Formatting: It’s All About the PDF

Back in the day, if you wanted to submit a script for me to read and write notes on, I’d accept pretty much any format you pleased. Typed up on your old IBM Selectric, written with free software you downloaded off the internet (which I then had to download myself in order to read it), whatever. What mattered, I figured, was the content. Substance over style. Scripts can always be reformatted, but the value of what lies inside won’t be affected by what font you used to write it.

Sadly, those days are over. When I left my job reading scripts in the comfort of my own home to work at a studio, where scripts are submitted not by writers themselves but by agencies, producers and managers, what I realized is that there are guidelines to submitting a script. A couple of years back, for instance, the big agencies (WMA — now WME –, UTA, ICM, etc.) stopped sending out hard copies of scripts. Everything became email-based, which, in addition to being more environmentally friendly, also meant it was easier to submit one script to multiple parties. Now some even go one step further, locking scripts so they can only be accessed by outside parties via username and password.

Eventually I realized that it does a disservice to writers when I accept a script in any other format than what other professionals would expect. If I read your script, give notes and help you get to the point where you’re ready to shop it around or enter screenplay competitions, then fail to advise you about how to format your submission, I’m doing a terrible job as a consultant. So with that in mind, here are several tips for how to put your script together in a way that looks ready to present, regardless of who wants to read it — be it your friend, a screenplay competition judge, a potential agent, or a financier.

1. What software you used to write the script in doesn’t matter, as long it adheres to industry standards for formatting — Final Draft, Screenwriter, etc. Writing in Microsoft Word is generally a bad idea, because no matter how much time you spend tweaking the formatting to get it to look exact, it’s a whole lot of unnecessary effort and you run the risk of making some formatting errors and looking like an amateur. If you can’t afford screenwriting software, there are alternative options like Celtx. Like I said, it doesn’t matter what you use because ultimately you are going to…

2. Convert your script into an Adobe Reader PDF file. The days of submitting a script in Final Draft are gone. Everything is now sent as a read-only PDF, to prevent anyone other than you from making changes to the document. If you don’t know how to convert Final Draft into PDF, it’s worth the 10 minutes of time spent with Final Draft Help to figure it out. The only tricky part is figuring out how to tack on your title page as part of the whole body of the script — on my computer for instance, you do it by selecting “Print” and then, instead of printing to a computer, choosing “Final Draft PDF Converter” and clicking the option at the bottom to print the title page.

3. Register your script with the WGA and include the registration number on your title page. Lots of writers (producers too) get jumpy about the idea of emailing their script to anyone, because they mistakenly believe that sending hard copies will make it easier for them to keep tabs on how many copies of the script exist and who has them. For one thing, anyone can take a script to Kinko’s and make multiple copies of your script if they have a mind to; with a little effort they could even scan your entire script so it becomes a sendable electronic document, so there’s little point in trying to protect your property this way. The proper way to do it is to register your script online with the WGA, at which point you sit back, take a deep breath and pledge not to expend anymore wasted energy to worrying about someone else stealing your idea. I’ve said it before but it’s worth saying again: you cannot legally register a movie concept, and if you came up with it, someone else probably came up with something similar before you did. What you are registering is your own creative interpretation of that concept. So register that script, guys.

By the time you’re done, what you’ve ideally got is a script between the length of 90 and 120 pages (okay, 130 — but only if you’re 100% certain that the story requires that extra meat), with nothing fancy on the title page save for the title itself, your contact information, and the WGA number, all saved as one .pdf file.

Wondering what you should title the file? Go for something straightforward and safe: if your name is John Smith and your screenplay is called RED LIGHT GREEN LIGHT, save the file as “RED LIGHT GREEN LIGHT J. Smith” or something similar. Don’t include the date it was written or descriptors like “rough draft” or “working title.” People reading your script are laboring under the pretense that they are reading the absolute best you have to offer and that you had the ultimate faith in your own material before you made the decision to submit it to them.

Good luck and happy writing…

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One Comment on “Formatting: It’s All About the PDF”

  1. Mark Says:

    This is excellent and informative, though I prefer reading scripts in hard-copy so I can make notes if I have to. It’s too hard to read them on-screen most of the time and reading a bunch of PDFs in a row ends up with instant eye-strain. Also, I always wonder if people sending stuff out as Final Draft docs realize that not everyone has this software (or even the reader)? I do, but I’m sure some people don’t.

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