SHORT BUT SWEET
by William C. Martell
* This moldy article was written in 1996, when VHS was king. The italics are 2006 comments...
EVERY SCREENWRITING BOOK I have ever read says that the proper length for a feature film script is 120 pages. The rule of thumb is one minute equals one page, so logically a two hour film will be 120 pages. Screenwriting teachers and Gurus, who usually have never actually had a feature script produced, use the 120 page length as the corner stone of their theories. Making those theories impractical in the real world of screenwriting.
Why? Because films are SELDOM 120 minutes long. How long is the film "Total Recall"? Like the majority of big budget action scripts, "Total Recall" runs 110 pages, the film runs 109 minutes. The screenplays for most big budget action films today come in at 110 pages - the ideal length for that genre. Comedies tend to be shorter. Best thing to do is read a stack of scripts in whatever genre you're writing.
But we aren't here to discuss big budget action films. The odds of breaking into the business by writing a script for Sly or Jean Claude or Bruce or Arnold are pretty steep. Sure, new writers do sell big budget spec scripts every once in a while. Just not that often. But the odds of breaking in by writing a low budget script are pretty good (provided you have talent, a thick skin, and relentless determination to succeed). So, you may ask, how long is the average low budget film?
* Still true!
In the old days, B Movies were made by the studios as the second half of a double bill with an A Movie. This package of two films, a serial, a news reel, and a couple of cartoons, was sold to the exhibitor (theater) and was run for a week or half a week. When the big studios stopped making B Movies, Indies like Monogram and American International moved in to fill the void. In order to compete with A Movies, all B Movies were double billed. Two films for the price of one. To make this attractive to theater owners, producers would limit the films to 90 minutes, so there could be a new showing every three hours. When Roger Corman took over the B Movie Kingdom, he standardized B Movie lengths to fit on four reels of film (one shipping can): About 84 minutes.
Flipping through a copy of Leonard Maltin's Movie And Video Guide, you'll notice that B Movies from the 1930s and 1940s varied in length from 67 to 79 minutes. In the fifties, they went anywhere from 70 to 90 minutes, with most in that 84 minute range.
AND IN THE 1990s, B Movie Producers are making their films about 90 minutes long. Why? In the video age, every inch of video tape costs money. When you're making 60,000 copies of a film, that cost adds up. No low budget producer wants to make a two hour film if it'll rent for the same price as a 90 minute film.
WHICH MEANS, they're looking EXCLUSIVELY for scripts between 85 and 100 pages in length. I know many producers who won't even LOOK at a script that's over 95 pages. Why? Ron Lavery, VP of Production at Redball Entertainment explains, "Our average low budget film will shoot 18 days, three weeks. I know I can shoot 30 pages a week... That's five pages a day for six days. When a script is over 90 pages, we might have to shoot extra days, and that means extra money. It's easier to cut the script down to 90 pages, than to find an additional $25,000 a day to pay for crew and equipment."
* These days low budget films are often shot in 12 days... or a week. Fred Olen Ray just shot 4 films in 10 days! Though they re-used sets and cast in all 4 films, this is still amazingly fast. And Fred has all kinds of cool FX in these films - they aren't just talkfests or crummy kids get hacked by a maniac in a cabin films!
HERE'S WHAT HAPPENS if you write a 120 page script:
Two years ago I sold my script "THE VICTIM'S WIFE" to an Indie Producer. I had written the script to be a budget friendly A picture. Central location, only 15 speaking roles, no effects, weather, kids, or animals. It would have been a good little 10 million dollar thriller, with a name cast.
But after being on the A market a couple of years with lots of nibbles but no one writing a check, I decided to send it to a couple of B Producers. I needed the money.
It sold almost immediately. One minor problem: Written as an A Movie, it ran 110 pages. The Producer needed me to cut 20 pages from my script before it was shootable. Cutting twenty pages means entire scenes, entire characters, entire plot points, had to go! The script had to be completely re-structured. It was brain numbingly hard to cut a full quarter of my script to fit the requirements of Indie film making. But I succeeded, the film was shot, and is out on video (as "Victim Of Desire"). But it wasn't easy.
So it's best to DESIGN your script to run between 90 and 100 pages. I usually outline my B scripts to run 90 pages, and the end result comes out at 95 pages (I tend to over write). In the rewrite process, the additional five pages tend to disappear, leaving me with a lean and mean 90 page script.
"BUT IF THE SCRIPT RUNS ONLY 90 PAGES, WHERE ARE THE ACT BREAKS?"
That's a very good question, Frank.
This is where the Gurus, with their "Act One ends exactly halfway down page 27" theories stumble and fall. Act Three can't begin on page 27 of the script is only 90 pages to begin with! We all know that Act One introduces the conflict, and Act Two escalates the conflict, and Act Three resolves the conflict. So how do you use that 2,400 year old three act structure in a 90 page screenplay?
There are two schools of thought on this one. One is to shrink each act more or less equally. The method works best on scripts with a powerful midpoint (usually a big emotional decision for the hero or a theme-related scene). The 90 page script is divided into a 25 page Act One, and 40 page Act Two, and a 25 page Act Three. This gives you twenty minutes before and after that powerful midpoint (page 45), and keeps Act Two moving at a pretty good clip.
But Act Two is where most scripts get into trouble and screech to a halt. In Syd Field's "The Screenwriter's Workbook", he says, "Act II is always the most difficult material to get through." It's the place where pacing frequently lags and there doesn't ever seem to be enough plot to fill the pages. Most scripts fall apart in Act Two. Even a 40 page Act Two can seem like an eternity sometimes.
So I came up with a theory. If 30 pages was acceptable for Act One and Act Three on an A picture, why not on a B Picture as well? Audiences are kind of used to it. So I design my 90 page scripts with three EQUAL 30 page acts. By tightening Act Two to 30 pages, there's less room to fumble. Act Two blues suddenly go out the window.
And three equal acts also gives the film a rhythm: Every thirty minutes there's a STRONG act break which propels the story forward. The Midpoint still hits at about the page 45 mark, making the structure of the film divisible by 15. So I add a "kicker" at page 15 and 75: a plot point or plot twist which is too small to be an act break, but big enough to keep the audience awake. By using this method, every fifteen minutes something happens to change the direction of the plot and keep the script hopping. I call this my "escalator of doom" - every fifteen pages some big plot twist hits and the story zips off in an unexpected direction.
The three equal acts concept was frequently used by writers in the golden age of Hollywood, because it was a carry over from live theater. The playwrights who came to Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s brought the three act stageplay structure with them. (For more on this, read Ian Hamilton's fine book, "Writers In Hollywood: 1915-1951"). So there's a precedent for my three 30 page acts theory.
My "ANDROID ARMY" script, written in December of 1993 but unproduced at this time, works on the equal act theory. A small group of humans and aliens are trapped at a closed mining colony on a distant planet, waiting for their shuttle to refuel, as a band of angry androids attacks them. It's basically "Last Of The Comanches" (or "The Alamo") in outer space. The midpoint is a huge gun battle pitting our half dozen humans and aliens against an army of androids... Where they have no chance of winning. Do they give up? Do they give in? Or do they fight even though they are doomed? Since the rest of the script is wall-to-wall action, this isn't a particularly strong midpoint. Not as emotional as it probably needs to be to sustain that structure theory.
The three equal acts worked best on "ANDROID ARMY" because the act enders are extremely strong. Act One ends with the Androids cutting off the air supply to the humans and aliens (starting a ticking clock until the air is used up), and Act Two ends with the shuttle pilot being killed in an attack (limiting their chances for escape from the planet). Each thirty page act flies by at warp speed, as the characters scramble to solve the problem, only to be confronted by another, larger, problem. Act Two doesn't fumble or bog down, it ZIPS! We're in Act Three before you know it, without loosing any of the escalating conflicts of Act Two.
It's important to keep your Indie scripts fast paced. In an A Movie, an actor can be the star ("Nell", "Philadelphia") or special effects can be the star ("T-2", "Jurassic Park"); but in a B Movie the script is usually the star. They can't afford Dustin Hoffman or special effects. Your script is all they have, so it better be good!
Even with the "escalator of doom" plot twists every 15 pages, you still need to consider pacing. Have a strong "genre juice" scene every ten pages. On an action film, that's an action scene. In a comedy it will be a funny comedy set-piece. In a thriller you need a suspense scene every ten pages. When I use my "escalator of doom" I have an action scene every ten pages, PLUS a plot twist every 15 pages. This keeps the script hopping! You don't need Dustin Hoffman if your story moves this fast!
EVEN IF YOU WRITE BIG BUDGET MOVIES, keeping your scripts short and sweet can be an asset. Since longer films get less showings per day, they tend to make less money. Every showing of a three and a half hour movie can be sold out, and it STILL will make less than a ninety minute movie showing to half capacity theaters. If you don't believe me, ask the producers of "The Abyss", "Casino", "Malcolm X", or "Wyatt Earp". All four films had trouble because they were over three hours. Less showtimes equals less money. The per show average on "Malcolm X" was HIGHER than its competition. More showings of "Malcolm X" were selling out than any other film. But less money was coming in, because there were less showings. The Industry was able to dismiss Spike Lee's film as non-hit.
I'm not suggesting Mr. Lee should have cut his epic down to 90 minutes, nor would I want to see an abridged version of "Lawrence Of Arabia"; I AM saying that an A script under 120 pages has an advantage. Let's go back to "Total Recall"s 110 pages, or look at "Die Hard"s 112 pages, or "Speed"s 107 pages, or "Broken Arrow"s 98 pages.
As I write this, three very different comedies are in theaters: dumbguy comedy "Black Sheep", romantic comedy "Bed Of Roses", and farce "Dunston Checks In". All three run 87 minutes. That's one showing every one and three quarter hours, with fifteen minutes to sweep up the popcorn in between.
FILM LENGTH becomes even more critical when we move to video. Why? Because video is where the real money is. When someone asks if one of my films will be a theatrical, or go direct to video (DTV in the biz), I proudly say video. Sounds strange, huh? But in today's Hollywood, theatrical release is more likely than not a money looser.
* More true than ever, ten years later! The average film costs $100 million these days!
Anne Thompson used to do articles for LA Weekly, but since Entertainment Weekly discovered her, everyone can read her brilliant Hits & Misses round ups. These interesting numbers come from her article in the February 2nd (96) Entertainment Weekly: "Sabrina" with Harrison Ford cost 58 million to make, and grossed 53 million. "Heat" cost 60 million to make, and only grossed 75 million. "The American President" cost 62 million, and only grossed 65 million. "Casino" cost 52 million to make, and grossed 43 million. Add the costs of advertising, overhead, distribution, and the theater chain's 50% to these costs, and all of these films LOST money in theatrical release.
Don't worry. They'll make it back on video. In today's Hollywood, theatrical release is basically just an advertisement for video. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, last year's film box office accounted for only 5.2 billion dollars, compared to video sales and rentals' 14.7 billion dollars. Video is DRIVING theatrical. And what are people watching on video? DTVs.
* Again, more true than ever in 2006 where DVDs make almost 3 times more than theatrical, and some insane % (more than half, I think) of all DVD money comes from product that *never* played theatrical.
A study conducted by Video Store Magazine tracked the number of rentals per copy over a three year period (1992-1994) and came up with some unusual results. Big budget A Movies like "The Fugitive" and "True Lies" tend to have a shelf life of only 30 days. These films are hot rentals for the first month they are on the shelves, but after that consumers consider them as "old" and do not rent them. Even if the consumer hasn't seen the film, they are still unlikely to rent it 30 days after release.
DTVs, on the other hand, continued to rent at a slow but steady pace for the three years studied. These films didn't seem to get 'old', probably because consumers discovered them at their own pace (rather than as a highly advertized 'new release'). Direct To Videos tend to have a much longer shelf life than their A Movie counterparts, and will actually rack up more rentals over the life of the tape.
My film "Victim Of Desire" is more than a year old, but all three copies are STILL rented out every Friday at Saturday night at my local video store.
Just for fun, here are six films. Three made Video Store Magazines's three year top ten list, three are not top ten material. Bonus points if you get the top three in order.
"Jurassic Park" (Universal)
"Secret Games" (Imperial)
"Beauty And The Beast" (Disney)
"Poison Ivy" (Concorde/Corman)
"Terminator 2" (Carolco)
"Dark Tide" (Vidmark)
A) Not top ten material.
B) Not top ten material.
C) Not top ten material.
I think this study will help shape the future of what Hollywood produces, and the kinds of scripts and budgets producers will be looking for.
During Brandon Tartikoff's brief reign at Paramount, he announced a low budget direct to video branch of the studio, after learning that the company made more money from the under a million budgeted DTVs from Charles Band, than from their big budget theatrical releases. Tartikoff was ahead of his time by about a year, and as soon as he stepped down, Paramount scrapped the DTV branch. But by the end of 1993, SALES of videos to consumers had eclipsed box office by 700 MILLION DOLLARS. That's NOT counting video rentals!
Universal Pictures has already noted the importance of DTVs, and has begun producing for this emerging market. The sequel to "Darkman" was designed as a DTV, and this month they are releasing the DTV sequel to "Tremors" and going into production on the DTV "Darkman 3". Miramax released "Road Kills", a Christopher Lambert picture from the same director as Charlie Sheen's "High Velocity", directly to video as part of their new DTV program. Disney is the king of animated DTVs, with "Return Of Jafar" and a Lion King sequel going straight to tape.
So video has become more important to the big studios than it has ever been before, and every inch of video tape costs money. Since a 90 minute tape rents for the same amount as a three and a half hour tape, it makes sense to keep films short.
* Film length really doesn't matter on DVDs. A DVD costs the same no matter how much information is recorded on it. So the main reason for a 90 page script in today's world has more to do with production costs than per unit costs at the retail level.
* CORRECTION! Bill on the DISContenet blog informs me that the bitrate on DVDs varies - and the more content you have on the disc the more expensive it is to manufacture... So size *does* matter on DVD! Short scripts are less expensive to reproduce!
It also makes sense to aim your scripts towards a hot and exciting market: DTVs and cable movies. The 500 channel future is only a couple of years away. Already, there are 300 channel test markets in the United States. What's going to be on these new channels? Movies. In Viacom Cable's Castro Valley test market, programmer Rod Reed offers more than 35 pay per view movie channels in addition to five versions of HBO, three versions of Showtime, three CineMaxes, two Movie Channels and the new Independent Film channel from Bravo. That's a hungry market in ADDITION to the ever growing DTV market. These markets NEED quality, budget friendly scripts which run about 90 pages.
So get your rear in gear, sit down at your computer, and write a great, 90 page, limited location, budget friendly genre script. Start today! Take advantage of the video boom, and the cable boom. If you write a good script, designed for the market, it WILL SELL! It worked for me.
* Big market change since then! Because the middle has fallen out of the market, those companies making $3 million films for cable are out of business... replaced by places like Asylum that makes a feature film on a $100k budget.The other big factor is the "backyard movie" - do it yourselfers who make their own films and sell them to distribs. Basically, as a *writer* the DTV business has become much, much more difficult! Now, there are a handful of independent companies making films on reasonalble budgets (like Nu Image), but most of the decent budget DVD originals are being made by *studios*. When I mentioned DARKMAN 2 and 3 ten years ago, I had no idea we'd live in an age where Universal would be pumping out AMERICAN PIE and BRING IT ON sequels and Fox would be making a pile of Dr. DOLITTLE films without Eddie Murphy (even though he may be affordable in another year!) and talking about FIGHTCLUB 2 and 3 as DVD originals. These days, if you want to make a reasonable living in DVD premieres, you have to work for the man! That line between big budget and low budget is blurring!
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