Reader Question: “What about screenplay page count?”

A reader question from jmay:

We've all heard a page a minute as long as we've been writing. We've also heard Courier New is the correct font, but there's this thing called Courier Final Draft. The two can result in a 20 page difference in a full length screenplay! So what's the actual industry standard these days and the closest to "page a minute?"

Two questions here: (1) What's the deal with page count nowadays? (2) Can screenwriters get away with cheating our page count?

Re the first question: I touched on a related bit of business in this recent post.

In years past, I used to teach that the average scene was 2 pages long. Since a typical script clocked in at 120 pages, then you could basically expect to see around 60 scenes in a script.

However, I think that has changed. I don't have statistics to bear this out, but it just feels to me like scenes are getting shorter — and as a result, there are more of them in contemporary movies. Perhaps between 75–90 scenes per script.

Today when I write, instead of keeping in mind a 2-page per average scene, I'm thinking 1-and-a-half pages per scene.

[Those numbers will vary according to the genre of the script, the style the writer chooses to take in telling the story, and other factors.]

This is all part of a trend starting in the late 90s, where movies are getting shorter. Here's a USA Today article from 2002 that tracked the trend even then:

Films have been getting shorter since 1997, when the average movie was 109 minutes long. This year, the average is 103, according to box office firm Nielsen EDI.

As the poster child of short movies, the article cites Men in Black II which clocked in at a mere 82 minutes.

Ironically, of course, we've got all these big budget movies like The Dark Knight and Transformers: Rise of the Fallen which fill out 150 minutes.

So what the hell is going on?

My guess is that page count is now more genre and format dependent than ever. For example, animation is super-expensive to produce. Therefore, it behooves the filmmakers to make shorter movies. Here are some run times of recent animated films:

Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs — 94 minutes
Up — 96 minutes

There's a similar thing re family movies. They're shorter because:

(A) The thinking is that kids have shorter attention spans.
(B) Therefore the studios can get away with shorter (read: less expensive) movies.

Aliens in the Attic — 86 minutes
G-Force — 88 minutes
Shorts — 89 minutes

Then there are your basic comedies. Aimed at teens and adults, their run times tend to be just a bit longer.

The Hangover — 100 minutes
Land of the Lost — 101 minutes
The Proposal — 108 minutes

Sci-fi and fantasy can run even longer, primarily because they have more story to cover.

Terminator Salvation — 115 minutes
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra — 118 minutes
Star Trek — 127 minutes

Same as 'smart' movies. You know, ones with actual plots? Aimed at 'adults' (anyone over 35).

The Soloist — 117 minutes
The Taking of Pelham 123–121 minutes
Duplicity — 125 minutes

Then there are the huge spectacle / event movies. They can run really long. Why? Because being the 800 pound gorillas they are with their $ 100–200M budgets, they do it because they can. Plus, the studios believe that these viewers want a bigger bang for their buck.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince — 153 minutes
And the aforementioned Transformers 2 (150 minutes).

My take on this re screenwriting:

(1) You should be cognizant of the genre. If it's a comedy, action, or family movie, aim for 90–100 pages. If it's a drama, thriller, or a movie aimed at adults, aim for 100–110 pages.

(2) A 120 page script nowadays is probably perceived as being a 'longish' script.

(3) Even though some movies may run in the 80–90 minute range, I would be hesitant to write a script less than 90 pages long. I don't care what genre it is, if I read a script that's 90 pages or less, I immediately think — "The story must be thin." It's easier to cut material than be forced to generate more to 'pad' the story later.

But the bottom line is this: Let the story dictate the page count. If it needs 120 pages to be told well and you're convinced you've cut it to the bone, let it be 120 pages. Don't obsess over page count. Obsess over story and characters.

Re cheating page count, wow, things have changed. I remember an old screenwriter telling me that back in the (analog) day, he'd squeeze more into his scripts by repeating page numbers. [On his manual typewriter!] In fact, there were certain numbers he felt were 'safe' to repeat. I don't remember all of them, but P. 73 was one.

Then came computers and screenwriting software. And there are all sorts of cheats. Different font size. Text line spacing. Blank line spacing. Margins. How many lines allowed per page. Where, as jmay suggests, you can change the page count by 20 pages.

Look. I know this area really well. As I'm always trying to save lines because I write long, then trim and trim and trim.

I confess I have used cheats before. But you pay a price.

First, you put a lot more black ink on the page and that has a psychological affect on a reader. They like to see white space because it means they have less to read. When they see page after page crammed with text, it gives them an immediate headache.

Second, you're not giving yourself an accurate read per your plot points, your script may say that the end of Act Two happens on P. 90, but if you've squeezed the margins, font size, etc, what if your page count is actually P. 98? Or P. 100? If I knew that plot point happened on P. 100, my impulse would be to look for trims, tighten up the script. But with cheats, I may feel satisfied with what I've written.

So while a screenwriter can get away with cheating page count, I don't advise it.

Trust me on this: You can always trim. Always.
And 99% of the time that benefits a script, making it a cleaner, leaner, tighter read.

REQUEST TO SCRIPT READERS: I know we have some who read this blog. What's your advice about page count? Does a script vary in length per its genre?

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[Originally posted August 23, 2009]

Reader Question: "What about screenplay page count?" was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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