Thursday, June 17, 2010

How short is too short?

Inspired by last week's discussion of script length, Hank wrote in to ask the following:

I have two out of seven scripts that come in around 65 pages. The rest are between 95 and 120. The shorter scripts "feel complete". I don't know what to add without making it seem like "filler". Can something as short as 65 pages sell?

I doubt it. When was the last time you saw a 65-minute movie? Studio features - and independent films - are 90-120 minutes.

Despite the long development process that a script undergoes after it's purchased, a writer still needs to present a complete, potentially filmable draft if they want any hope of selling their writing. James Cameron might be the only guy who could sell a 65-page script, and even then I bet that the buyers would want reassurance that the project would time out at a lot longer than an hour and five minutes. And as I always say, it's fruitless for people in our position to debate "Could [insert A-list writer here] sell a script that [breaks sacred and acknowledged screenwriting rules?] The director of Avatar and Titanic is always going to be able to get away with stuff that a house painter who writes in his spare time won't. For writers who have yet to break in, screenwriting isn't about the exceptions. It's about the rules.

Now maybe there are some writers - and I'm not saying this is Hank's position - who take the attitude of "The studio can fix it up after they buy it and put someone else on the rewrite. I just want my big check for coming up with this blockbuster idea."

That scenario never happens. No writer should EVER try to sell a script with the thought that "Eh, they can fix it up later." If that's the attitude you're taking, you're not a real writer. A script is not a lotto ticket. Nor is it a used car with a busted radiator that you're trying to unload on an unsuspecting buyer before they notice the flaws.

Carlos left a comment on the original post about writers who turn in extra long scripts, asking:

What are your thoughts on the reverse of this? The writer who might write too little? Or the writer who might struggle to get to that 90th page?

Do you get a lot of those scripts (I'm assuming they are few and far between) and what do you usually notice about them? Poor outlining, bad pacing, not enough information, an idea that shouldn't have been a film, but maybe a short?

It's rare, but when I do get a script this short it's a story that often feels padded just to get to 75 pages or so. Most of the time the story-telling is too straightforward, there are few interesting complications in the plot and the character-work is surface and facile.

So you're pretty much on the money when you muse that scripts like that feel more like prolonged short films then potential features. The writer maybe has a decent idea or a clever concept, but they don't really know how to mine it.


  1. Maybe if it were animated and this were the 40's. Dumbo was only 64 minutes but that's probably it's biggest flaw.

  2. There is a film coming out (currently in post) that had a script that was only 66 pages. It was on the black list in 2008. Sleeping Beauty by Julia Leigh (she's also directing), but someone said she's had some success as a novelist. So it's possible to get a shorter script made, but you probably need some sort of clout. Of course it also doesn't hurt to get your name on the black list.

  3. I watched a movie called "Tadpole" last night. It was about an hour and eleven minutes, not including the credits.

  4. If you've got a script that's too short, it's a sign of a bigger problem. You likely didn't set up enough in the first act to pay off in the third act. Is there enough character development? Are there any subplots?

  5. Before Christopher was all famous and such, he wrote and directed an independent film called Following that was about 67 minutes long. It was in black and white and really interesting, but could never sell as a spec. I guess you expected the comments to be filled with your exceptions to this "rule". :p