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1.2. screenplay function and readability

Different types of readers are associated with the three functional text stages: property, blueprint and reading material.” — Claudia Sternberg1

1.2.1. Overview.

As we discussed in the previous section, the rise of the Package-Unity System of production management brought about the division of the screenplay into two functional iterations, the master scene script and the shooting script, which are closely related to Sternberg’s Property and Blueprint stages. During the Property Stage, the script is evaluated for its marketability, while during the Blueprint Stage it serves as guide in the production of a feature film. At the Reading Material Stage, non-professionals and scholars interact with the script for study and enjoyment. The screenplay form itself is a negotiation between the needs of the property and blueprint readers, with enough technical convention to guide the making of a motion picture but not so much that a property reader can’t evaluate it for its potential as a marketable story. Virtually no consideration is given in the writing of a screenplay to the reading material stage. If a screenplay becomes reading material at all, it is virtually by accident.

The screenplay will also read differently at each of these stages. The master scene script read at the Property Stage will lack many of the features of the shooting script read at the Blueprint Stage. Likewise, a published screenplay read at the Reading Material Stage may shed many of the formatting conventions from the previous two stages. Such are the changes from stage to stage, one might wonder whether the various versions are in fact the same document.

That the screenplay is written for a very specific insider readership is partly to blame for its lack of acceptance as legitimate literature (and one of the reasons that changes are common in publication). For this reason, it is worthwhile to explore these stages individually, which we will do here.

Page Topics:

1.2.2. The Master Scene Script at the Property Stage. [Back to Page Topics]

When a screenplay is written on spec — that is, when an original screenplay is written independently to be sold on the open market — it will usually adhere to the conventions of master scene format, in which each scene is more or less written from the perspective of a single master shot that covers all of the action in the scene. For the most part, master scene format eschews additional technical details, particularly specific instructions for the camera. Some writers bend these rules, and when technical comments are made, they’re generally typed in all CAPS to help them stand out on the page for those who need to find them (e.g. the camera or sound crew).

Master scene scripts are printed in 12-point (10-pitch) Courier typeface, a monospaced slab-serif font. This preserves a general correlation between script length and film duration, namely that each page of type equals one minute of screen time. A change in font can alter this outcome. Scripts are printed on three-hole punched paper and loosely bound by two brass brads, in the top and bottom holes. Scripts are frequently updated throughout the property and blueprint stages, and this loose binding allows the owner of the script to replace specific pages without needing to toss the whole script every time revisions are released.

Master scene screenplays consist of two kinds of text, Scene Text and Dialogue Text, each with three distinct categories. Each category, in turn, has its own tab setting, standardized by Hillis R. Cole and Judith Haag in 1983. However, with the advent of contemporary screenwriting software, standard tab settings have become more variable, and as a result, the Cole & Haag guidelines have lost some relevance. For this reason, we’ll refer here to the default settings in the Final Draft software as more or less the standard.

The Scene Text categories are:

  • Scene Headings (called Slug-lines) – Tab 1.5″: Indicate setting and time, whether a scene is to be shot on an interior (INT.) or exterior (EXT.) set, the specific scripted location in all CAPS, and whether it takes place during the DAY or NIGHT (e.g. INT. ROOM – DAY).
  • Action – Tab 1.5″: Generally reports on character actions but also contains scene descriptions, technical comments, and other relevant story details.
  • Transitions – Tab 5.5″: Include each passage from one scene to another, always typed in CAPS (e.g. CUT TO:, DISSOLVE TO:, FADE OUT.). Because “cut to” is the default transition, it is generally omitted in contemporary screenplays.

The Dialogue Text categories are:

  • Character Headings – Tab 3.5″: Typed in CAPS and indicate the speaker of a line.
  • Parenthetical Directions – Tab 3″: Used primarily to modify the delivery of dialogue.
  • Dialogue – Tab 2.5″: All the spoken lines in the script.

A spec script (written on speculation, not commission) is usually an original work, since writer’s working on speculation rarely have the means to option an existing property, but this is not universally the case. When a screenplay is complete, the screenwriter(s) will usually register their copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office and list the script with the WGA to establish a proper chain of title, demonstrating to potential buyers that the writers in question are the authors of the work being considered and have the right to sell it to a third party.

In order to sell a script, the screenwriter(s) will need to submit it to a production company through an agent or lawyer. Sometimes, but not always, a writer will have the opportunity to pitch the screenplay to company executives before it is read. This is more common for established writers who may be pitching an unwritten concept or a treatment. In these cases, the pitch creates an opportunity for the company to sign on to the project before the screenplay is complete, offering more security to the writer.

“A screenplay cannot be produced until it is sold. The first readers of the script are therefore primarily concerned with the text’s immediate appeal, its qualities as a property or commodity and its saleability.”2 These first readers are sometimes known as story analysts or story editors,3 often an entry level position for a recent film school graduate. The analyst reads many scripts for the producer or executive, writing coverage and giving each script a recommend, consider, or pass. Coverage entails a brief but detailed synopsis, economic evaluation, and a critical review of the material. Recommended screenplays progress through the hierarchy of the production company along with their coverage. Scripts with a recommendation by the early readers will be read by more people than those that receive a pass early in the process.

The early property readers must plow through piles of scripts each day and do not have the time to give each script multiple, thorough readings. These reads are quick and dirty, and most scripts will receive a pass. Problems such as formatting mistakes, poor grammar, typos, or lack of proper punctuation may disqualify a script that would have otherwise received a more sympathetic reading. Readers read down the page, meaning they focus on dialogue and will mostly skim (and may entirely skip over large chunks of) scene text. For this reason, master scene screenplays are written vertically, meaning that long paragraphs or chunks of text are usually avoided.4 Shorter, punchier paragraphs appear less dense and are more likely to be read in full.

Perhaps unfortunately, early property readers will typically look for adherence to traditional structure rules, like Syd Field’s paradigm or a Hero’s Journey, placing more innovative scripts at a disadvantage in the marketplace. More than anything, an analyst will ask such questions as, How do we market this? Does the script have a clearly definable genre? Is it too similar to an existing film? Is it too original?

If a script is deemed a worthy investment, a production company may buy it outright, but more likely, the company will purchase an option of a year or two. With an option, the company reserves the right to purchase the screenplay by paying a reduced fee up front, giving the company time to study the feasibility of the script by commissioning a budget and analyzing the market. During this time, an agent may wield tremendous power. If the writer’s agency also represents star talent and established directors, they may be able to help the production company put together a package that increases the economic viability of the project.

1.2.3. Stylistic Variations within the Master Scene Format. [Back to Page Topics]

Screenplays tend to be known for their terse, flowerless language, but this reputation belies the great stylistic variation to be found in the works of thousands of unique authors. Claudia Sternberg has identified within the Scene Text, five Modes of Presentation — Report, Description, Literary Comment, Technical Comment, and Speech — the mutable balance of which accounts for much of the stylistic variance to be found from different writers.5

Report constitutes the active mode of the screenplay, what is happening on the screen (e.g. “A man walks his dog.” Report in italics.)

Description illustrates the filmable appearance of a scene or character (e.g. “A tall man walks his long-haired dog down a dark street.” Description in italics.)

Literary Comment illustrates the non-filmable imagery or emotional truth of a scene or character (e.g. “A tall scarecrow-of-a-man walks his long-haired dog down a dark street, the way a guard might walk his prisoner down the green mile.” Literary Comment in italics.)

Technical Comment offers instructions for the film crew and is usually capitalized (e.g. “CRANE UP to reveal a tall scarecrow-of-a-man walking his long-haired dog down a dark street. CLOSE on the dog. Somewhere a train blows its WHISTLE.” Technical Comment in italics.)

Speech consists of dialogue cues within the scene text (e.g. “A man walks his dog. Somewhere a train blows its WHISTLE, startling the animal, and the man tells his dog to heel.” Speech in italics.)

Screenwriters may choose to write extensively in one mode and avoid another, and to a large degree, these decisions determine the style of the Scene Text. Consider the following examples from notable screenplays:

1. The Apartment by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond.

INT. NINETEENTH FLOOR

Acres of gray steel desks, gray steel filing cabinets, and steel-gray faces
under indirect light. One wall is lined with glass-enclosed cubicles for the
supervisory personnel. It is all very neat, antiseptic, impersonal. The only
human touch is supplied by a bank of IBM machines, clacking away cheerfully
in the background.

In this passage from The Apartment, the writers offer almost no report and instead rely on description and literary comment (the play on words and ironic description of the IBM machines) to set the tone for the movie.

2. sex, lies and videotape by Steven Soderbergh.

EXT. JOHN AND ANNE MILLANEY'S HOUSE — DAY

Graham has parked in the Millaney's driveway. He opens the trunk, revealing
a Sony 8mm Video rig and a single black duffel bag. He grabs the duffel bag
and shuts the trunk.

Graham knocks on the door. He is stubbing out a cigarette with his beaten
tennis shoe when Ann answers the door. She is unable to hide her surprise
at his appearance.

In sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh does the opposite, reporting the basic actions with minimal description and no comment, in an almost documentary fashion that mirrors the plot of the script.

3. Little Children by Todd Field & Tom Perrotta.

FADE IN:

SIGHTS & SOUNDS OF WINDING MOVEMENTS ON VARIOUS TIMEPIECES.

Tick Tock, the rhythm overwhelming: Ansonia shelf, wall, mantel,
long-case, table, and bracket. Each movement open escapement.

THE HARD SCREAMING OF A RAIL ENGINE

HOUSE AFTER HOUSE — TOWN AFTER TOWN — AS SEEN FROM A TRAIN.

The strains of a NEWSCAST.

An ANCHOR WOMAN front and center, super-imposed images behind her.

The screenwriters of Little Children introduce technical comments in order to evoke the visceral aural and visual experience of montage that will eventually construct the cinematic discourse.

4. Fargo by Ethan and Joel Coen.

FLARE TO WHITE

FADE IN FROM WHITE

Slowly the white becomes a barely perceptible image:  white
particles wave over a white background.  A snowfall.

A car bursts through the curtain of snow.

The car is equipped with a hitch and is towing another car,
a brand-new light brown Cutlass Ciera with the pink sales
sticker showing in its rear window.

As the car roars past, leaving snow swirling in their drift,
the title of the film fades in.

Finally, the Coen brothers begin from the smallest technical comment (“FLARE TO WHITE”) and blend poetic description with evocative report to launch their screenplay with a simple but gripping image that creates expectation and curiosity. The subtle curtain metaphor constitutes literary comment and evokes a theatrical quality, like the rising curtain at the opening of a play.

Each of these examples bears a distinctive style that distinguishes it from the others, and these stylistic differences depend largely upon the distribution of the scene text modes. Clearly, the modes of presentation in the scene text must be understood and mastered if screenwriters hope to make the most of their medium, and they also offer readers a wealth of material to analyze in their studies of the screenplay text.

1.2.4. The Shooting Script at the Blueprint Stage. [Back to Page Topics]

This is the most important stage of screenplay readership, indeed, the stage for which the screenplay is explicitly written. It is important, however, to note that the blueprint is a metaphor for the screenplay, not a direct analogy. Steven Maras points out several dangers regarding a strict view of the screenplay as blueprint, including “the suggestion of a fixed, single moment of control over the filmmaking process,” that, “Contrary to what the blueprint idea might suggest, a script can be less useful when over precise or overwritten,” and an “overidentification of the writer with the script” to the exclusion of other key collaborators, such as the director, cast, producer, or studio.6

Accepting these caveats, the metaphor is quite useful. The entire format of the shooting script in particular is dictated by the needs of the production. The script is always typed in Courier to regulate page length, while each line of dialogue text is given 35 characters and spaces versus the 55 given to lines of action scene text. Setting the dialogue apart from the scene text in this way (which distinguishes it from the stage play) serves three purposes. First, and most importantly, it helps to reinforce the page-per-minute rule. Second, it allows the actors to focus on lines while the crew focuses on creating the scene. Third, it creates a lot of empty space on the page, where both cast and crew can jot their own notes.

At the blueprint stage, scene numbers accompany every slug-line, which act as scene dividers and one-line scene descriptors that allow for easy production scheduling since scenes will be grouped in the schedule by location, by interior or exterior, and by time of day.

When the screenplay is greenlit as a shooting script, scene numbers and page numbers are locked and subsequent revisions are marked with an asterisk (*). New scenes or pages added to the script will be marked with letters, and all new or revised pages will be printed on color-coded sheets of paper. A typical color progression is white, blue, pink, yellow, green, gold, salmon, and cherry. When a rainbow script runs out of new colors, the original sequence will cycle through a second time. Each revised page (and the script cover) will also be stamped with the date of revision.

When breaking down a script for scheduling and budgeting, the production manager divides and counts each scene in units of 1/8th page, approximately equal to 7.5 seconds. Each scene receives a minimum 1/8th page count. Since more than eight slug-lines can fit on a single page, it is possible for a page to contain more than 8/8ths in the breakdown. The production manager then goes through the script and highlights in marker or underlines in colored pencil all the elements (i.e. characters, props, wardrobe, set decoration, vehicles, etc.) in the screenplay, though this process is increasingly being done digitally using software. This is done both to schedule each element and to estimate its cost in the budget.

Once production begins, the screenplay is often supplanted for most crew members by other production documents, such as the call sheets, the production board, and the Day Out of Days. In addition, some productions will distribute sides — or half-size script pages of the day’s scenes, organized in shooting order — to the cast and crew each day, saving them from having to keep a complete script on hand.

That said, it is not all that uncommon for a majority of the crew to never read the script a second time and to never read revised pages or sides. Most crew members get their instructions from their department heads and do not need to know the intricacies of the script. For a select few, however, the screenplay remains vitally important, but each person interacts with it in a different way. For instance, a prop master will read specifically for haptic cues, since any object touched by a character must be purchased, cataloged, and maintained by the property department.

Consider this anecdote from the Anonymous Production Assistant:

The sound guy tells me he actually reads every draft, but skips over the dialogue.  That surprised the hell out of me.  ‘Don’t you mean you only read the dialogue?’

‘Hell, no, I don’t care what they’re saying.  Are they walking?  They need pads on their shoes.  Are they driving?  Are they going to be on a process stage, or actually riding down the road in a tow car?  If so, are the windows open?  All of that stuff that effects how we record is in the description.  The words don’t matter.'”7

Clearly, the production sound mixer reads the script for different information than the prop master.

The person who spends the most time with the script on set (besides, perhaps, the director and the cast) is the script supervisor. One of the most intellectually demanding jobs on set, the script supervisor tracks continuity from take to take and shot to shot, is the official clock on set, makes sure that all shots are slated and numbered correctly, and transcribes the director’s evaluative notes along with feedback from the camera and sound departments.

“A script supervisor is always taking notes: the number of the scene, the number of a take, whether an actor changes a line slightly. [Steve Gehrke, a script supervisor for more than 22 years] documents everything, ‘similar to a court reporter,’ he says. ‘And then my notes go to the editor each night.'”8

Perhaps the script supervisor’s most important task is to make sure that every scripted action and line is covered on camera. To accomplish this last part, the script supervisor sits with the script in his or her lap and draws lines down the page to indicate what is covered in each shot. A straight line indicates that the action or dialogue appears on camera, while a squiggly line indicates that an action or line of dialogue takes place off camera. The script supervisor also makes other notations on the script, such as when a line of dialogue is changed on the fly or if the director eliminates an action.

The script is obviously most important to the director and the cast during the blueprint stage, but their interactions will be explored more in depth in the next section of this site.

1.2.5. Publication and Piracy at the Reading Material Stage. [Back to Page Topics]

“Stage plays may be read with much reward,” argues writer/producer John Croyston, “but film and television scripts can only be read with some success by professionals with an heightened capacity to ‘lift the script off the page.'”9 To this, Sternberg responds, “The objections against the screenplay as reading material are vague and reflect once again the historical parallel to drama. The appreciation of dramatic texts as readable literature only occurred with the Romantic period [. . .] For the screenplay it is quite likely that [. . .] the above impressions are simply due to a lack of a reading tradition and a dearth of readers and of constructive tools for analysis.”10

Screenplays are in fact finding new life as reading material, both as published works and as bootlegs on the internet. The readership, however, remains small and composed primarily of insiders or would-be insiders (aspiring screenwriters and students). As of this writing, even within the niche market of screenplay-related materials available on Amazon.com, the thirty top selling books are pedagogical manuals for aspiring screenwriters, not published screenplays. It is important to remember, however, that “Whether or not a screenplay is popular as reading matter is irrelevant to its value as a written work. Employing that criterion to judge the value of written works would result in the decanonization of many masterpieces (Finnegans Wake, for example).”11 Indeed, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake ranks well behind many screenplays in Amazon sales, at #210,898.12

Why do more people read stage plays than screenplays? It could be that people read a play because a staged performance isn’t available, a problem rarely mirrored with screenplays and motion pictures. Relatively few great films are out of circulation on DVD, and of those, the screenplays are no easier to come by. An automatic preference for the film would seem to lend some credence to French actor/screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere’s assertion that, “Once the film exists, the screenplay is no more [. . .]”13

Screenplays are a literature in flux, meaning that because they exist as an intermediate art form, it is often difficult to identify an “authoritative text” for a given screenplay. Whether a reader should seek an early writer’s draft or a particular version of the shooting script may depend very much upon the reader’s purpose and interest. For instance, is the reader more interested in the writer’s first vision or in the script that most reflects the final motion picture? Different versions of the screenplay will address each of these interests.

This aside, the primary obstacle facing those interested in reading screenplays is the availability of legitimate texts. While both Newmarket Press and Faber & Faber publish impressive screenplay collections, their drafts are typically undated and may be release scripts, altered after a film’s release to reflect the changes made during production and in post-production. In our experience, Newmarket Press at least retains the standard format of their screenplays, but Faber & Faber often makes drastic formatting and even textual changes to make their screenplays read more like conventional literature. While ideally, one would like to see authors compensated for the enjoyment of their works, the lack of draft information and risk of textual alteration means published screenplays are often not the best option for those wishing to engage in serious screenplay study.

Shooting scripts are usually the easiest legitimate texts to identify. Because the conventional practices of production mandate that revisions to an approved shooting script be precisely tracked, these drafts can be recognized by such formatting features as dated/color-coded cover sheets, locked scene numbers, asterisks marking scene revisions, “OMITTED” markings, revised page numbers and scene numbers that include alphabetical notation, and revised pages that are only partially filled with text. Original hard-copies of shooting scripts are also often stamped with tracking numbers.

Because such drafts are so easily identified, reading a shooting script is often the safest way to know you’re reading a legitimate screenplay used in the conception of a motion picture, not a release script or transcript created afterward. One can purchase shooting scripts photo-copied from original production drafts from any of the six online stores listed in the resources page, but one should keep in mind that these are essentially bootlegs for which the writer will receive no compensation.

For most readers, the best way to find the screenplay of their favorite movie will be to check one of the many digital script repositories available online. Only the curated, subscriber-based American Film Scripts Online offers authorized texts. While the rest offer bootlegs, at least they offer them freely, not profiting off the work of others. It is perhaps just another sign of the screenplay’s diminished role in our literate culture that such websites are even allowed to exist. After all, no website would last very long openly linking to free PDFs of the latest New York Times bestsellers, but many screenwriters do not seem to mind that their works are often shared online with no chance of profit for themselves. Good thing, too, since many screenplays are not available anywhere else (still many others are not available in either published form or as online downloads).

These websites are a treasure trove of screenplays, but mixed in with the trustworthy drafts are plenty of transcripts, “screenplays” created by fans who have watched a movie and carefully crafted a document from it in standard script format. Readers should avoid html files wherever possible, as they are easily corrupted and may not represent a legitimate text. For this reason, scanned PDFs of shooting scripts remain the most trustworthy option for the majority of screenplays. myPDFscripts is the only site that offers only PDF scripts, most of them scanned from production documents. Because writer’s draft are inherently more difficult to track, those primarily interested in the writer’s vision will always face more difficulty. At the very least, readers will want to try and find a draft with a date. Undated drafts are most susceptible to corruption.

Perhaps as screenplays gain in stature, we’ll see wider access to legitimate script drafts from the studios that own them. Until that time, those of us who enjoy reading screenplays must play detective and do the best we can with what is available.

1.2.6. Discussion Topics. [Back to Page Topics]

The following are suggested key terms and topics of discussion for college courses studying this material.

Key Terms:

  • Property Stage
  • Chain of Title
  • Pitch
  • Coverage
  • Story Analyst
  • Option
  • Package
  • Blueprint Stage
  • Rainbow Script
  • 1/8th Pages
  • Production Manager
  • Script Supervisor
  • Reading Material Stage
  • Vertical Writing
  • Reading Down the Page
  • Scene Text
  • Slug-lines
  • Action
  • Transitions
  • Dialogue Text
  • Character Headings
  • Parenthetical Directions
  • Dialogue
  • Modes of Presentation
  • Report
  • Description
  • Literary Comment
  • Technical Comment
  • Speech

Questions:

  • How is the screenplay form a negotiation between the needs of the property reader and blueprint reader?
  • How do property readers and blueprint readers differ from one another?
  • What are the identifying features of the master scene format?
  • What are the identifying features of a shooting script?
  • What accounts for the stylistic variation found between various screenplays?
  • What process do most screenplays go through before they can become a motion picture?
  • How do different crew members interact with the screenplay?
  • Do screenplays make good reading material for non-specialized readers?
  • What challenges do readers face in terms of identifying “authoritative” screenplay texts?

1.2.7. Footnotes. [Back to Page Topics]

  1. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 48.
  2. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 48.
  3. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 48.
  4. Deemer, Charles. “Screenwriting Craft: Making Screenplays Vertical.” http://www.screenwritersutopia.com/modules.php?name=Content&pa=showpage&pid=2698
  5. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pgs. 71-79.
  6. Maras, Steven. Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice. NY: Wallflower, 2009. Pg. 123-124.
  7. “Hearing, But Not Listening.” The Anonymous Production Assistant’s Blog: A View of Hollywood from the Bottom. http://anonymousassistant.wordpress.com/2009/11/13/hearing-but-not-listening/
  8. Stamberg, Susan. “When Continuity Counts, Call a Script Girl — Er, Guy.” Morning Edition. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=19201451
  9. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 57.
  10. Sternberg, Claudia. Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text. Tübingen: Stauffenburg-Verl., 1997. Pg. 58.
  11. Boon, Kevin Alexander. Script Culture and the American Screenplay. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008. Pg. 44.
  12. Accessed 9 August 2011. http://www.amazon.com/Finnegans-Wake-Penguin-Modern-Classics/dp/014118311X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1294872901&sr=8-1
  13. Maras, Steven. Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice. NY: Wallflower, 2009. Pg. 48.

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