Finding and Choosing Screenplays to Read

I’ve recently updated our resources page and thought now would be a good time to say a bit more about finding and choosing screenplays to read.

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 to a movie in post-production. In my 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.

While most online screenplay repositories also offer bootlegs, at least they offer them freely, not profiting off the work of others. These websites are a treasure trove of screenplays, but mixed in with the trustworthy drafts are plenty of transcripts and untrustworthy material. Only the curated, subscriber-based American Film Scripts Online offers authorized texts. 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.

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