HOLLYWOOD, Ca. (Mostly) (WHTM) — Let’s name some names:
Kathryn Bigelow. Frank Capra. Maya Deren. John Ford. Greta Gerwig. Howard Hawks. Alfred Hitchcock. Peter Jackson. George Lucas. Cecil B. DeMille. Nancy Meyers. Steven Spielberg. Orson Welles. Lina Wertmuller.
Odds are you recognize some or all of these names. They are motion picture directors — men and women tasked with taking a screenplay and turning it into a movie.
Let’s name some more names:
Charles Brackett. Betty Comden. Philip G. Epstein. Ben Hecht. Sidney Howard. Howard Koch. Noel Langley. Herman Mankiewicz. Melissa Mathison. David Webb Peoples. Florence Ryerson. Murray Schisgal. Donald Ogden Stewart. Robert Towne.
How many of them did you recognize? Let’s be honest, your answer is probably few or none. These are screenwriters, and very prominent screenwriters to boot. Their names appear in the Writers Guild of America 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 a keyboard. Or a woman. Or a whole group of people, all crafting a script for the next mega-hyper-super-blockbuster-or the next turkey that doesn’t even earn back its production costs. Filmmaking is a special sort of alchemy — the ingredients that will transmute 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 screenplay, you’re not going to have a good movie.
Screenwriters do so many things. They write original scripts or adapt stories, novels, or plays for filming. (Sometimes the source material is a bit unusual; the story for It’s a Wonderful Life came from a Christmas Card.) They create relatable, likable (or hissable) characters, and provide them with scintillating, witty, character-appropriate dialog. Or not.
They also-and this is important-solve massive, expensive production problems with a few taps on a keyboard before anyone arrives on the soundstage. “Fix it in the typewriter!” is a long-time filmmaking mantra.
Physical screenplays are actually typed, or these days, printed out in a very specific format:
- 12-point Courier Font
- 1.5 inch left margin
- 1-inch right margin (between 0.5 inches and 1.25 inches)
- 1 inch top and bottom margins
- Around 55 lines per page regardless of paper size.
Why the specific font, and margins? Well, 12-point Courier was popular with manual, and later electric typewriters, and the margins are also fairly standard for written works. But this format is “locked-in”, as it were, because when you follow it, each page will equal about one minute of screentime. So, you can get a fairly close estimate of how long (and expensive) a movie will be just by counting the pages.)
David Gerrold, who wrote the screenplay for “The Trouble With Tribbles” episode of the original Star Trek series, later wrote a book about his experience. In it, he told how he had a typewriter with a smaller than standard font. As a result, when the studio retyped it to make duplicate copies for production, it was ninety pages long. Gerrold said the extensive cuts he had to make actually tightened up and improved the story.
Of course these days it’s the rare screenwriter, or any other writer for that matter, who uses a typewriter. Computers and word processors are the norms, and there are specialized screenplay writing programs that do a lot of the formatting automatically. Advanced programs will also break down 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 are a budding student filmmaker, just want to learn more about how the screenwriting process works, or are convinced the next breakout movie franchise is in your head but you don’t know what to do next, there are a lot of books and sites on Ye Web to help expand your knowledge, including some that go into much greater detail about screenplay formatting. (I left out a lot of fiddly bits.) There are also sites offering free, not so free, and mind-numbingly expensive screenplay writing software. If all else fails, check the font on Grandfather’s old typewriter.
So on this day let us tip our hats (real or metaphorical) to the unsung heroes of the film and TV industry, without whom literally nothing else could happen.
(The Writers Guild of America has a series of lists of greatest screenplays, for the 20th Century, 21st Century (so far), Comedy, TV series, and so on. To start delving into these lists click here.)