edging into the unreadable 130-page plus territory?
   You cheat, of course.
The most important line in that quote is this: "These are the biases we deal with, whether they have merit or not."  (I take the You-cheat-of-course line for granted.)

You have to understand that every "expert", from a potential Executive Producer to the funding body's receptionist to the catering assistant, knows that one-page-equals-one-minute. Which means you have to look like you believe it, too, or you'll be considered a fool.

Anyone who has ever wrestled with a script on Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft knows the hassle of getting stuff to stay where they want it, without having page breaks cut text in awkward places and making the page look ugly. Man, the hours I've spent rewording dialogue or action lines, just so they were short enough (or long enough) to have the automatic page break fall in a neat place! 

One of the tricks Terry Rossio talks about is "eliminating the widows," a widow being a typesetting term for when one or two words at the end of a line wrap around down to the next line.

I had an experience early on with a script I wrote, where I changed one word. One lousy word. I went from a long word (I forget what, now) to a shorter equivalent, on about page 2. There were no other changes. Everything else was identical, except the script was now lighter by three or four characters. That one change caused a ripple effect which resulted in a script that was two pages shorter. Two pages!  Which must give us a new rule, that four-characters-equal-two-minutes-of-screen-time. No?

Terry Rossio's suggestion #6 for fudging the page count is: If the script's really long -- forget the CUT TOs altogether, leave 'em for the shooting script! 

I experimented with doing just that on a longish script I wrote recently. The script shrank by six pages. Not a single change to action or dialogue or scene headings, but I was suddenly a six-page better writer. I suppose that means, if you include CUT TOs in your screenplay, your movie will be six minutes longer than if you don't, because six-pages-equals-six-minutes-of-screen-time. Right?

About a year ago, I sat through a presentation by a UK screenwriting guru (another one who has never actually written a screenplay), who shocked me by making a statement to the effect that, if you use parentheticals (personal direction, actor instructions, 'wrylies', whatever) in your screenplay, you are an incompetent writer.

I went home and started a study of the use of parentheticals in produced screenplays. That's a subject for another time, but it led to me setting up a document with a table headed: Title, Writer, and No. of Parentheticals. Then I thought, seeing I'm doing this anyway, why not add No. of Pages, No. of Scenes and Minutes. The document currently holds details of well over 350 screenplays, 127 of which are either nominees or winners of Academy Awards in one of the two screenplay categories. Let's consider some of them.

Start with a personal favorite: Lost in Translation. This was written and directed by Sofia Coppola, who won the Best Writing (Original Screenplay) category at the 2004 Academy Awards for it; something her father, Francis Ford Coppola, had done in 1970 with Patton. IMDb says Lost in Translation runs for 104 minutes. The screenplay (you can download a copy here) consists of 137 pages. At first glance. Take a closer look and you will find that 62 of those 137 pages consist of maybe two lines. The rest is blank. One page has nothing on it but a CUT TO. I took the PDF of that script, ran it through an OCR package, copied the output to
Movie Magic Screenwriter, and reformatted it so that it matches the original, minus all the wasted white space. How long? 64 pages.

A 64 page screenplay translated into a 104 minute movie. We can't say that the director took liberties, or didn't understand the writer's intentions, because Sofia Coppola did both jobs. What we can say is that one-page-does-NOT-always-equal-one-minute-of-screen-time. In this case, the screenplay is light by some 40 minutes.

Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson wonder where the extra 40 minutes came from.

This works the other way, too. Consider Hannah and Her Sisters, by Woody Allen, who won the Best Writing (Original Screenplay) category at the 1986 Academy Awards for it. The available version of the screenplay (download a copy here) is a HTML document. If you copy that into Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter, and format it correctly, you'll find the screenplay runs about 205 pages. According to IMDb, the movie runs for 103 minutes. That leaves some 100 minutes of screen time missing. Where did it go? Once again, we can't blame the director, because Woody Allen did both jobs. 

Mia Farrow explains her theory on why the other 100 pages have vanished.
Don't take my word for it, check the facts for yourself. Here are some examples of:

Screenplays that are 30 pages, or more, longer than the movie:
   Almost Famous (2000)
   The American President (2007)
   Blast From The Past (1999)
   Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001)
   My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)
   Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
   Out of Sight (2006)
   Sexy Beast (2000)
   The Last Boy Scout (1991)
   The Social Network (2010)

Movies that are 30 minutes, or more, longer than the screenplay:
   As Good As It Gets (1997)
   Braveheart  (1995)
   Dances With Wolves (1990)
   Moonstruck (1987)
   Mulholland Dr. (2001)
   Schindler’s List (1993)
   Sling Blade (1978)
   The Deer Hunter (2002)
   The Pianist (1978)
   Total Recall (1990)
This is not an exhaustive list, just ten examples from each end of the spectrum. According to the "experts", these screenplays all failed to achieve the magic benchmark, and should have been rejected by the studio, or at least sent back for a rewrite.  

Notice the names of some of the writers involved: Aaron Sorkin, Billy Bob Thornton, Cameron Crowe, Dan O’Bannon, David Lynch, James L. Brooks, John Patrick Shanley, Randall Wallace, Richard Curtis, Ron Bass, Ronald Shusett, Shane Black, and Steven Zaillian. Between them, they've been nominated for Academy Awards for writing sixteen times, and picked up eight wins. Not too shabby.

The one-page-equals-one-minute rule is absolutely brilliant for everybody, except writers. If you suffer from ADD, or you want to sound like an expert, without actually doing any work on the subject, go ahead: rattle off the formula.

If you're a writer, you should forget it completely during the writing process. Focus on getting your story out, the best way you can. But once you're happy with your story-telling, you have to go back and focus on making all the "experts" happy. And that means fudging the page count to make it as close as you can to what they expect. 

These are the biases we deal with, whether they have merit or not.
Terry Rossio's Wordplay is a good place to go for ideas on how to do that.

First posted:  15 November 2011

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