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The Origins of Screenplay Formatting

Origins of Formatting

Film goes back to the 1800s, when movies were nothing else than photographic techniques mixed with light bulb effects to create a moving picture effect. These film were called "Scenarios", which were no longer than 40 seconds. The writing for these scenarios were short synopses used both for film description and marketing.

For example:

Edison's 1897 tale "Pillow Fight" is described as:

“Four young ladies, in their nightgowns, are having a romp. One of the pillows gets torn, and the feathers fly all over the room.”
John P. Hess. (2017). Proto-Screenplay-The Essentials of Screenplay Formatting. 2017, by Filmmaker IQ Website:

But with time it was discovered that different pieces of film could be put together to tell a story. The first screenplays were only written as technical support, so the director knew what to shoot and in what order.

Later,  by 1903 it was started to see the emergence of the "Master Scene Format", which breaks down scenes, not cuts, each scene with a heading followed by a piece of description. 

For example:

Extract from 1903 "The Great Train Robbery" by Edwin S. Porter

The Continuity Script

By 1900s the film industry started to grow, with many directors actually becoming celebrities, and the entire process revolved around a director who was in charge of getting it done from start to finish.

In 1911 a man called Thomas Ince convinced New York Motion Pictures Co. to give him the job of setting up a west coast studio to make westerns, his passion. On the west coast, Ince  would revolutionize the process by applying careful planning for his films, pioneering the use of the "Continuity Script", which contained information on who was in the scene, the action in the scene, notes for interiors and exteriors, camera requirements and cost control. By breaking down the scenes he could create shooting schedules where he could produce the scripts simultaneously.

Of course, this was new for the time, since producers would put out one film at a time. By 1915 Ince was powerful and joined DW Griffith and Mack Sennet at Triangle Motion Picture Company as a central producer. Triangle was one of the first vertically integrated film companies, so they had all the means of production and distribution - the birth of the powerful central studio system.

The office started working as a manufacturing plant, using different divisions (writers, directors, actors, sound recorders) to produce as many movies as possible. Everyone working simultaneously on different projects to fill up the studio's billing which were shown in theatres owned by the studio or had exclusive contracts with. Thus began, the Central Producer System. The Studio System.

However, at its core, what kept the entire system moving was the continuity script that Ince had developed. It gave studios the ability to know exactly what they were shooting and how much it would cost beforehand.

And this script, with all the camera direction and the production information  was the type of script used for all of Hollywood's Golden Era of Cinema, including "Casablanca", which is considered to be one of the best screenplays ever written.

The Fall of the Studio System

Through mergers and acquisitions, the studios began to grow incredibly powerful. This began to alarm Washington D.C. as the studios essentially controlled the way movies were made and the way they were shown, which was no good for anyone outside the Big Five.

In the pivotal case of United States v. Paramount et al in 1948, all studios forced to divest all interests in their movie theaters. Before the court decision, studio would force theaters o buy huge bundles of movies. After the decision, they could only bundle up to five movies.The game changed, and it became all about the marketing of those films.

Other forces like the rise of Television also took the studio power and by 1955, the central office system was dead as studios focused on marketing and distribution as it was far more lucrative than actually making film.

What rose was a new unit system that centered around the producers. Independent producers took projects from studios looking for financing and distribution deals. These producers assembled the entire production unit and that's when they started to use the style of screenplay in use today. The Master Scene Script.

The Master Scene Script

Instead of including all the camera angles and scene numbers the Continuity Script had - the Master Scene Script was all about readability. It was document to tell the story of the film, for producers to generate interest from all parties that would make the film. It was only after a movie was green lit and a director selected, that the screenplay would be turned into a shooting script. Including all the elements from the Continuity Script under the studio  will all the technical details under the guidance of the director.

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