The importance of SCREENPLAY FORMATTING from the point-of-view of a LINE PRODUCER/UMP; by Screenwriting Staffing

(Introduction by Screenwriting Staffing Founder, Jacob N. Stuart)

It always struck me as odd that during my entire time in film school we only had ONE (1) day that was dedicated towards screenplay formatting.

It was my second month of college and we were producing our first “real” short film. We were put in groups of 5-6 people, and everybody had to be a “department head”. It was no trouble convincing my group that I would be the screenwriter. Not because I possessed any sort of super-hero traits as a screenwriter, but the majority of people who attend “film schools” prefer the technical aspect of film-making. Because I was ONLY 21… young, naive, and a “know-it-all” at the time, I totally disregarded the entire lesson plan that focused on formatting. I remember, actually, going down to Coffee Bean on Sunset & Vine (which is no longer there) and buying a ‘Financial Times’ newspaper to read during the class. I was such a sap.

So just like on any production, the class project had to start with a script (and we were already given Final Draft software). I had 48 hours to turnaround a screenplay. No problem. I’ve been sitting on ideas for years and here was my chance to shine. It didn’t take me 48 hours to churn a story into a script, it took me less than 24 hours, and it was golden. At least that’s what I thought.

The next morning I presented my fellow group members my 10 page short. I sat towards the back of the room, sipping on my coffee, waiting to marvel over their amazement.

But to my amazement, they were NOT amazed. They laughed. Not because of the storyline, but because the entire script was formatted in  a “word doc”, written more like a stage play.

Because there wasn’t any time left to elect a new screenwriter who could format a script properly, they formed a late night meet-up at one of our apartment’s. I was invited, but only invited to order the pizza and beer we would need to get through the rest of the night. I sat there and watched my classmates, who played the role of the “Producer”, “DP”, and “Production Designer”, as they combed through my script, making severe edits, taking out key characters, and adding in new ones. There was nothing I could do but watch (after all, I didn’t know how to format a script). Part of our grade was to turn in an industry formatted script, and here I was, a pretend screenwriter, who couldn’t even format a 10 page script in Hollywood.

3 weeks later the project was made. The production quality was excellent but the story was butchered, lacking any sort of flow or story sense. What made it worse, I was still credited as the “screenwriter”. That’s when I vowed to NEVER allow a story of mine be tossed or mocked, simply because it wasn’t formatted correctly.

I tell you this dramatized true story for a few very simple and clear reasons. Film is a collaboration process. Just like you expect the camera operator to know where the “on switch” is, they expect you to know how to write a “scene heading”. As screenwriters, we get so wrapped up in our story, that we sometimes forget the first part of the collaboration process: a well-formatted script that everyone can use as a road map.

Very quickly, before getting into our interview, I want to provide a brief timeline on formatting. I’m NOT a Hollywood history buff, so these are just cliff notes.

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– During the Silent Film era (very early 1900’s), there were NO screenplays, just scenarios. The director would loosely jot down what we were about to see. This was to help the crew and talent understand the scene in its entirety.

– Around 1911 the Continuity Script was created. This style of script was meant to aid in the budgeting and scheduling process. This allowed producers to immediately identify who needed to be in what scene, what props would need to be added, and how much this scene would cost. (note: before sound became an important part in story-telling, novelists and playwrights were sometimes hired to write “continuity scripts”.)

– In the 40’s, when the “Big 6” lost their power, those outside of the “gates” could now approach the studios, pitching their ideas and seek funding. But in order to achieve this, the indie producer needed a friendly and readable style of script to convey their story. That’s when the Master Scene Script (Spec) was introduced. It was imperative that scripts were written and formatted in a way that everyone in the film-making process, from Executive Producers to Craft Service, could understand and translate. Once the “Master Scene Script” was “greenlit”, it was then given to the director. The director would add in camera movements, stage direction, and editorial cuts. This is where we get the “Shooting Script”.

Note: It was important a script was formatted a specific way for many reasons. But one, for instance, was the white space on the script allowed producers and actors to write comments next to action and dialogue. This white space also didn’t make the initial reading too overwhelming. 

OK – on to the interview:

Instead of having another “screenwriter” explain the importance of script formatting, I thought it would be more insightful and unique to hear a Line Producer/UPM/AD perspective. That is why I caught up Gary A. Lowe. I asked Gary to do this interview after him and I debated over a past BLOG I wrote. He felt that the most pressing issue today for screenwriters is not so much the “lack of following instructions”, but rather the “lack of proper formatting” in a screenplay. He had some very good points!

Short bio: Gary A. Lowe has over 25 years experience in the entertainment industry as an Indie Producer, Line Producer, Unit Production Manager, and First Assistant Director. Gary has worked with such talent as Nick Cage, Kate Hudson, Leo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire. Gary has worked all over the world breaking down scripts, and is best known for his distant location logistics, tight budget control, organizing highly skilled “harmonious” crews, stunts and sfx, and coming in under budget and on schedule.

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For more info on Mr. Lowe: Official IMDbGary’s Official PageGary’s LinkedIn.

Screenwriting Staffing: While I’m positive a majority of our screenwriting readers know what a UPM, Line Producer, and AD do, just for clarity, can you quickly summarize your job duties?

Gary A. Lowe: These 3 positions are inextricably linked and should be the most experienced crew with regard to supervising the production. The UPM is responsible for executing and overseeing the production budget. His/Her primary goal is to bring the film in, under budget. The UPM runs the production office and will hire (and fire) crew, negotiate equipment deals with vendors, oversee finding & locking locations and essentially ensure that everything the Director needs to complete the film is obtained. Once principal photography is completed and the production wrapped then the Post Production Supervisor takes over and the UPM’s job is done. A Line Producer is an Above The Line (ATL) person who works between the UPM and Producer. The LP will oversee the UPM’s work and how pre-production is moving along and as well assist the Producers and Director with casting, contracts and possibly creative decisions if they affect the budget or shooting schedule. A Line Producer’s responsibility and involvement in ATL matters is determined by how experienced the Producers and Director are. Many low budget Indie films carry only a Line Producer in which case the LP is double hatted as the UPM as well and be more involved in creative matters. The 1st Assistant Director runs the set for the Director and his/her primary goal is to bring the production in on schedule. I can’t emphasize strongly enough the importance of having the most experienced A.D. as possible. On a low budget movie, the producer should be willing to spend the most (exception being the DP) on this position than any other production position. An A.D. can make or break a production so get the best your money will buy.

Screenwriting Staffing: You’ve been breaking down screenplays in Hollywood for over 25 year. When did you first start seeing this new wave of formatting errors surface? What would you credit this to…. software, books, laziness?

Gary A. Lowe: The formatting started breaking down as soon as the screenwriting software came on the scene. I don’t know where those programmers got their information, but it is full of errors and unnecessary utilities. They complicated the process and added bells and whistles that just confuse the issue of proper traditional formatting.

I believe that most writers starting out think that if they use the software then the formatting will automatically be correct and industry standard, so these writers don’t take the time nor make the effort to learn professional and proper formatting.

Think of it like MS Word. Every time a new word program comes out the process of writing a document gets more complicated and with utilities that few will find useful.

Screenwriting Staffing: For a screenwriter starting out who don’t understand the film-making process and overall collaboration, why is it important for a screenplay to follow industry format?

Gary A. Lowe: The first and most important issue regards submission of the script. It’s of significant benefit to have a well structured script. The benefit being that the reader can read through the script in one continuous flow and see the movie in his mind. If the reader has to go back and check something, i.e., is it still day or is it now night, or has to take pause because of some non-traditional formatting error, or stops to try and figure out what the writer is conveying, then flunk on the writer. These scripts go to agents, managers, producers, actors, script analysts, etc., and if they can’t read the script like they are watching the movie then the writer has lost them – or at the very least –  lost a few “points”. Writers need to understand that formatting a script is an art form. The movie has yet to be made so the reader has to experience that script as if he or she is watching the movie. If you’re watching a movie in a theater you can’t pause it or rewind it, slow it down or speed it up, so why would you not ensure your script is properly formatted in order for the reader to have that similar experience on the page.

With regard to “overall collaboration” it’s helpful for the writer and his formatting to know the process the script goes through once it leaves the writer’s hands and most often the first hurdle is the budget. How much will it cost to produce? The budget preparer (usually a UPM or LP) first needs to determine the production schedule, since the number of shoot days affects the budget. He/She first breaks down the script scene by scene inputting key elements such as Character, Night or Day, Set, Stunts, FX, Extras, Etc., on to “break down pages”, 1 page per scene. using the scheduling software. The software then generates “strips” with information such as Set, N or D, Character, EXT or INT, and scene length (page count). The preparer, on his monitor sees all the strips and can drag and drop them in different places to determine the sequence of filming. The software has a utility that will first group these strips by whatever order the preparer wishes, i.e. alphabetically by name of set, EXT & INT etc. For this reason the writer’s formatting has to be standard. The Scene Headings (slug lines) need to be correct and consistent. E.G. “BILL’S HOUSE” cannot be changed to just “HOUSE” later in the script. The writer should determine the name of the SET with it’s first scene and keep it that way. This is just one example and there are many more. If the writer learns standard traditional formatting from the get go then there’ll be no guessing as to what the budget preparer needs. IF the writer doesn’t use standard formatting then the budget preparer is stuck with correcting it all. Sometimes this can take hours. Once the schedule is completed then the budget can be done, knowing how many shoot days there are and, how many days each actor is working.

Screenwriting Staffing: When you are first given a script, based on formatting alone, what “screams” rookie/amateur? On the flip side, what “screams” professional?

Gary A. Lowe: Oh, that’s an easy one and it’s instantaneous. It’s the scene headings (slug line). When first handed the script I’ll feel the thickness and know immediately, within 2 or 3, just how many pages it is. Next I’ll flip thru the pages and look at the end of the slug lines, if I see SAME, MOMENTS LATER, MORNING, EVENING etc. I know right away that the writer is an amateur and I may be in for a boring read. The end of the slug line should be NIGHT or DAY. It’s all about whether it is dark or light outside. The most offensive of these is EVENING. At 6PM in the summer it is light out, in the winter it is dark, so what does EVENING mean? And if the end of the slug line reads SAME (which I see often) then at some point I have to go back (a big no no) and find out if it’s still Day or is it Night. To a new writer it may appear to be overly redundant to have to write NIGHT or DAY at the end of every slug line, but believe me, it is not.
Conversely, when I get a script that is perfectly formatted I actually get excited. It’s like I now have a good book in my hand. I can sit back, light up a cigar and be entertained with a good story, characters and plot.

When I see the poorly formatted script I actually feel like I’ll be in for a painful read. I prefer pleasure over pain as do agents and managers and investors.

Screenwriting Staffing: As a producer, have you ever seen a “screenplay” produced that told an amazing story but neglected every formatting rule (pretty much written like a novel)? Yes/No? & Why?

Gary A. Lowe: NO, but that’s not to say that a horribly formatted script didn’t get produced, it’s just that it is given to another writer to polish it up and that would include formatting. So why not avoid having the Producer possibly throwing it in the trash before he gets to page 10? Just get the formatting correct.

Screenwriting Staffing: If a camera operator must understand how to operate a camera, a sound guy must understand how to use a boom, and a DP must understand how to operate lighting equipment, why do screenwriters (mainly newer ones) tend to overlook the importance of formatting?

Gary A. Lowe: It would be like the DP rushing just to get the scene done or the sound man not paying attention to ambient noise just to grab the sound. New writers don’t realize, as I said above, that proper formatting is an art form in itself. There’s a purpose to it, which is that the reader can flow smoothly through the script, a minute of read should equal a minute of screen time per page, and the script should be able to play out in the reader’s mind. Like reading a good novel.
To add to that, I think that new writers are just anxious to get on with the process of writing the story, not realizing that part of writing a story as a screenplay requires proper formatting.

It’s not a treatment, it’s a screenplay. Apples and oranges, with regard to form, style and format.

Screenwriting Staffing: What advice can you give to a screenwriter who’s looking to understand formatting? Or, even a veteran looking to freshen up? i.e., books, seminars, classes, specific screenplays, blogs…?

Gary A. Lowe: It’s the old aphorism “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. I recently got a script from a young writer who formatted it perfectly. I was shocked. I asked him how he learned to format so well and he said he went back and read some scripts filmed before the software existed and studied the formatting. It worked. There is also a screenplay formatting guide that I bought in the early 90’s that I still refer to. I believe its out of print, but can be found in “used condition” on Amazon.com – “The Complete Guide to Standard Script Formats, by Judith Haag & Hillis Cole.

Screenwriting Staffing: Final thoughts?

Gary A. Lowe: My appeal to screenplay writers: take the time to learn proper formatting, don’t rely on the software to show you, and you will make my job easier and the read more enjoyable – that goes for anyone reading your script.



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