Script Guidelines for a Feature Film
by James Jaeger

If you are planning to produce a low budget feature - perhaps because you feel you can raise low money more easily - here are some rough guidelines you can use while creating your script or looking for a script to option.

The following points have been extrapolated from my past productions. Screenplays that fall within these guidelines can be produced as 35mm theatrical motion pictures for $450,000 to $800,000, although it is recognized that the WGA defines "low budget" as up to $2.5 million.

It is easy to spend a lot of money making a movie, but it takes extra talent, efficiency and creativity to create a show that is successful with modest amounts of financing.

Obviously there are no hard and fast rules, but the following will hopefully be useful in identifying fine entertainment that can be produced at the low budget range:

o Find and excellent title that has not already been exploited. Sometimes it is better to keep the title secret until you are dealing with people you can trust. Titles cannot be copyrighted but they can be registered with the MPAA Title Registration Bureau for protection and market coordination -however, if you are signatory to the agreement and another signatory protests your registration, you may have to arbitrate to win access to your own title!

o A "high concept" that has not been exploited, sells the show more often than not. If it cannot be summarized as to "what it's about" in one or two lines - it MAY NOT be high enough concept to consider. Word-of-mouth takes people to the movies. Word-of-mouth is usually a line or two that generates interest. Try surveying the public for high concepts. This is a good way to find out where your script or movie concept stands. You have to weigh the risk of leaking the concept against the probability that most films never get produced - especially by producers who steal titles.

o Why not avoid subjects about violence, violence to women, street fighting, psycho killers, rape, terrorism, gun play, blade films, guts spilling, chain saws, slashing, squashed eyeballs, "heroes" running around blasting and mowing down the bad guys and similar dark subjects. These just fertilize sick minds that can't enjoy anything else and inevitably contribute to the activity of degrading our current culture and the future. Notice that you usually see on the NEWS what you saw at the MOVIES a few years ago. Unfortunately it's not the antithesis.

o Find a topic that shows a positive window into the future using any of the following elements: comedy, wackiness, mischievousness, titillation, authority figures, corruption, incompetentness, excellent looking girls/guys, money problems, solving problems creatively, catharsis.

o Likable, well-developed, main characters usually appeal to audiences. Of course evil, mean characters serve a purpose, too, in that they add contrast and challenge to the likable characters. I REPEAT, YOU MUST HAVE WELL-DEVELOPED CHARACTERS, OR DON'T GO ON. THESE WELL-DEVELOPED CHARACTERS MUST BE CAST BY SOMEBODY, PREFERABLY THE DIRECTOR, WHO KNOWS WHAT THEY ARE DOING.

o A Mildly didactic story is acceptable - even with touches of philosophic reverie - as long as the themes are universal and not drooling about anything.

o The Picture should be acceptable to a G, PG, PG-13 or R audience. Usually low budget pictures are R or PG rated, but they don't have to be.

o The script must be no longer than 95 pages, and preferably 90 pages, typed in standard screenplay format, as set forth by Writers Guild. Pica or Courier type preferred (10 characters per inch).

o Use a word processor or a dedicated scripting program. Any writer who writes a script today without a computer will ultimately slow down the development process (and possibly the breakdown and budgeting process as well). I recommend using WordPerfect or MS Word if you are more comfortable word processing. Use Scriptor if you want a totally professional job, complete with all formatting. If your system is not 486 or above, I recommend WordPerfect 6.0c for DOS or MS Word 6.0 for Windows. Both run quickly and do not require lots of overhead.

o You should be using an IBM PC running under the Windows 98 with a hard disc of at least 2 gig, cpu of at least 32 meg and a clock speed of at least 200MHz, however the IBM compatible 486DX2-66 with 4 to 8 megs of RAM and a 340 meg hard drive is a computer system that is quite sufficient for writing and budgeting. It is my prediction that, sooner or later, MAC and all the other computer architectures will fold into the UNIX universe because 1) the UNIX operating system can emulate all the other operating systems and 2) because the Internet runs under TCP/IP, a universal transfer protocol totally compatible with UNIX.

o The story should not involve more than three main characters, yet it should not depend too heavily on ONE character such that the picture could be considered a "star vehicle" or "dependent on star casting". The fees charged by "Name Talent" rocket the project out of the low budget orbit. (Sometimes lazy, scared distributors or financiers use this as an "excuse" to NOT finance the project, even if the story can be told quite nicely without Name Talent.) Note: It is usually a disaster to WRITE a screenplay specially for a particular actor or actress.

o The story should involve, up to 5 minor characters that can be quickly developed. One of the minor character parts could be a cameo vehicle if it were a particularly challenging or interesting part. It can't hurt to keep this in mind.

o Include up to 5 bit characters that can be shot on not more than 2 successive days each, AND up to 10 bit characters that can be shot on not more than 1 day each.

o Have no more than 150 extras needed throughout the whole film and not more than 80 appearing in any separate scene at a time.

o Use no more than 2 expensive or distant locations that cannot be secured for an average of $150 per day. You can have one or two expensive locations ($300 - $500 per day) to up-grade the look.

o Book no Talent/Staff/Crew travel, extensive housing or per diems.

o Use no futuristic or period sets, props or wardrobe and have no extensive vehicle requirements (such as 30 cop cars or a fleet of boats), unless you can get them for free or on deferment.

o The story should take us through at least 35 different locations but no more than 42. Although many locations can double, there should be no more than 10 to 20 physically different locations. I realize that the cheapest way to make a movie is to shoot it all in one house or location, but you get exactly what this says - a cheap movie. With a little more effort and pre-planning, there is no reason why the cast and crew cannot show up at different local places each morning to shoot.

o Have up to 2 special effects scenes: one moderately inexpensive, but not cheap looking, the other about five times as elaborate and effective as the first.

o Have at least 2 exterior night scenes but watch out for these - they are expensive and draining. Try to have two or less days of night or more than seven days, nothing in between as it is hard to turn your crews' hours around.

o In general the screenplay should have about 16 to 21 interior scenes and 14 to 18 exterior scenes with about 80% synchronous sound. No more than 10% of the picture should be exterior night, but any amount can be interior night.

o Include all or some of the following:

a. Two interior action sequences that break a lot of inexpensive middle class American luxuries. The foreign market likes to see the way we live in America. Anything out of a Sears Roebuck catalog (up to $9,000 worth) can be smashed. e.g., TVs, video players, musical instruments, microwave ovens, coffee makers, lamps, radios, kitchen appliances, lawn mowers, bikes, motorcycles, etc.

b. Interior action scenes can include such low budget effects as breaking fake glass, punching holes through balsa wood doors, walls, floors, ceilings . . . stuff that can be done in a controlled non-studio environment without fire or explosives.

c. Backstage scenes where we only hear the audience or see stock shots of the audience (as long as they do not have to include a character in the shot).

d. One exterior tracking shot with sync dialogue.

e. One interior or exterior action sequence with fast tracking which lends itself to fast cutting.

f. One interior sync dialogue scene in a car during day or night.

g. One or two non-contrived passionate scenes.

h. At least three scenes in some location that has never been filmed in before.

i. A nightclub scene.

j. An easy-to-film scene in some public spot (where stock footage could possibly be integrated).

k. A sequence out in the COUNTRY, MOUNTAINS, FOREST or by a STREAM (that works well with the established settings in the story).


Look through the phone book yellow pages to stimulate other

ideas. o The ending is very important. It should wrap up all the lose ends and provide an up-beat catharsis. The ending should not have to rely on a lot of explosions and things blowing up. How many movies have you already seen where everything gets blown up in the end?

o Kenneth Gullekson, a well known writer/director, wraps it up this way: "The most important things are a gripping story and engaging characters. Any subplots focusing on individual characters must be inextricably interwoven with the main plot".

The information in this memo recapitulates and builds on the information relating to a half hour show.

NOTE: Permission is granted by the copyright owner to disseminate this article in whole or in part provided credit is given to the author (with a link to the article's source URL)
and this NOTE is not removed.

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