The Business of Screenwriting: Selling Scripts and Shooting Scripts

There are two key stages in the life of a screenplay: There is the selling script and the shooting script.

A selling script can be a beautiful thing to behold, every word precise, the balance of black ink to white space pleasing to the eye, the flow of dialogue to action crafted just so, all a reflection of a screenwriter’s incessant drive to create an entertaining story that makes for a good read. Something like this:

INT. NEWS STUDIO - NIGHTWE are on the studio floor, FOCUSING on the activity around
the Anchor Desk and three cameras... The FLOOR MANAGER stands
ready to cue Aaron, the script is ready to roll on the prompter
machine.
FLOOR MANAGER
Twenty seconds.
ON AARONMaking sure he is seated on his jacket -- taking one last look
at the hand mirror being held by the MAKEUP WOMAN. She starts
off -- but Aaron regrabs the mirror almost making her lose her
footing -- a check -- then another check -- he points to a spot
on his forehead which she dabs with the makeup sponge... Both of
them fuss enormously with his hair -- four busy hands.
FLOOR MANAGER
Ten seconds.
AARON
How many?
FLOOR MANAGER
Ten.
AARON
Okay.
He watches the Makeup Woman scurry underneath a camera lens,
resits on his jacket and finally has the moment the system has
been denying him for years. We can HEAR the END OF HIS CUE
in a barely AUDIBLE CRACKLE from the Floor Manager's earphones...
"...with Aaron Altman."
AARON
(on TV)
Good Evening...In mood and language
better suited to an espionage novel
than the delicate world of the Western
Alliance, the British Foreign Secretary
today pounced on what he termed, 'The
nest of profession spies and amateur
traitors who were turning NATO
Headquarters into an instrument whose
only true function is folly.' We begin
our coverage with Edward Towne in London.
Aaron looks up -- takes a breath. He's done well -- he's
punched his words and his one thought for the story. His gaze
has been steady, his voice firm but he has begun to perspire.
He dabs with his finger at the first trickles from his brow --
brushes some more prominent sweat from his upper lip... He
beckons nervously to the Makeup Woman -- who comes in and dabs --
then dabs again as Aaron feels himself under his arms...
MAKEUP WOMAN
Gee whiz.
FLOOR MANAGER
Five seconds.
She scurries away, Aaron reaching for another Kleenex from herbox and missing it... A graphic illustrating his next scripted
section appears behind him.
AARON
...the sub-bases referred to are
located in five countries...
And now the moisture on his face is clearly discernible -- the
Floor Manager and Makeup Woman grimacing at the growing specter
as they look at a large monitor.
AARON
France, Belgium, the Netherlands,
Spain as...
And now so much moisture sprouts from his upper lip that he
pushes his lower lip out to slurp away the sweat... The Makeup
Woman laughs briefly out loud before catching herself...
Aaron's eyes dart angrily in her direction.
AARON
We well as Great Britain...Our own
State Department was rocked not only
by the revelation but from the highly
unusual persistence from the State
Press Corps. Martin Klein reports on
the ruckus at Foggy Bottom.
Half-beat until he's sure that he's off -- his shirt now
showing distinct sweat stains...
AARON
Help me.
The Makeup Woman picks up her Kleenex box -- then thinks
better of it...
MAKEUP WOMAN
Someone finds me some big towels.
ON AARONHe blots his face -- some makeup streaked -- by the towel. FLOOR MANAGER
Five seconds.
ON MAKEUP WOMANAs she scurries away, this time entering the control room
trotting up one stair to look at the monitor... the Director
talking to his Camera Operators.
DIRECTOR
I'd go looser but we wouldn't
see the graphic.
TECHNICIAN
(to other Technician)
No -- this is more than Nixon ever
sweated.
The Makeup Woman now looks at the bank of monitors. MAKEUP WOMAN
Can't you just die for him?
ON MONITORAaron's makeup-streaked face.

Then there is the shooting script which can look like this:

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Scene numbers. Omitted scenes. Multiple colored pages. Shit crossed out. Which can lead to this:

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Honestly, that can be a thing of beauty, too, because it means your movie is getting produced. But once it reaches this stage, your beautiful words can be reduced by production necessities to one big to-do list.

So the first takeaway is this: As you read scripts, which is something you should be doing, you will inevitably run across shooting scripts (also known as production drafts). Do not look to them for style tips. At that stage, style points don’t count.

The other takeaway is this. You may think of a selling script as being a spec script. Certainly that is true, you write a spec with the hopes of selling it. Therefore you put in endless hours to ensure it is a great read, every page, every line fine tuned.

But let’s say you do, in fact, sell that script. Your selling does not end there. In fact, every draft of the script you may write up to the point it goes into production is in effect a selling script.

Even after a studio, financier or production company has bought it? Yes.

Why?

Because you still have to do the following:

  • Attract a director.
  • Attract actors.
  • Sometimes attract financing.
  • Excite everyone who reads the script.

Your script, no matter how much you revise it, should continue to be as entertaining as possible all the way along to sustain people’s passion for it.

So as you go about fixing story issues raised by the Powers That Be such as trimming scenes to fit budgetary considerations, retooling characters to match with possible casting, shifting scenes to fit with potential selected locations, always remember: You are writing a selling script.

Continue to write pages that sell your cinematic dream.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

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