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The Zen of Screenwriting Software

The Zen of Screenwriting Software

Articles - Directing

Screenwriters are a strange and suspicious lot.
Or maybe they’re just loyal beyond reason. I know I am.
Take my scriptwriting software, for example. I’d used the
same old program, Scriptor, for about six years. It was comfortable
and familiar. It was outdated in a kinky, cool sort of way. Until
it crashed altogether. Suddenly I was shopping for a brand new
program and—in the process—seeing exactly what I’d
been missing in the world of scriptwriting technology. On my path
to newfound software success, the first thing I noticed was the
glut of celebrity endorsements for some of the products. Final
Draft, for instance, boasted glowing quotes from such famed moviemakers
as Tom Hanks, Alan Ball and James L. Brooks. At the same time,
such equal notables as Frank Darabont and Francis Ford Coppola
touted the wonders of Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000. Not all programs
I looked into had such star backing, but all promised professional
results. Let me share with you a few of the options I discovered
in my quest for a better screenwriting mousetrap…

Add-On Software

Hollyword • List Price: $84.95
• A low-priced formatting program • Runs within Word
to provide professional formatting in an existing program n Mac
& PC • www.hollyword.com

Hollyword was designed by Bill Simon, prolific 
author of five feature films and 12 books. The first thing that
struck me about this program was that it seemed geared more toward the
beginner than the experienced screen­writer, and Simon
himself has said as much.

Hollyword is designed to work within Microsoft Word,
providing professional script formatting while allowing Word to
handle all of the word processing chores. Like almost all of the
programs out there, Hollyword relies on the “Return”
key rather than the command buttons: type in the scene heading,
hit “Return,” then the action, “Return,”
the character name, “Return,” dialogue and so on.
If you want to do something kooky like insert a parenthetical
or write a second paragraph of action, the command buttons are
options.

Hollyword is a bit low on frills. It does include
some advanced items like automated character name input, but even
the manual admits that setting the thing up is kind of “a
nuisance.” Still, if you’re just starting out, you
might very well find the rather intuitive nature of Hollyword
to be to your liking.

ScreenStyle • List Price:
$29.95 alone (ScreenStyle XL: $99.95 bundled with Scriptware and
Story Craft) • Add-on for Microsoft Word n Automatic formatting
using just the Tab and Enter keys • Includes Scene Numbering
and Outline views • Mac & PC (XL version is PC only)
• www.screenstyle.com

ScreenStyle is another powerful addition to Word.
With a short learning curve and all the basics of screenplay formatting
(not to mention a lower price than a stand-alone program), ScreenStyle
is an excellent choice for a beginner on a slim budget. (And what
beginning screenwriter isn’t?)

ScreenStyle depends on the Tab and Enter keys for
almost all of the formatting, making it very simple to learn and
use. Though it lacks the flexibility and heavy-duty features of
Final Draft or Movie Magic, it works quite well as a simple writing
program, and creates files compatible with any other Word-equipped
computer.

ScreenStyle even includes a multi-site license,
allowing installation on several computers, which is a very handy
feature. The XL package includes Scriptware, a stand-alone program,
and Story Craft, a story development program, along with several
other extras. Additionally, the ScreenStyle.com Website offers
a smorgasbord of information and products for screenwriters—including
free shipping and great “bundles” of extras for screenwriters
on a budget (free books, software, magazine subscriptions and
more).

Script Wizard • List Price:
$149.95 • Add-on for Microsoft Word n Supports 12 different
script formats • PC Only • www.warrenassoc.com

Script Wizard bills itself as “the best add-on
for Microsoft Word for Windows.” If you already have Word
on a PC and you’re comfortable using it, Script Wizard can
add the formatting capability of a stand-alone program to the
familiar Word environment. And that may be simpler for you than
learning a whole new program.

Says TV producer David J. Latt of the program: “I
find Script Wizard to be easier and more intuitive to use than
other programs I’ve tried. If I’m collaborating with
someone, using e-mails to send revisions back and forth, Script
Wizard is seamless. Whenever I use Final Draft, for instance,
I run into problems.”

Stan Harris, who works in corporate marketing in
San Jose, CA and uses Script Wizard for advertisements and industrial
films, concurs: "Once I learned the formatting keystrokes,
I could fly with this program. Plus, since it was a Word type
of program, it worked flawlessly in my Microsoft Office environment—and
in e-mail copies of ‘scripts in progress’ to my clients
for review."

Script Wizard users I spoke with also mentioned
that Stefani Warren, who designed the software and runs the company,
is easily accessible and an indispensable resource in navigating
the program.

Script Werx • List Price:
$129.00 • Add-on for Word • Creates toolbar for characters,
automates frequently used words and names • Mac & PC
www.scriptwerx.com

This is the Word add-on used by Saturday Night
Live
, the Website claims. As with Script Wizard and other
add-ons, the benefit of this software is in having a familiar
user interface. The 12 templates included cover all the bases,
from screenplay to two column-A/V script to corporate video treatment.

Larry Barr, assistant planetarium director at Tarleton
State University in Stephenville, Texas, has used Script Werx
extensively. “Besides the work I do on my independent film
projects, I also write a tremendous number of scripts for the
planetarium presentations. I find Script Werx to be very creatively
enabling—you never have to worry about formatting.”
Barr, who test-drove as many programs as he could before making
his decision, decided on Script Werx because it was “so
easy to use, not to mention the seamless tie it has to Microsoft
Word. No bugs, no problems, nothing. The program just seems to
know where you want to go, but it will also help you get there
when you don’t.”

Rick Schmidt, author of Feature Filmmaking at
Used-Car Prices
(Penguin), is also a fan of Script Werx.
“It offers several scriptwriting templates, paired with
the classic Word program. Instead of inventing a new screenwriting
language, Script Werx lays out the central commands in the perfect,
left-to-right order for writing.”

ScriptWright • List Price:
$129.95 for newest versions ($99.95 for older and Mac versions)
• Add-on template for Word • Draft, master and shooting
script templates • Mac (Word 6 only) & PC • www.kois.com

ScriptWright is yet another Word-based screenplay
template. It has all the basics, like Tab and Enter formatting,
industry standard templates like stage play, screenplay and sitcom
and broad compatibility between PCs. Mac users will be disappointed
to note that the template is presently available for Word 6 only
(though a new version is in the works). There are two discounts
available: one is a $49.95 deal for students and the other is
a $59.95 special for anyone “crossgrading” from a
competing program.
Another version, called ScriptWright Pro, is designed exclusively
for production scripts. Both are available through the online
store.

Stand–Alone Software

Scriptware • List Price:
$199.95 ($99.95 for the Competitive Upgrade) Stand-alone screenplay
software • Auto-formats as you type • Supports all
kinds of scripts • Mac & PC • www.scriptware.com

The first stand-alone program I tested was Scriptware
($199.95). Like the others, Scriptware employs the Tab key to
execute most of its functions. Hit the Tab once for “action,”
hit it again for “character,” then “dialogue,”
“parentheticals” and so on. While fairly easy to navigate,
I found it to be something of a chore when I wrote in shorthand.
Sometimes I want to move a character from the living room to the
kitchen, and maybe it’s me, but I don’t think I should
have to write “CUT TO:” then “INT. THE KITCHEN
– CONTINUOUS,” every time.

On the plus side, there are some fun bells and
whistles. If you want to import something from another system
(like, say, Final Draft) it’s a piece of cake. Nice tricks
like “cheating” the margins to increase or reduce
the overall length of the screenplay also come in handy.

Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000
List price: $229.95 • Stand-alone software • Includes
formats such as feature film, sitcom, radio and stage play •
Includes templates for popular TV shows and films • Mac
& PC • www.screenplay.com

Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000 is the newest screenwriting
program from Write Brothers (formerly Screenplay Systems), the
makers of my beloved Scriptor (who won an Oscar in 1994 for their
contribution to screenwriting and state that since 1990, over
80 percent of the Academy Award nominations and 95 percent of
the Emmy awards went to companies utilizing Write Brothers/ Screenplay
Systems’ software).

It was obvious to me why writers like Francis Ford
Coppola and Frank Darabont agreed to have their names and pictures
on the box, and why it is the featured software of the Writers
Guild of America East and Project Greenlight. Everybody from Matt
Damon to Wes Craven appears on the Website touting its value as
a creative tool.

“Many people at the company had used
the product and liked it,” says Larry Tanz, senior vice
president at Live Planet, the production company that runs Project
Greenlight, when asked why they choose Movie Magic Screenwriter
2000 as their official software. “Matt Damon and Ben Affleck
used an earlier version of Movie Magic Screenwriter to write their
award-winning screenplay for Good Will Hunting, and they
continue to use the product, so we thought it was a logical choice.”

While Tanz says that the program one uses has no
effect on the judging of scripts for Project Greenlight, he does
say that they require all submissions be sent in PDF format, and
that Movie Magic makes that conversion very easy.

Continues Tanz, “Dedicated word processors
such as Movie Magic Screenwriter automate screenwriting far better
than Microsoft Word with add-ons. [Movie Magic] has built-in checks
to make sure you’re not making mistakes, as well as Internet
collaboration features—something Word add-ons aren’t
designed to do.”

“Screenplay software is an integral
part of my writing process, as it’s a very simplified way
to maintain proper formatting,” states Nicholas Brandt,
who describes himself as a writer “with a drawer full of
scripts,” but no representation. “[Movie Magic] frees
up that little bit of extra time which is so critical when balancing
a job that pays the bills with writing time.”

The program also boasts full compatibility with
Movie Magic Scheduling software and free technical support by
phone. (Final Draft charges by the minute.)

Final Draft 6 • List price:
$199.95 n Stand-alone script software • Formats for stage,
film and TV n Includes popular TV and film templates • Mac
& PC • www.finaldraft.com

Another heavyweight with celebrity endorsements
galore, Final Draft boasts moviemaking luminaries such as Anthony
Minghella, Christopher McQuarrie and Alan Ball as users. It is
possibly the best-known screenplay software, and for good reason.
The interface is very similar to Word, and it is a remarkably
simple program that makes formatting nearly effortless. Like Movie
Magic, Final Draft has a card view, allowing writers to arrange
a script visually much as they would with actual index cards.
(The added advantage is, of course, that it’s much harder
to lose one of these cards behind the couch.)

Of the many writers I know who use Final Draft,
several state choosing it simply because it seemed everyone else
was using it. But all of them have stayed with it over the years,
both for its ease of use and because it is regarded by many as
“industry standard.”
“The thing that made me stay with Final Draft was that it
seemed organic,” states Hans Rodionoff, the screenwriter
on Clive Barker’s Tortured Souls. “Everything happened
the way I expected it to.”

Final Draft includes CollaboWriter, an online tool
that enables multiple writers to work on a script simultaneously
from any computer with an Internet connection, an invaluable bonus
for long-distance writing partners. It also exports a script in
several different file types, like PDF, Avid (useful for subtitling
during editing) or Movie Magic for budgeting and scheduling. Among
the other production features Final Draft offers are scene numbering,
multiple revisions and Script Notes (the digital equivalent of
Post-It notes at various spots on the page).

Trevor Sands, who has been writing and directing
since graduating from USC in 1996, uses Script Notes extensively.
“When I’m on my third or fourth pass, I go through
and cut everything I can without hurting the story. I can save
every bit of cut dialogue and stage direction in a Script Note,
and it’s there to reconsider when I go through it again.”

Final Draft is brawny enough for a seasoned professional,
but also simple enough for anyone with experience using Word or
another word processing program.

Movie Magic Screenwriter and Final Draft are by
far the most powerful screenwriting tools in this group. They
have nearly everything you could want at the touch of a button:
command buttons and tabs, automatic formatting and easy cheats.
No confusing or even mildly annoying hang-ups, like figuring out
how to shorten scene headings. On top of that, you can read the
files from other programs (though I should mention that both programs
gave me a little trouble importing my old Scriptor files).

Despite its many features, I found Final Draft 6
phenomenally easy to use. The instruction manual is much smaller
than Screenwriter 2000’s, but more importantly, I barely
had to refer to it in the first place. It’s involved, but
not complex. Specific, but not binding. Convenient, but not at
the expense of quality. Movie Magic, for all its fine features,
was a bit more complicated to use.

The writers interviewed didn’t agree on whether
or not formatting software was a necessity or a luxury. “Would
I want to go back to the old way now that I’ve gotten so
used to Final Draft?” asks writer Herb Ratner. “Absolutely
not. But would I say that screenwriting software is imperative
for an aspiring screenwriter? Absolutely not! All a screenwriting
program does is allow you to type faster by doing your formatting
for you. The mechanics of the work will become second nature once
you’re writing and the creativity is flowing.”

Sarah Watson, who has written for Dawson’s
Creek
, disagrees. “While you don’t need to go
out and spend $100 to get your writing career rolling, I would
highly recommend it. Trying to format your material in Word is
an undeniable pain in the ass. I think it’s difficult to
let the creative process flow while you’re trying to figure
out how many spaces go before a character name and what a slug
line should actually look like.”

All of these programs get the job done. Choosing
one comes down primarily to taste, needs and budget. Depending
on what you’re looking for, it’s hard to go wrong
with any of the mousetraps I’ve mentioned. MM

Neil Turitz is a Columbia graduate whose first film, Two Ninas, is available on DVD/video and can be seen
on cable television at all hours. His next film, Knots,
which he co-wrote with Greg Lombardo, will shoot in NYC this spring.
Turtiz’s work has previously appeared in US Magazine, Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Cosmopolitan and TV Guide.

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