History of the Screenplay

January 4, 2020

I come from a movie watching family. We love to quote movies and challenge each other on who can get the most quotes. At the movies we watch to the very end of the credits (Thank You Marvel for making that worthwhile.) We also look for the Gaffer in the credits. Gaffer is the chief electrician in a motion-picture or television production unit. I don’t know why we looked for the Gaffer, I guess it was because of its funny name. It is a weird name, so I had to look it up and the term "gaffer" originally related to the moving of overhead equipment to control lighting levels using a gaff. 

I’ve been involved in making movies all my life. When my Mom was taking film classes she recruited all of the family to be in her film festivals. It was a blast!

Now we’re looking into getting involved in the movie business and we are having to learn new and exciting things. 

The history of how everything came about always interests me. Especially Hollywood’s rich history. This next article is on the History of Screenplays. Thanks to Stacy and her research on the subject. We pass along this knowledge and hope it helps someone else on their path to discovery.

- Julie Martin Wallace, promotions coordinator for Geode Press LLC.

 

 

 

 

In the beginning of movie making, it was done by a Director Unit System, where a director was usually the one that would make a movie. Typically, they would have an idea for a movie and complete it from start to finish.  They didn’t really have any type of set structure, and a lot of time would be wasted when the director would stop in the middle of production to figure out what is done next. A shooting script was then created so the director would know what was being shot next and in what order. As more movies were being made and with more of an actual storyline, a Master Scene Format was created that would have a title of a scene and then a description of the action to be shot. 

 

In the year 1911, film director Thomas Ince changed the structure of the Director Unit System to a Central Office Studio System, where a producer was in charge of a project and decided which movies would be made, and the producer was involved all the way through to the final project. The Central Office Studio System broke up the duties into different departments, so the director no longer did everything on a movie, there was now also an editor and a screenwriter. Ince changed the Master Scene Format script to become a Continuity Script.  This was a better option to track the time for the shooting schedule and to keep a better control of the cost. The Continuity Script would include who was in the scene, where it was being shot and all camera requirements. The director could still have creative input, but ultimately the producer was the final say. This was the structure of all films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood. 

 

In the late 1940’s the movie industry went through a lot of changes.  In the court case United States V Paramount, in 1948, the Big Five movie studios had to give up their control over owning the movie theaters and forcing the theaters to play only their movies. Television started to become more popular and people were staying home instead of going to the movies.  This caused the movie producers to have to concentrate more on creating better quality movies that would have better distribution and marketing, and so the quality of the screenplay had to up its game in order for a producer to read it.

 

Screenplays Today

 

Today the structure of the screenplay is very strict.  If a screenplay strays from the format a producer will know that he is not dealing with a serious screenwriter.  The format today is called the Master Scene Script. The goal of the screenplay is to be very readable. It needs to tell the story of the film in a way that the producer reading the script can immerse themselves into the story and not have to deal with the technical parts of the movie.  

The format of the screenplay begins with a Scene Heading, also referred to as a Slug Line. The Slug Line must always be in capital letters and can only include three things; the where, the where and the when. The first where has to be INT for interior or EXT for exterior. The second where; where is it at... i.e., park, house, school. The when is either Day or Night, you can be a little more specific and say early morning or mid-afternoon, but really, they just want to know day or night.  The next part is the Action, which must always be in present tense. It must be written like it is happening at that moment, and it can not be thoughts or feelings, it must be the actual action happening. 

The third part of the screenplay is the character. Again, it must be in all caps when the name of the character is given and must always be listed above their dialogue. The dialogue is the fourth part of the screenplay. It is always centered in the middle of the page and everything the character says is included.  If the character is off screen, then O.S. must be included and if it is a voice over then V.O must be included. The fifth part of a screenplay is the parentheticals. These are a basic description of action in parenthesis directly under the character’s name. Parentheticals are not used very often as most directors want to direct the actor on what to do themselves. They can be useful if there could be some confusion that needs to be clarified. You never want to use the parenthetical to explain anything technical like camera or lighting.  This will send your screenplay right to a re-write.  When a screenplay is picked up, a shooting script will be created and then the sixth item, transitions, will be included in the screenplay, this is only to help with the editing of the film between scenes.

 

 

 

The script must also follow a very strict set up structure.  The font must be a 12-point courier. The left margin must be 1.5” and the top, bottom and right margins must be 1”.  There can only be 55 lines per page and the entire screenplay should be 90 to 120 pages. Each page of the screenplay is equivalent to 1-minute worth of film.  The screenplay must be three-hole punched on the left side, and only the top and bottom hole can have a brad put in to hold it in place. Dealing with the strict screenplay structure can be very daunting, so it is best to use a screenwriting software program to make the process easier. 

 

If you have the means to be your own producer and make your own movies, then you are free to complete your screenplay however you want. Most people are dependent on the big studios to have their movie made, so following the screenplay process will get your work seen by a producer.  I wrote this article in 12 point Courier 😉


 

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