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Looking for formatting rules or conventions for screenplays. Many times they mention this format results roughly in 1 minute on film per page.

Is this an observation on average (i.e. an output), or is it a prerequisite (i.e. an input)? Just wondering ...


P.S.: W.r.t. the excellent answers from @Amadeus and @user52445 it turns out that it's good practice to follow the US-formatting conventions for screenplay scripts.

  • it may look old-fashioned
  • it seems to be a good tool to interest and coordinate a (big) team of creatives, actors, technicians etc.

References:

2 Answers 2

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How long a page of a screenplay is in the final film is not relevant. Screenwriter John August writes:

[W]hen a movie is in pre-production, one of the script supervisor’s first jobs is to time the script. She or he reads through the screenplay with a stopwatch, estimating how long each scene will play, then adds up the total running time. Generally, they go through the whole script twice, averaging the times.

Nevertheless, the one-page-per-minute rule of thumb is a way to estimate the length of a movie. So how well does it hold up?

In a statistical analysis of 761 scripts that were turned into films, instigated by John August and conducted by film data researcher Stephen Follows, on average one page of script did indeed equal approximately one minute of film – but there was a large variance of between half a page of script and 1.5 pages to a minute of film. Only 22% of the scripts fell within 5% of the rule, that is, 78% of the scripts deviated from the rule significantly.

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The origin of the rule of thumb, as that is what you are asking about, seems to be that statistically scripts cluster around a ratio of 1 page per minute. The cause for this, though, seems to be an artifact of paper size and script formatting that just happens to result in this ratio, and not intent.

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  • Thanks @user52445, great contribution. I like the stat. analysis :)
    – MS-SPO
    May 13, 2023 at 10:06
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Don't use the final screenplay. I suggest you try Dave Trottier's "Dr. Format Tells All", now in its 4th edition. It is pretty comprehensive, and I have also used his services to review my screenplays, some of them multiple times.

Trottier is a professional screenwriter.

The 1 minute per page, for a professionally written spec screenplay, is an empirical rule of thumb; it is not scientific. For example, in "The Charge of the Light Brigade", there are a few minutes of screen time devoted to a single line of two words in the script: "They charge."

The way the dialogue is formatted, the brief 2 or 3 line scene descriptions and exposition, the "shorthand" used for facial expressions and so on all contribute to the rule of thumb.

For example, in one of my first drafts, Dave shortened my scene descriptions from 5 lines to 2, eliminated a lot of detail (not up to me; up to the directors and set decorators), scratched costume descriptions altogether or nearly to nothing, got rid of all my character descriptions except the bare minimum (e.g. "6 yo girl"). Casting is not your job; the director and casting director will choose the actor, not you, so unless a characteristic is truly necessary for the story, leave it out.

For example, the only specific thing he kept about my character descriptions was an eye color that was a story element in the finale; it is the way a woman realizes a long ago brief acquaintance of her mother, was actually (the woman's) father. Not her mother's husband, as she had been told all her life.

The same thing can go for things like fights. Many times you will see broad descriptions of fights, with few details, because really it is up to the fight choreographers to work with the director on the details, to fit the time the director wants, and to show the angles the director wants.

It is important to understand that the script is just the bones of the story, the images, characters, background music, costumes, art, even non-BG music within the story, if it is not plot critical or perhaps historical (as it was in "Amadeus"), is not up to you. Some things are easier (and cheaper) to license than others. It is the director's job, not yours, to put the flesh on the bones you provide.

If you stick to the format, the rule of thumb "a page a minute" usually holds, at least close enough the director can fudge it in one direction or another to meet their time limit. They are experts at fudging it.

And this format also lets you focus more on what they are looking for when they review your script: A creative plot, believable motivations, and the story beats they expect to find. You are dealing with people that have highly visual and creative imaginations, they don't need any hand-holding to envision the scenes and hear the dialogue with the barest of descriptions.

Trottier also has a book called "Two Screenplays (in Correct Spec Format), which I believe he sold but were never produced, so the rights reverted to him. As examples of actual spec scripts that were bought.

Most of the screenplays you can find online are not Spec Scripts (like you submit to agents or studios), they are shooting scripts or final scripts.

Get some successful spec scripts, it is much easier than you think, once you can let go of the "novelist" mindset.

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    Thanks, @Amadeus, very good insights.
    – MS-SPO
    May 12, 2023 at 19:40
  • still +1. Too bad, I can accept only once, but the statistical analysis is a nice enhancement of what you wrote. Thanks again.
    – MS-SPO
    May 13, 2023 at 10:07
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    Not a problem, you can upvote as many as you like. Note you DO have to pay attention to the font, the margins and the line spacing, and don't try to use your word processor to "fudge" them a little to fit a few extra lines on the page. Professional script readers will notice that something is off. You should also probably use script-writing software; Final Draft is the industry standard. Celtx is another I have heard of. There are some free ones out there, not as good, like Trelby which you can download and install. But in the end, professionals accept Final Draft without question.
    – Amadeus
    May 13, 2023 at 11:43
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    The things you talk about not fitting the 1 min/page are fairly rare, so if they are off by even a large factor the rest of the script will still average out. They might make an error of 2 or 3 pages or minutes, but that is not important. This is more as a mathematician than a screenwriter. May 14, 2023 at 2:12
  • @RossMillikan Correct. Movie makers are extremely creative in their own right, and have very little trouble stretching a script by five minutes, including rewriting dialogue, introducing more drama, creating more stunning sets, longer action sequences, introducing humor, etc. Shrinking a script by even a few minutes can be much more difficult, especially if a story plot is "tight". It is why many great novels come off as trite when translated to film; too many plot elements are left out. Screenplays are a longish short story, more complex stories belong in a Series of several seasons.
    – Amadeus
    May 14, 2023 at 10:51

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