A screenplay or script is a blueprint for producing a motion picture. Screenplays are either adaptations from previous works (such as a novel, play, TV-show, or short story) or original works. A screenplay differs from a script in that it is more specifically targeted at the visual, narrative arts, such as film and television, whereas a script can involve a blueprint of "what happens" in a comic, an advertisement, a theatrical play and other "blueprinted" creations.
The major components of a screenplay are action and dialogue, with the "action" being "what we see happening" and "dialogue" being "what the characters say". The characters, when first introduced in the screenplay, may also be described visually. Screenplays differ from traditional literature conventions in ways described below; however, screenplays may not involve emotion-related descriptions and other aspects of the story that are, in fact, visual within the end-product.
Every year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hands out Oscars in both Original Screenplay and Adapted Screenplay categories. In the United States of America, the Writers Guild of America has final control on who may be awarded screenwriting credit for a screenplay in a union production.
A script for a television program is sometimes called a teleplay.
Someone who writes screenplays is a screenwriter.
The art of writing a screenplay is known as screenwriting and is dealt with separately.
 Screenplay format
There is no unique "rule" for the writing of a screenplay, but throughout the world, within the relevant industries, several conventions are adhered to.
Motion picture screenplays intended for submission to mainstream studios, whether in the US or elsewhere in the world, are expected to conform to a standard typographical format known widely as studio format which stipulates how elements of the screenplay such as scene headings, action, transitions, dialog, character names, shots and parenthetical matter should be presented on the page, as well as the font size and line spacing.
One reason for this is that, when rendered in studio format, most screenplays will transfer onto the screen at the rate of approximately one page per minute. This rule of thumb is widely contested -- a page of dialog usually occupies less screen time than a page of action, for example, and it depends enormously on the literary style of the writer -- and yet it continues to hold sway in modern Hollywood. Most experienced readers of screenplays can judge simply by weight and thickness whether the screenplay is 'too long' or 'too short'.
After weighing it in the hand, the next act of a harried reader or executive will be to flick to the last page to see the page count. Ideally a screenplay should be 90-110 pages long. Comedies and children's films tend to weigh in at the lower end. Anything more than 110 pages might set off alarm bells unless there is a substantial balancing factor (for example, a major director is attached to direct). Some of the most well regarded screenwriters such as Quentin Tarantino, often turn in screenplays with lengths exceeding 110 pages. While length is important, it isn't always necessarily indicative of quality and is something that can more readily be resolved with the final process of post-production, film editing.
Most experienced readers can tell instantly whether a script is in standard studio format or not, simply by looking at a couple of pages. If it is not, they will assume that the writer is inexperienced and may not read any further. Therefore it is important to know the rules.
Unfortunately, there is no single canonical standard for 'studio format' although the definitions of the format are mostly very similar. Some studios have definitions of the required format written into the rubric of their writer's contract. The Nicholl Fellowship, a screenwriting competition run under the auspices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has a useful and accurate guide to screenplay format. A more detailed reference is The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats (Cole and Haag, SCB Distributors, 1980, ISBN 0-929583-00-0). There is also a compact, quick-reference chart with format specifications and examples called the Screenplay Format Guide from ScriptBuddy. Most screenwriting software comes with a set of templates for various screenplay formats which are more or less standard.
Screenplays are almost always written using a monospaced font, often a variant of Courier although other fonts are sometimes seen, including special bitmapped fonts intended to resemble the output of an old battered typewriter such as a Remington Portable.
Detailed computer programs are designed specifically for screenplays, and many have templates for teleplays and stageplays. These programs have been designed to create industry standard screenplays and are used by professional screenwriters. A number of these programs offer access to online screenwriter communities where you can publish your work for feedback from fellow screenwriters. Furthermore, screenwriting software is available for handheld devices (Palm OS, and Windows Mobile / Pocket PC). A list of screenwriting software can be found at the bottom of this article.
For American TV shows, the format rules for hour dramas, like CSI, and single-camera sitcoms, like Scrubs, are essentially the same as for motion pictures. The main difference is that TV scripts have act breaks. Multi-camera sitcoms, like Two and a Half Men, use a different, specialized format that derives from radio and the stage play. In this format, dialogue is double-spaced, action lines are capitalized, and scene headings are capitalized and underlined.
The script format for documentaries and audio-visual presentations which consist largely of voice-over matched to still or moving pictures is different again and uses a two-column format which can be particularly difficult to achieve in standard word processors, at least when it comes to editing.
 Physical format
American screenplays are printed single-sided on three-hole-punched letter sized (8.5 x 11 inch) paper, and held together with two brass brads in the top and bottom hole. The middle hole is left empty. In the UK, double-hole-punched A4 paper is often used, although some UK writers use the US letter paper format, especially when their scripts are to be read by American producers, since otherwise the pages may be cropped when printed on US paper. Despite the use of double-punched paper, it is common to see scripts in the UK held together by a single brad punched in the top left hand corner. This makes it easy to flip from page to page during script meetings and may have something to do with the taller page of A4.
Screenplays are usually bound with a light card stock cover and back page, often showing the logo of the production company or agency submitting the script.
Increasingly, reading copies of screenplays (that is, those distributed by producers and agencies in the hope of attracting finance or talent) are distributed printed on both sides of the paper (often professionally bound) to cut down on paper waste out of environmental concerns. Occasionally they are reduced to half-size to make a small book which is convenient to read or put in a pocket; this is generally for use by the director or other production crew during shooting.
Although most writing contracts continue to stipulate physical delivery of three or more copies of a finished script, it is common for scripts to be delivered electronically via email. Although most production companies can handle scripts in most formats, it is better practice to supply scripts as a PDF file where possible. This is because it gives the writer final control over the layout of the script, which may otherwise vary depending on what fonts and/or paper size the recipient uses to print the script out. The formatting software programs listed at the bottom of this article produce industry formatted standard screenplays in PDF.
A detailed description of correct screenplay format can be found here.
 Writing on spec or assignment
Screenplays can be written either on "spec" (speculative) or as assignment. The Variety slanguage dictionary defines "spec script" as "a script shopped or sold on the open market, as opposed to one commissioned by a studio or production company."
 Writing on assignment
Assignments are commissioned by production companies or studios on the basis of pitches from producers or writers, or literary properties they already own. Most established writers do most of their work on assignment and will only "spec" scripts which they think no-one will pay them to write, or if they cannot find assignment work.
There are exceptions: some very famous writers only write on spec because they know that they can get a better price for their work this way. Other writers spec scripts that they care deeply about so that they do not have to bend to the whims of executives and producers.
An assignment may be for an original screenplay, or for a screenplay based on another work such as a novel, film, short story, comic book, magazine article or, increasingly, video game. It may also, however, be for a rewrite of an existing script, and in fact this is how a large proportion of writers in the modern studio system make their living. Rewriting scripts is an art in itself and an extremely lucrative one at that: it is not unknown for trusted writers in the higher echelons of the industry to receive $200,000 a week (2004 numbers) for their efforts. $50,000 per week is not uncommon.
Rewriting is difficult because executives often have very clear ideas about what is wrong with a script, however, they are usually unable to provide detailed prescriptions for ways it can be fixed. This is not surprising, because screenwriting is not the expertise of the executive, but of the screenwriter. The writer is therefore usually expected to come up with a detailed prescription for how the script can be improved, and then execute this in a timely fashion. During the process of choosing a writer to rewrite a script the executives may ask several writers for their 'take' and choose the one who appears to have the greatest likelihood of moving the script forward to the point where it may be greenlit for production.
Before 'going to script' a writer may be asked to write a treatment, an outline, or a step outline describing the script in various granularities of detail. Some writers resist this process and will do anything to avoid it and get down the writing the script itself; others embrace the process. It is fair to say that producers tend to be wary of the former and pleasantly surprised by the latter.
 Spec scripts
Many Spec scripts (short for speculative) are written independently by screenwriters in hopes of optioning and eventually outright selling them to producers or studios. Other spec scripts are written by writer-directors who plan to direct the film themselves. Many so-called "arthouse" films fall into this latter category, whereas the former category tends to be filled with "high-concept" scripts - mostly action or comedy, to which a star or A-list director can be attached.
The process of 'going out' with a spec script can be an extremely tense and nerve-wracking one for a writer. The writer's agent will identify a number of prospective buyers who may range from small independent producers to executives working in the major studios, and attempt to build up 'heat' under the script. The script is sent out simultaneously to all the prospective buyers, usually to be read over the weekend, in the hope of attracting a bidding war.
Within a few days it is abundantly clear whether the script is going to sell or not. If it does, the writer may receive a payment of anything from a few tens of thousands of dollars to several million. If not, the script is often dead in the water because it is now in the databases of the studios and development executives, and has been marked as having been 'passed' on.
It is almost impossible to get a studio to read a script again which they have already turned down, even if it has been entirely rewritten. A popular vignette has an executive glancing at the title, saying "I read that", and tossing it in the trash. One strategy employed by some writers when resubmitting a script is to change the title, page count and the names of the major characters so that the script is not flagged up when the database is checked.
Sample scripts are not (usually) intended for production, but to showcase the writing skills of the screenwriter, in hopes of coaxing an agent to represent the screenwriter or a producer to hire the writer. Very often a spec script which fails to sell goes on to be a sample script.
See also: Highest-priced speculative screenplays
 Script costs
Script costs can include adaptation rights, but often story rights are listed separately in the development section of a budget.
The cost of screenplays vary enormously, and there are often many different writers involved, some of which are uncredited. For example, Quentin Tarantino did uncredited rewrites for Silver Surfer and It's Pat (see Jami Berhard's Quentin Tarantino: The Man and His Movies).
Jurassic Park was adapted by the book's author, Michael Crichton, for a large undisclosed sum. His salary for Twister was 2.5 million, but there were many writers involved, not just him.
M. Night Shyamalan was paid $5 million for the script for Signs, out of a $72 million budget.
Although the highest paid names are stars and directors and sometimes novelists who get their film adapted, a good screenwriter can command - and is worth - a large salary.
Total script costs can easily be ten percent of the film's budget but, like other areas of a film, unless the writer is a star, it is unlikely for a big budget film to spend more than 5% in the script department.
For a movie with a script budget of 500,000 that is not an adaptation, written on assignment, the payments might break down as follows.
First draft: $150,000
First draft revisions: $50,000
Second draft: $75,000
Second draft revisions: $25,000
Production bonus: $200,000
The first four payments are paid half on commencement of the writing step and half on completion. The final payment, the production bonus, is paid ONLY if the script goes into production and becomes due on the first day of principal photography. If a script is approved for production before all the steps have been completed, the production bonus could be bigger. This means there may be an incentive for the writer not to drag out the process.
The above deal may be referred to as "300,000 against 500,000". Alternatively, one might say "low six figures against mid six figures" (these vague terms are usually used because of the complication of the script contracts).
Screenwriters should be aware of "shark" producers and always work with producers who have signed with the Writer's Guild or similar union.
 The development process
Once a studio has purchased or commissioned a script, it goes through the process of revisions and rewriting until all stakeholders are satisfied and ready to proceed. It is not uncommon for a script to go through many, many drafts on its journey to production. Very few scripts improve steadily with each draft, and when a certain avenue has been exhausted the writer will often be replaced and another brought in to do a rewrite.
Occasionally it becomes impossible to satisfy all such parties, and the project enters "development hell".
If a studio decides it does not wish to proceed to production with the script, the project enters 'turnaround'. Another studio may purchase the script from its original owner, but the script is encumbered with the development costs the studio has already incurred. At a certain point, it may simply be uneconomic for anyone to purchase the script, even if it is a very good one. This goes part of the way to explaining why some of the best scripts in Hollywood remain unproduced.
 The shooting script
Once a script has been approved for production, camera directions and notes may be inserted by the Director, and each scene is assigned a number to provide a convenient way for the various production departments to reference individual scenes. When a scene is omitted, its number is retired so that it won't be assigned to any newly added scenes.
When the shooting script is distributed, its pages are locked, meaning that any subsequent revisions will apply to the first set of revision pages. When revisions are distributed, the pages are swapped into the outstanding drafts, and the script is once again locked. The process is repeated for each new round of revisions.
Each round of revisions is distributed on different colored paper. The progression of colors varies from one production to the next. Since rewrites often continue throughout principle photography, most shooting scripts evolve into a rainbow of gold, pink, blue, green and cherry pages.
A screenplay is different from a transcript. A transcript is simply a copy of what dialogue finally appeared onscreen, without regard to the original script, the stage directions or action. A full post-production transcript may also include descriptions of the action on-screen, but since it is generally not written by a professional writer but either a production assistant or a fan, it may not be particularly entertaining to read.
Many published screenplays available at booksellers or downloaded from the internet are in fact glorified post-production transcripts rather than shooting scripts. Transcripts and screenplays often differ radically because scenes are frequently re-ordered or dropped entirely during the editing process. Moreover, actors may change lines or simply improvise dialog, and many directors will make their own changes to the script on the fly during rehearsal or shooting.
It can be extremely revealing to compare a shooting script with the film as finally distributed.
 Screenwriting software
- Main article: Screenwriting software and List of screenwriting software
Various pieces of software are available to help screenwriters adhere to the strict formatting conventions (as described above).
 See also
- David Trottier (1998). The Screenwriter's Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. Silman-James Press. ISBN 1-879505-44-4. - Paperback
- Judith H. Haag, Hillis R. Cole (1980). The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats: The Screenplay. CMC Publishing. ISBN 0-929583-00-0. - Paperback
- Jami Bernard (1995). Quentin Tarantino: The Man and His Movies. HarperCollins publishers. ISBN 0-002556-44-8. - Paperback
 External links