First Impressions: The Length and Look of Your Pilot or Screenplay

It was a long day. I had just finished 9 client meetings back-to-back. I had a bunch of emails that I still needed to answer, and, just as importantly, a screenplay I needed to read that night for a meeting the next day. All, for the record, great problems to have for anyone who’s self-employed. You always want more, rather than less.

Email responses got written and sent, written and sent. In a few minutes, I would have to get up and make dinner for the family. Everyone has to eat, right? But I had just enough time to download the screenplay I was going to read that night onto my iPad (it’s an old model, you have to be patient with it). As the clock was ticking down to the oven beeping at me and calling me to the kitchen, I decided to do what I often do when I have just a couple of minutes: Take a quick gander at the screenplay, and see what I’m in for. So I did just that, flipping through pages quickly on the iPad. And when I put it down and headed for the kitchen, I thought to myself:

“Well, at least it looks like a screenplay.”

Me being me, a bit later as I was chopping up broccoli, I got to thinking: What exactly did I mean by that? What impressed me enough optically to make me think that the material on hand looked like a professional-enough screenplay, implying that the read ahead won’t be a rough one? With that in mind, I decided to break it down:

I once had the pleasure of interviewing Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, BIG EYES, MAN ON THE  MOON, THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON, THE ASSASSINATION OF GIANNI VERSACE). They spoke about having a USC professor who taught them that, when executed right, a screenplay should be read (for the most part) vertically – up-down instead of left-to-right – and look like an Indian blanket with lots of white space, lots of indents. Not much chunky anything anywhere.

With that in mind, what were those markers that indicated to me that this screenplay came from someone who understood professional standards, despite the fact that the writer, for the record, was just starting out?

A feature script, it came in at a lean 96 pages. Which could mean one of two things: The writer wrote economically, with a strong focus on story and character. But it could also mean that the writer simply didn’t have a ton of story, and barely managed to stretch it to 96 pages, although I usually find that those sorts of troubled scripts wrap up just under 90 pages. Plus, I had read that writer before, and therefore knew that not-enough-story is not likely his problem.

The under 100-page count not only tells me that the writer heavily considered the economy of words on the page; it also makes for a more forgiving read. If you consider that one should read at a clip of roughly a page-per-minute, the difference between 90 pages and 120 pages is 30 minutes of work which, for a busy executive who is stretched even thinner than I am, is a ton. Of course, no one will fault an amazing screenplay for stretching the page count as far as it could (when a screenplay is great, trust me, we don’t want it to end!), but in my experience, very few screenplays truly warrant the use of every single one of those 120 pages. Some agents, managers and reps will go as far as to read the shorter scripts in their piles first, allowing the longer scripts to get de-prioritized and potentially buried in their pile unless they came from a client, a writer they worked with and loved before, a production company or studio they are in business with, or a meaningful referral.

In general, for a still-unestablished writer, the length parameters of screenplays and TV pilots should break down as follows:

  • Screenplays: Up to 120 pages, though if you can bring it in between 92-110 pages it’s that much better. If you have a rep behind you peddling the material, a producer who commissioned the script for an assignment or a production company submitting the material to studios, you can certainly get away with a higher page count as long as those advocating for the script within the industry approve.
  • 1-hour pilots: Up to 65 pages is the standard, but again, if you are able to bring it in around 55-60 pages, all the better. Of course, when your agent is taking your pilot and pitch out to buyers, as long as she signs off on it, you can go as far as you want, but keep in mind that an 80-page pilot will be a non-starter for some. (and yes I know that THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL episodes come in at 80+ pages, but consider the content creator this is coming from).
  • 1/2-hour pilot: Up to 38 pages. With half-hour pilots, the risk is not only going too long; it’s also going too short. The minimum page count for new writers is around 32 pages; for repped writers anything goes, as long as the writer’s rep signs off and is comfortable submitting the material despite a page count that’s unusual short or, for that matter, unusually long. 

But my assessment that this screenplay was professionally presented wasn’t just the page count. It went far beyond that.

The action lines were an exercise in brevity. Spare and slim. Moving quickly down the page. In the first 10 or so pages, I did not see a single action description that ran more than 2 lines. Most of them were a single line, many not even reaching across the page. And as dialogue started to appear 3 pages in, descriptions provided remained clear and concise.

Action lines that concern folks like me are ones that consistently run the length of a long (or even short) paragraph. That usually means one of three things:

  1. That the descriptions are overly detailed and potentially cumbersome, despite not much actually happening in them.
  2. That the writer is tracking unnecessary details that are ultimately not integral to the story and therefore sacrificing the read in order to describe every detail he envisions would be seen on the screen.
  3. That the writer is loading action lines with too much information, too many details, for the reader to be able to track effectively across the entire screenplay.

Remember, a screenplay is a blueprint. It is not a complete description of every detail that will be observed on screen, or every choreography – from a walk across the room to a fight scene – that our characters will engage in. A screenplay should provide the broad strokes, just enough for our imagination to fill in the blanks, and leave the rest for the director who will put it on the screen.

And then there was the dialogue.

The dialogue was, first and foremost, true dialogue. Multiple characters in any one scene, engaging in a back-and-forth, rather than speaking to each other in monologues. One or two sentences at the time, at the most. The way people actually speak. No speeches right off the bat (or as far as I could see). No profound monologues. No dramatic soliloquies. Any establishing information, then, delivered via dialogue, would be minimal and efficient; there was no “chunky dialogue” as the industry likes to refer to it anywhere on the page.

Chunky dialogue should be saved for particular moments: Closing arguments delivered in a court room. A commencement speech. A presidential address. Big third act reveals that suddenly make sense of the logic that drove us to this moment. A comedy routine performed in a scene. Of course, there are other ones, but… you get the idea.

For anyone not sure what dialogue should look like, look no further than a David Mamet play. More often than not, dialogue is all about subtext; what the characters are not saying, as opposed to what they are literally saying. Read screenplays, plays, TV pilots, anything and everything to help light the way to what this dialogue should look like.

Avoid the following common dialogue mistakes:

  • Information delivered in dialogue for the sole purpose of providing expositional or backstory information for the audience. This means that any information delivered has to be in the context of a realistic conversation between characters. You’d be amazed how much you can communicate with very little.
  • Remember: People don’t monologue. And mansplaining became a negative term for a reason.
  • Each character should have a unique speech pattern. If you read a scene and ignore the character headings, you should be able to, once familiar with each character, be able to tell who is who by the way they speak.
  • Keep in mind that people speak in choppy sentences. It’s not always a perfectly composed thought. Characters should do the same.

Lastly, there is the physical appearance of the material, even in digital format. Some writers may opt to deliver their screenplay on legal-sized format to allow for a bit more writing space, rather than the standard size. While many writers who opt to do this will come from an international market, this is the first sign that the writer is not adhering to US-based industry standards and may, in fact, not be familiar with them, which is never a good indication, as it suggests that the writer does not read industry screenplays and therefore doesn’t know what they are supposed to look like.

And then there are the margins. Cheating the margins or the font, even by a single point, is something that is visibly obvious immediately to anyone who reads scripts with any sort of regularity. So just… Don’t do it!

As I write this, I realize that some writers will feel that this is an artificial initial judgement of their screenplay. And that there are successful examples out there that are in conflict with everything said here. But just like we evaluate the food put in front of us by sight and smell first, those of us who read a ton of scripts evaluate the potential prospects of the material by sight first, especially if we don’t know the writer from Adam, or anyone else. This is not to say that a screenplay with little esthetic appeal can’t win us over, much like a less-than-attractive dish can triumph based on spot-on flavor. This is written, instead, to allow you to consider what some shallow first impressions may lead a seasoned industry reader, be they an executive, an agent, a manager, a producer, a consultant or even someone like myself, to believe about your work at least at first glance.