Sunday, 5 February 2012

If 3 is the new 10, is 90 the new 120?

In the LSWF session Another 50 ways into the Industry, number 21 was listed as make the first 3 pages of your script amazing. The first three! Three?? What happened to the first 10!? Here are the notes I made at the time.

Vadim Jean said it used to be ten. But the slate is big and the spec pile is massive. And what it basically comes down to is do you want to know what happens next and that has to be captured within the first 3 pages. You're competing against everyone else, people who have far more of a track record than you and with scripts and a writer that he knows he can take to a broadcaster and get a commission. So you have to force him to read the whole of your script by having a brilliant opening 3 pages. This is even more the case in TV. In film it's easier to make a feature from a new writer. But the principle about the script remains true.

Martin Gooch added there isn't enough time to read everything. He picks up a script and flips to the back to see how long it is, which is something everyone reading a script does. If it's over 90 pages it's bloody hell. Chris Hill commented that he used to be a script reader and could tell within the first page whether it was going to be good or not.

Many of you would've found out this week whether you'd made it through to the 2nd round of the Red Planet Prize, based on the first 10 pages of your script. The BBC Writersroom still states, "Our readers sift all eligible scripts by reading the first ten pages. If the script shows potential, it will be given a full read. If not, it will be returned to the writer without any comments - this tends to be the case with the majority of unsolicited scripts."

So there is certainly still an industry standard connected to the assessment of the first 10 pages. But equally certain is that if you ask any script reader, they will tell you they know if a script is going to be well written within anything from the first to the third page. That's not to say there are any hidden guarantees that a script will be good from start to finish contained within these opening pages. Scripts can still go off the rails. The Act Two active question might not be quite right. A character's motivation can become wonky. And so on. But from a technical point of view, from how a script looks on the page, it's fairly easy to tell if a writer knows how to write yet or not. (I say 'yet' deliberately. Writing improves the more you do it. We all start somewhere and those first couple of scripts are bound to be a bit ropy.) But a well written opening few pages makes it far more likely, given the choice, that a reader will continue to the end.

And this generally accepted decrease in the assessment criteria may have had a subconscious knock on effect to the length of scripts overall. Because in truth, the shorter the better. There's a natural flow to stories and to tell them well, they have to be a certain length. But scripts need to be as tight as possible and anything extraneous should be cut. Normally, the scripts that can be downloaded online are very often longer than 120 pages, let alone 90. There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, the script available may not be the shooting script or even if it is, once the footage has been through the cutting room, it may just run faster. Modern editing is quicker than it used to be and so films tend to run faster than the script page count anyway. A classic example are the long, talky scripts of Sorkin and Tarantino, where the finished film still then tends to come in at a 'normal' length when finally shown. Also, scripts available online are from films that have been made, from writers and directors who get films made. The bigger names they are, the more liberties they can take which don't apply to the spec pile the rest of us are fighting against.

But if you've been following Script Club this year you might have noticed that even these nominated screenplays are shorter than ever this year. So far, Win Win has been the longest and that was only 120 pages. 50/50 is too, but this wasn't the shooting script, which is much closer to 90 pages. Bridesmaids is 109 pages and Young Adult is an incredible 82 pages. (Interestingly the film is just over 90 minutes so this is a rare example where the finished movie runs a bit longer than the shooting script.) Although unavailable online, I happen to know Midnight in Paris is 90 pages and next up in Script Club, The Descendants, is 115 pages. And that's from Alexander Payne, whose Oscar winning screenplay Sideways was certainly a lot longer than this.) Upcoming scripts include Hugo, which clocks in at 120 pages, despite Scorsese not being known for working with brevity of scripts.

What does this all mean for us, apart from the obvious that our scripts need to be as tight as possible? Do shorter scripts mean a lower budget? Not necessarily. But budgets are largely based on the number of shooting days. So leaving aside factors like special effects, or having lots of scenes but in one location (therefore eliminating the need to travel around with the cast and crew,) a lower scene count means fewer set ups which could - only could - mean fewer shooting days. That will save everyone money.

But I don't think this is the main issue. They are too many variables. More likely it comes down to the human factor. To save money, companies are far less likely to employ external readers these days. Or, like Vadim, the people in charge like to read the material themselves. But even in these troubled economic times, the spec pile is not getting any smaller. It often feels like there are more and more screenwriters each year and - at the moment certainly - less and less money and jobs to go around. Because of cuts or out of choice, fewer people are reading an increasing amount of material. It therefore stands to reason that as far as they are concerned, the shorter the better. Obviously, it simply takes less time to read a script that is 90 pages than one that is 120 pages or more. If you've got a pile to get through in a days work, the shorter the scripts the more chance there is to do that. It's human nature therefore to favour shorter screenplays. And this might translate into getting a better, kinder report that goes to the reader's employers. I know that sounds weird, and it might very well be unfair, but what's better - to take a chance betting against human nature, or to leave as little to chance as possible and keep your script as tight as it can be?

You might be asking well, if there is no money around and no jobs available, what's the point anyway? It's true it's tough. I've heard a lot of people say it's tougher than ever. But stuff is still getting made. So the question needs to be what strategy can I be using to best help myself in the current climate? And I'll try and talk a little more about that next time.

No comments: