Quick! What’s the first thing a reader does when they get a script? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
The answer: they turn to the last page to see how long it is. Though as a reader of many years and many more scripts, I can tell you that this is often a formality. An experienced reader can usually peg the script’s length just by eyeing the thickness. We often know a script is too long or too short even before we check the page number.
Roger Ebert once said, “No good movie is too long. No bad movie is too short.” That’s true when it comes to the actual movie, but in the eyes of a reader, the best script is a short script. Just as long as it’s not too short.
It’s generally been understood in the industry that 121 pages is the magic number where a screenplay becomes too long and 89 pages is the magic number where it is too short. As every screenplay writing book will tediously inform you, one page of script is equal to about one minute of screentime. In most cases a Hollywood movie runs between 90 minutes and two hours, hence those “magic numbers.”
When you’re trying to break into the business, the odds are your script isn’t going to be read first by the guy who makes the decision to buy the script, and probably not by the guy directly under him either. If you’re lucky, the script will land on the desk of a professional reader – along with another dozen for that week. If karma’s really out to get you, your script will get passed on to the new intern who just arrived in town a week ago. Either way, the pile of scripts confronting that particular reader will be attacked in the same method – shortest scripts go first.
Remember, readers get paid by the script. Why spend an hour and a half reading a 180 page script when you could get two 90 page scripts done in that time? (Though often a reader makes extra for a longer script.) This results in the longest scripts being put off as long as possible, probably until the end of the week when the reader’s patience is at its lowest ebb. Suddenly, deliberately paced stories feel slow, slow-paced stories feel glacial and REALLY slow scripts get weaseled out of with a quick verbal summary of the hook to the director of development and the exasperated remark – “It’s a three-hour movie!”
Once you’re a known writer who’s sold a few, the usual rules no longer apply. At that point, write all the 140 page scripts you want. If you’re any good, odds are that your tightly written, well-paced story won’t come out that long, and if it does, hopefully it’ll be well-crafted enough that the reader won’t care.
But when you’re Joe Nobody, you’d better believe it matters. To be honest, these days the average industry script is coming in even shorter, close to the 105-115 range. Probably one of the most common critiques a reader will give a script is that the plot is too slow to advance. You might only get one shot with some contacts, so before you send around your script, give it an extra read and make sure that every scene counts.
Expositional scenes are the ones that tend to kill you here. Particularly with films that have complicated plot twists, a writer wants to make sure that they haven’t lost the audience. Unfortunately, this often manifests through overwritten scenes or scenes that spell out what the audience had already figured out on their own. You can usually trust in the intelligence of your audience so when giving your script a final read, there are a few questions you should ask yourself:
Have you entered each scene as late as possible? Are you getting out of there as quickly as possible? When I was learning the art of economic scene length, I studied Law & Order. Though their episodes are more plot driven than character-driven, they cover an incredible length in 44 minutes of airtime. What’s more, almost all of their scenes tend to be short, succinct and give you exactly what you need to see in order to keep the plot moving. If your script’s coming in long, it might be scenes like this that end up being the culprit.
Perception is everything, though. If your reader starts the script already “knowing” that it’s “too long” they’re going to look for the evidence to justify it. They’ll be reading it primed to point out scenes that don’t fit, dialogue that goes too long, and plot points that are needlessly complicated. If – in your heart of hearts – you are certain that this is a story that demands 130 pages, by all means submit it. But cutting 11 pages and getting it down to 119 might make all the difference in how the reader perceives it.
Every reader has a horror story about the 150 page opus that went nowhere that they had to read. The vast majority of “too long” scripts are written by people whose writing would be unbearable even at 90 pages. It doesn’t take too long for a reader to start noticing a correlation: Too long = bad writing.
Is it fair? No. Is it the nature of how readers work? Almost to a man.