HOLLYWOOD, approx. (Mainly) (WHTM) – Let’s name a few names:
Catherine Bigelow. Frank Capra. Maya Deren. John Ford. Greta Gerwig. Howard Hawks. Alfred Hitchcock. Peter Jackson. Georges Lucas. Cecil B. DeMille. Nancy Meyers. Steven Spielberg. Orson Welles. Lina Wertmuller.
Chances are you recognize some or all of these names. They are film directors, men and women responsible for taking a script and turning it into a film.
Let us cite other names:
Charles Brackett. Betty Comden. Philip G. Epstein. Ben Hecht. Sidney Howard. Howard Koch. Christmas Langley. Herman Mankiewicz. Melissa Mathison. David Webb Peoples. Florence Ryerson. Murray Schisgal. Donald Ogden Stewart. Robert Towne.
How many have you recognized? Let’s be honest, your answer is probably little or none at all. They’re very high-profile screenwriters and writers to boot. Their names are on the Writers Guild of America’s list of the 101 Greatest Screenplays of the 20th Century.
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Directors get a lot of attention, but behind every great movie is a man at the keyboard. Or a woman. Or a whole bunch of people, all working on a script for the next mega-hyper-super-blockbuster or the next turkey not even recouping its production costs. Making movies is a special kind of alchemy: the ingredients that turn into pure gold on one production can leave you with a pile of lead bricks on another. The closest thing to a certainty? If you don’t have a good script, you won’t have a good movie.
Screenwriters do so many things. They write original scripts or adapt stories, novels or plays for the set. (Sometimes the source material is a bit unusual; the story for It’s a wonderful life came from a Christmas card.) They create endearing, likable (or sizzling) characters and provide them with sparkling, witty, character-appropriate dialogue. Or not.
They also – and this is important – solve massive and costly production problems with a few clicks on a keyboard before someone hits the soundstage. “Secure it to the typewriter!” Is a long-standing film mantra.
Physical scenarios are actually typed or, nowadays, printed in a very specific format:
- 12 point Courier font
- 1.5 inch left margin
- 1 inch right margin (between 0.5 inch and 1.25 inch)
- 1 inch top and bottom margins
- Approximately 55 lines per page regardless of the paper size.
Why the specific font and margins? Well, 12 point Courier was popular with manual and later electric typewriters, and the margins are pretty standard for written work as well. But this format is pretty much “locked”, because when you follow it, each page equals about a minute of screen time. So, you can get a pretty accurate estimate of how long (and how much) a movie will last just by counting the pages.)
(David Gerrold, who wrote the screenplay for the episode “The Trouble With Tribbles” from the original Star trek series, later wrote a book about his experience. In it, he told how he had a typewriter with a font smaller than the standard. As a result, when the studio spruced it up to make copies for production, it was ninety pages long. Gerrold said the big cuts he had to make actually tightened up and improved the story.)
Of course, these days it’s the rare screenwriter – or any writer for that matter – who uses a typewriter. Computers and word processors are the norm, and there are specialized screenwriting programs that do much of the formatting automatically. The advanced programs will also break down the scenes and create lists of characters and props. They can also interact with other studio software to help generate call sheets, storyboards, shot lists, and schedules. taking “Fix it in the typewriter!” to a whole new level.
If you’re an aspiring student filmmaker, just want to learn more about how the screenwriting process works, or you’re convinced the next breakout movie franchise is in your head, but you don’t not know what to do next, there are many books and sites on Ye Web to help you expand your knowledge, including some that go into many more details on the formatting of the scenario. (I left out a lot of the complicated details.) There are also sites that offer free, not-so-free, and insanely expensive screenwriting software. If all else fails, check the font on Grandpa’s old typewriter.
So on this day, let’s take our hats off (real or metaphorical) to the unsung heroes of the film and television industry, without whom literally nothing else could happen.
(The Writers Guild of America has a series of Greatest Screenplay Lists, for the 20th Century, 21st Century (so far), Comedy, TV Series, etc. To start exploring these lists, click here. )