Length Matters – What I learnt From Making The Surrogate #1

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With the release of my feature film Surrogate in 2022 I am going to do a series of blogs on what I learnt or what my writing process reiterated to me.

When Beth King and I started writing Surrogate I set out a few parameters and one of those was the screenplay needs to be 85-90 pages maximum.

As you know roughly one page of a feature film screenplay equals one minute of screen time.

For some reason in the last several years the run time of films has blown out to 2 hours – 2.5 hours.

However the quality of films haven’t improved correspondingly.

This is where many scripts that I am engaged to give feedback fall down. It is rare that my notes to a writer contain ‘needs to be longer’.

This is also a problem with most films I watch, both studio and independent, they could all be 15-30 minutes shorter.

Now I’m not talking about the race to zero attitude that ‘people have short attention spans’.

I’m talking about the minimum amount of time it takes to tell your story and it not being longer than it needs to be.

There are 2 major reasons the length of your screenplay matters which are rarely talked about or covered in most screenwriting courses and books

Number 1 – Quality

Writing a good 90 minute screenplay is extremely difficult, so writing a quality screenplay that requires 25-30% more pages is near impossible.

To be even more blunt – a 90 minute film means you have 25% less time to be crap than a 2 hour film.

If you go back through film history few successful screenwriters have written films that consistently exceed 2 hours – let alone 2 hours 15 minutes or longer.

Number 2 – Budget

The shorter your script usually means it’s cheaper to make and therefore a more attractive proposition to a Producer.

As writers we all have artistic aspirations and believe what we’ve created is worthy of being made, however, whatever vision we writers express the reality is a Producer needs to find enough money to make your vision happen.

The cheaper your screenplay is to make provides two advantages.

Firstly, more Producers will be able to raise the budget (most Producers can raise large sums of money). 

Secondly, less pages allows production more time, money and energy to focus on fewer elements, therefore making it better.

For example if you have 30 days to shoot 125 pages versus 89 pages something has to give. Certain scenes will be rushed and compromised to get it done on time or the Producer needs to extend the schedule which increases the budget.

Here’s some quick tips on keeping your screenplay lean:

Cut out any subplots that aren’t needed

Get rid of any extraneous supporting characters

Tighten dialogue

Remove any scenes that are repetitious

Try to combine multiple scenes that express the same idea into one great scene

Merge similar characters that play the same function in your story into one character

Here’s a list of the early films of some of the most successful screenwriters and the running times:

Francis Ford Coppola, Dementia 13 – 75 minutes

Quentin Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs – 90 minutes

Stanley Kubrik, The Killing – 85 minutes

Billy Wilder, Mauvaise Graine – 86 minutes

Christopher Nolan, Following – 87 minutes

James Cameron, Piranha 2 The Spawning – 94 minutes

George Lucas, THX 1138 – 86 Minutes

Cohen Brothers, Blood Simple – 96 minutes

Bernado Bertolucci, La Commare Secca (The Grim Reaper) – 88 minutes

Ingmar Bergman, Kris – 93 minutes

William Goldman, Masqurade – 102 minutes

Picture of David Willing

David Willing

After working as a writer/director for 20 years and a teacher for 15 years I founded Screenplaymethod.com. Using the 1-Step-A-Day Screenplay Technique I help guide aspiring writers to write their dream Screenplay.

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