The bleeding edge of screenwriting and media convergence

August 2000

by Terry Borst

filed 24 July 00 Copyright ©2000 alt.screenwriters

Twenty+ years ago, it was pretty simple. If you wanted to write a screenplay, you bought a typewriter (electric, if you had some money: maybe one of those high-tech IBM Selectrics), a ream of paper, carbon paper (for “automated” backup), and whiteout (state-of-the-art error correction technology). You were good to go.

Well … maybe not good to go, since those IBM Selectrics weighed a ton…

Then came computers. And word processing software.

And the Bright Idea that screenwriters might buy software dedicated especially to their needs: formatting, scene outlining, and so on.

Today, professional screenwriters are all over the map with the tools that they use. David Kelley is famous for his yellow legal pads, while legend has it that Shane Black stockpiles manual typewriters in fear they will completely vanish from the face of the earth. In screenwriter Millard Kaufman’s entertaining Plots and Characters, Alex Cox councils: “Don’t waste your hard- earned cash buying ‘screenplay writing software’. If you can’t set two tabs and differentiate between upper and lower case, you shouldn’t be a writer.”

On the other hand, an entire generation of professional screenwriters is unfamiliar with whiteout and carbon copies, and packages like Scriptware, Final Draft, and Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000 (the software formerly known as ScriptThing) are now widely used throughout the Industry — having largely taken the place of more general purpose packages like Wordstar and Word-for-DOS, the standards of the 1980s.

We’re not here to beat the drum for any of these programs. However, we were curious as to how much involvement screenwriters have in the development of some of these packages, and what impact new production and distribution technologies might have on the actual labor of screenwriting in the years to come.

Remember that Bright Idea about screenwriting software we mentioned at the top of this column? Not surprisingly, it took a working screenwriter to come up with it. Stephen Greenfield created Scriptor, the ur-software for screenwriting. It later won him an Academy Award for Technical Achievement.

Greenfield continues to push the field forward with his company Screenplay Systems, collaborating with program designer Ken Schafer of ScriptPerfection, who has worked on both sides of the production office as a script coordinator and episodic writer.

Final Draft got its start a little bit later, with two fledgling screenplay collaborators (Marc Madnick and Ben Cahan) who put their finance and programming backgrounds to work to create a program that would pick up where Microsoft Word left off.

Both companies — Screenplay Systems and Final Draft – – report that they continue to work with professional screenwriters in developing new versions and new features of their programs.

As an example, Greenfield notes that “Ken Schafer worked extensively with the Dreamworks feature staff … and based on their needs, we incorporated a production watermarking technology which allows [a production office] to individually serialize each individual copy of each draft of a script as it is distributed.” He adds that for their new “visual outliner” called StoryView, “We held focus groups with a mix of professional writers to get their feedback.”

Senior Vice President Eric Cohen is particularly proud of some of the individual tweaking of the program that Final Draft does for users: “John McTiernan wished for footers while he was working with Final Draft on a film. He can now say he has the only copy of Final Draft in existence that comes with that feature!”

Each executive cited the continuous feedback their products receive from customers, which is used to further refine and guide program development.

These programs have expanded well beyond the traditional composition, formatting and indexing features a majority of screenwriters are familiar with. Final Draft, for example, offers in-program electronic transfer of files, facilitating online and remote collaborations. “One of the earliest uses of this was with Tomorrow Never Dies“, says Cohen. “Bruce Feirstein and director Roger Spottiswoode were constantly working together on the project, even though Bruce was here in Los Angeles and Roger was in Asia.”

Schafer says that with the brand new Screenwriter 2000, “a writer in New York can type a few lines into his screenplay, and his writing partner in Los Angeles can see the words appear on his screen.” Greenfield adds that “while this is happening, these two writers can also conduct a two- way voice conversation over the same Internet connection.”

For those of you who hate dragging yourselves down to Fairfax and Third to register a script, an additional built-in tool these programs provide is online registration: Final Draft through and Screenwriter 2000 via Both companies caution that online script registration offers no greater protection than WGA script registration: however, used in combination, they undoubtedly build even more of a “paper trail” should evidence of intellectual property ownership become necessary in the future.

As we might expect, publishing a screenplay to HTML (i.e., webpage format) is becoming a standard built-in feature. While this feature can obviously be used for post-release packaging of the script on a CD-ROM or the Web, or pre-production distribution via an office intranet, more creative deployment is illustrated by the recently shot Hollywood, PA, which encouraged online audience participation in the shooting of the screenplay (Websurfers could keep track of what scenes were shot, how many pages were covered in a day, etc.).

In the era of “faster and cheaper”, integration with script breakdown and production software has already become commonplace. “The production team benefits from script-to-schedule integration, so it helps if the screenwriter is working with a tool that supports common production tools,” Greenfield says. Final Draft’s Cohen concurs: “Final Draft will export to just about every pre-production, production and post-production tool commonly used for filmmaking, from Storyboard Quick to the Avid.”

Neither company has seen a huge impact (yet) in non- traditional, interactive entertainment narratives that are being developed for game consoles, PCs, and the Web. “If a market for those writing games or interactive scripts becomes something that necessitates software beyond using Final Draft, we will design software specifically for that purpose,” says Cohen. In general, Greenfield feels that “interactive content production companies frequently develop their own home-grown tools for dealing with their own unique projects.”

However, Greenfield is proud that the Windows version of Screenwriter 2000 “has a native non-linear format that allows the writer to dynamically integrate branch points, user activities and even variables within the actual script format.” He adds that “An included Run-Time Player program allows the writer or game developer to ‘play’ the script as if it were a text adventure, allowing them to make different choices and go down different ‘paths.'”

With features like this already on the map, we asked these executives to gaze into the crystal ball a little and speculate on where screenwriting software might be a few years from now — and how this might change the job of screenwriting.

Cohen focuses on continued improvements in electronic distribution and says Final Draft is “working closely with some of the biggest agents in town and a major Fortune 500 company [to develop a feature] that will enable the industry to send their scripts via the Web, fully protected and trackable.”

Greenfield cites voice as the new frontier: “Voice recognition, voice response and voice interface.” Already, Screenwriter 2000 offers a Text-to-Speech function that reads a script aloud using different voices. Clearly, future versions of screenwriting software will allow for voice dictation — and the software might even verbally nag us if we haven’t seen the villain in the past 20 pages!

Interestingly, however, neither company sees screenplays changing much in actual format in the next few years: these executives do not anticipate flowcharts and Flash animations being incorporated into screenplays on a regular basis.

“The Hollywood reader and development exec has more to do with acceptable script format,” and perhaps ironically, Greenfield observes that “No significant changes in screenplay format have evolved since the introduction of the personal computer. We should all remember what it is that writers do: they create using words, characters, plot and themes.”

Cohen agrees. “Right now I can’t envision a time where screenplays themselves will include anything but the written word. Screenwriters … should be thinking about the same things that their predecessors were, telling good stories in interesting ways.”

Which doesn’t mean that screenwriters shouldn’t also be thinking about how changes in the business of Entertainment will affect them. “If technology creates new markets for screenwriters, all the better,” Cohen adds.


Written by tborst

July 24, 2000 at 9:12 pm

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