Lessons from UCLA Film School

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We had one of our best sessions with Gary Sutton, a graduate of the School of Theater, Film and Television at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Following his graduation, he forged a career in Hollywood acquiring film, video and TV rights for the territory of South Korea before returning to mid-Sussex and taking up copywriting. So what, for him, makes a good film script?

  • You have essentially 120 pages to mix dialogue and description in three acts. (There are plenty of exceptions to this rule of thumb, however).
  • Each page equates to approximately one minute of screen time.
  • The first act runs to roughly 30 pages and should end on a major reversal that affects the hero / protagonist.
  • The first act contains the Inciting Incident / Call to Adventure – an event that fundamentally alters the world of the hero / protagonist.
  • The Inciting Incident / Call to Adventure can often be found on p.17 / at 17 minutes into the script / movie.
  • The first act also establishes the world of the story, and introduces the villain / antagonist / forces of antagonism as well as the hero / protagonist.
  • Act Two usually runs to page 70 / 90, making for a 30-minute third act. But there are no hard and fast rules.
  • The midpoint takes place approximately one hour / 60 pages into the script. At that point the hero takes control of his or her destiny. The 60 minute guideline applies regardless of the overall script / movie length.
  • When watching a movie we gather most of what we learn from what we see, so as appropriate, dialogue needs to be used sparingly and should make full use of subtext: avoid chit-chat, make every line count. Characters rarely say what they really mean.
  • Tell the story in as visual a way as possible. Screenwriting looks simple, comprising just dialogue and concise description but it’s not.
  • Only include those details that advance the plot. Don’t be specific regarding things that are outside your control as a writer: the director and other creative will all have their ideas and will probably ignore your kind suggestions for costumes, music, art direction and so on. Be precisely vague with any suggestions in these and other areas.
  • Whose story is it? Who changes? Which of your characters undergoes the greatest or most significant transformation? Whose character arc is greater from a human point of view?