When and why screenplay format matters

I don’t believe there are “rules” to formatting a screenplay. But there are some generally accepted guidelines. They’re easy to learn and don’t require reading a book.1

Recently I got an email from a student in a film program here in Chicago, inviting me to audition for his graduate thesis project, a feature film. I told him that I was interested but asked him to send me the script or an excerpt so I could prepare for the audition.

The script was in a PDF file (which, nothing wrong with that) but it had obviously been written in Microsoft Word. The margins were all wrong — the dialogue lines stretched far across the page, instead of falling into narrow columns near the center of the page.

That’s a red flag for two reasons: one, it shows that the producer doesn’t know (or care) about formatting it according to accepted standards. That matters not because I’m fanatical about formatting but because it makes me wonder what else the producer doesn’t care about.

If they can’t do something basic like this the right way, then what else are they going to be unprofessional about? Are they going to run a good rehearsal? Are they going to feed me on set? Will they respect my time? Will they pay me on time? Will the film be any good? Or is their attitude “whatever, it doesn’t matter.” If it’s a half-day shoot then it doesn’t matter so much, but it matters a lot when you’re asking someone for a 2-week commitment as a lead in a film.

The other reason is that the producer told me that the full script was 70 pages. But that’s 70 pages with the Microsoft Word formatting — with screenplay formatting, all those lines of dialogue are going to take up a lot more room. So the 70-page script might actually be 90 pages.

Now, maybe he’s used to working this way? Maybe his collaborators are? I don’t know, but I don’t want to find out on set that the 70-minute feature is actually a 140-minute feature and oh by the way we are already way behind schedule.

I’m really not so pedantic about formatting. You can make a screenplay with pictures and poems and spaces for improvisation and basically whatever you want. I think it would be cool to see more creativity in how screenplays are written. But if you’re going to do that, I think you should explain that you’re working differently and why. It’s not like the conventions are hard to follow.

OK rant over! Just use one of the free screenwriting programs. The damn formatting will be taken care of for you:

  1. This page has a good diagram that explains the basic formatting: https://online.pointpark.edu/screenwriting/screenplay-format/