Thursday, October 14, 2010

How long is it? (or, another page-length question)

Igor sent me a rather long email this week:

I've read your comments about the max length for screenplays and agree with you - at least about perceptions and expectations for spec scripts. And yet, I'm puzzled because it seems clear that 1 page-per-minute for comedies is often way off the mark of reality.

The script for Knocked Up that’s available for download directly from Universal is 139 pages. It seems to be a post-production script - i.e., everything in this script, verbatim, was in the 129-minute theatrical version of the movie. (The DVD version has some extra scenes not in this script and it runs 133 minutes.) It's as if this script were a "scriptization" of the movie.

Actually, the count of 139 pages is "nominal". Some pages run 65 lines and most pages run well beyond the typical 53-56 lines. If it were reformatted to 56 lines/page, the page count would be 160 for the 129-minute runtime.

Even 160 pages is a lower-end estimate since the script seems unusually light on Action graffs (which is fine since it is post-production).

Let's stick with 160. If I've done my math correctly, that works out to under 49 seconds per page. Put another way, a 120-page comedy script of this sort would run 97 minutes, which is well within normal limits for this sort of movie. Even a 130-page script would clock in at only 105 minutes. Yet for spec comedy scripts we're told that 90-100 pages is the target.

I'm not trying to suggest in any way that I should be able to submit a 160-page spec script and get the same open reception that Apatow gets.

Rather, I'm making two observations from the flip-side.

First, if I submit a 95-page comedy script, the page length is perceived as perfect. Yet, if I've used the Knocked Up script as a template, the movie produced from my script would clock in at under 78 minutes. Consider a 78-page script landing on your desk.

Second, it's clear that a 120-page comedy script can readily hit the sweet-spot target of a 97-minute comedy movie.

The irony here is that the expected spec-script page-length is shorter for a comedy than for a drama, and yet dialogue pacing in comedies is typically faster and comedies are less likely to have/need extended action-heavy scenes (except, perhaps, to pad them for length).

My take-away from all this math is simply one more indication that we must meet the benchmarks of the marketplace irrespective of their logic. If a customer wants chocolate sauce on his pea soup, so be it.

That said, do you think that the current perception about 1 page-per-minute, even for comedies, is immutable?

It was my understanding that there would be no math.

(Sorry. Kids, if you don't get that reference ask your parents.)

Short answer: yes, I think it's fairly immutable - at least with regards to someone who hasn't broken through. Apatow could probably get away with sending out a script to rival the length of Mario Puzo's works. (Well... maybe not after Funny People, but he certainly could have gotten away with it right after Knocked Up.) I'm sure there are people who will whine that's not fair, but tough. Life isn't fair. This business isn't fair - now put chocolate sauce on my bean soup!

As you point out, what Universal is offering is most likely not any version of the script as it existed while in production. Considering all the ad-libbing that Apatow productions are notorious for, it would not surprise me to learn that the actual shooting script was significantly shorter.

On top of that, when it comes to length I don't know if Apatow would be the guy to emulate. I enjoy many of the guys movies, but my biggest criticism of him is that all of the films he directs feel 15-20 minutes too long. (The exception is Funny People, which is at least an hour too long.) I know I'm hardly alone in this criticism, and I've always felt that the ones he's produced and not directed have felt somewhat tighter and better paced.

There are many great aspects to Apatow's movies, but pacing isn't one of them. I think this is what makes them more fun to watch on DVD or on cable rather than in the theater. It's a lot easier to pop into the film at any point, enjoy a few gags and scenes, and then pop out.

But it's worth noting - Apatow's movies usually have concepts that can be immediately recognized as original and for all the bulk, he usually provides three-dimensional interesting characters. My hunch is that if a script of the quality of Knocked Up landed on someone's desk and it was a little long, it still might get kicked upstairs on the quality of the writing. Still, for a comedy, I wouldn't push it past 120 pages, for the precise perception issues you cite.

After all, a study of ONE film from a director already known for turning out comedies longer than the norm is hardly scientific, no?


  1. Great question that indirectly asked one that I have pondered over for a bit: Knowing already that three-dimensional characters should be important for any script, we can't ignore that a comedy should be funny. However, I sometimes feel that I could never compare to a top notch comedy that almost always includes the input of trained, professional comedians ad-libbing funnier lines than originally written.

    Doesn't a spec writer sort of face a tough obstacle to write something just as funny so a reader, producer, agent can believe that it will be bigger than the previous hit comedy? I can't help but feel at a disadvantage to be one mind compared to a comedy film mostly morable for the one-liners of several comedy "geniuses."

    I guess my real question is: besides everything related to plot, what are the readers looking for from the comedy? Do they believe, "ok, this wasn't the funniest thing I've read but find a [insert comedian] and the comedy oozes out of this script because the characters are so well-defined."

  2. I had similar concerns with the action/adventure genre.