Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Screenwriting software, and a Secret Window

The motion picture industry has a well-known format for writing scripts. The formats are slightly different for motion pictures than for television.

Normally, new writers would sell scripts by submitting them through agents, who serve as third party intermediaries with production companies and sources of money. Studios tend to be strict about this “third party” rule to protect themselves from possible copyright infringement or trade secret claims after buying a project or using any material. In practice, writers are often able to network privately to find out who may be interested in a particular kind of script and where to submit it. Often, it is desirable to get a “coverage” report on the script before submitting it.

Another major way to “submit” scripts is screenwriting contests, of which one of the better known is Project Greenlight (on this blog). In all cases, writers must follow the industry accepted format. More contests recently have been accepting electronic submission, usually in PDF format. (It used to be an all paper and print world.)

It is possible, but difficult, to set up the proper format with tabs in word processing software like Microsoft Word. Generally, writers will want to purchase screenwriting software, which easily and properly formats their scripts as they write (with the proper tabs or indentations, Courier font, the proper font size, etc, and the desired "white space" in the manuscript).

The two best known packages are:

Final Draft: http://www.finaldraft.com

Write Brothers Movie Magic: http://www.write-bros.com
With a direct link.

Shortly after buying my iMac in early 2002, I bought Movie Magic, which had been recommended by Project Greenlight. I found it easy to use on the Mac and difficult in a PC environment. So for the Microsoft Windows PC I bought Final Draft.

However, that was several years ago. Software companies can innovate a lot in four years.

Both packages offer a variety of formats, index cards, collaboration features, voice playback, and conversion to PDF (even HTML). Write Brothers offers a comparison chart, which is not necessarily up to date, at this link.

I have used the Final Draft conversion to PDF since mid 2004, and I can say that now the file sizes are reasonable. Occasionally I have trouble with overprinting of character continuation elements (after page breaks) in Final Draft pdf conversions.

Write Brothers offers a smaller “Hollywood Screenwriter”, and offers other tools for writers, such as StoryView, which would help an author pull together loose plot threads in a novel. The company explains some of these products at Dramatica.com. (I put my plots, for both novel drafts and screenplays, into outlines formatted by a database, Microsoft Access, so that I can sort or parse by any element, like date, character, chapter, etc. These packages would offer similar capabilities. It’s easy to imagine a storyboard database being put onto a webserver with Visual Studio .NET for display to possible investors.)

One item of controversy would be posting of one’s scripts on the Internet on a personal site for others to view. This would sound like it contradicts the third party rule, since studios usually go through agents. (Along those lines, studios (like CW) that run message boards always have disclaimers that they “own” any content – which could include story suggestions – that visitors post.) Some ideas indeed should be kept quiet until presented. But other ideas may be so personal or unusual that they could not be “stolen” without the help of the writer. (Remember the film “Secret Window” [2004, Columbia, dir. David Koepp, based on Stephen King’s story, with the line, “You stole my story!”) I think that in some cases personal postings of scripts (in PDF format) can spread word-of-mouth buzz about what a writer could do. I know there is some buzz about my “69 Minutes to Titan”. (Visit this link.)

One has to be careful for another reason, though, when putting one’s own fiction online. The publishing industry (as are movies and TV) is very careful about the possibility of unintentional invasion of privacy or libel, if a character in a story and the events of a story too easily reproduce someone in real life. Sometimes writers may libel themselves as a demonstration or “thought experiment”, as occasionally commercial films have done this (“Frisk”). Even this can have legal consequences that are only now coming to be understood, in these days when employers check personal and social networking sites. Amateur writers are often untrained in the risks.

One development that could be helpful is for screenwriting software vendors to offer content labeling (along ICRA guidelines). I have a blog about this at this link. This would effective allow for “self-rating” of scripts (along the lines of the MPAA rating system) and could warn visitors (or parents) about any usual concerns about a script (like the “thought experiment” problem above). As best I can tell, Adobe does not yet have the ability to label PDF documents, but documents in HTML can be labeled (in the header section, with references to a site’s XML or RDF rating index), and screenwriting software could provide the hooks to create the proper labels, if the companies saw fit to develop this capacity (which follows the technology of the “semantic web”).

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