It goes something like this. After months, if not years, you’ve finally completed your masterpiece screenplay. The premise of your script is engaging and original, the protagonist is fun and sympathetic, undergoing a major transformation over the course of the story, maturing, perhaps even earning redemption. There are a handful of exciting set pieces, a shocking twist at the end of the second act, and the dialogue is ripe with subtext. It’s certain to not only catch the attention of agents and managers but any producer looking for a quality project. So, you’re all set, right?
Okay, there is one small thing. The screenplay runs just over 135 pages but so what? Genius takes up a lot of time not to mention space, right? So, when a query letter or referral comes through and your script is requested you don’t hesitate to slide it into that manila envelope, slap on the priority mail sticker and send it on its way (or save yourself the postage and just email the file). Now it’s just a matter of sitting back and waiting on the accolades and inevitable financial windfall to come through. Congratulations are in order, you’ve officially destroyed any real chance your material had before it even reached its destination. Why? Because size matters! Or to be more precise, LENGTH matters.
Spec screenplays should run between 90 to 120 pages in length, no exceptions (unless your last name is Zaillian or Towne). It bears repeating, 90 to 120 pages. Don’t consider this a suggestion, think of it as a rule. Working for various production companies and studios over the years this reader is always amazed at how many writers will blow a big opportunity by submitting a bloated script. Forget poor grammar and sloppy screenplay formatting, the first thing the reader is going to notice is the size of your screenplay, how many pages it runs. For the average reader it’s tough enough realizing a script runs the full 120, never mind 130 and beyond. Why? Because excessive length equals poor pacing, which equals a slow read, which equals BOREDOM. And as a writer is there a greater crime to commit than to bore your prospective audience? Misspellings can be corrected simply and easily, bad pacing is another matter entirely.
You may argue that what you’ve written is brilliant, every scene necessary to paint the picture, every word essential to the whole. This simply isn’t true and if you go back and read over your work with a discerning eye you’ll realize it. There’s fat to be trimmed and you must make those necessary cuts before sending your work off for consideration anywhere. Go over each and every scene and ask yourself a question; does it move the story forward? Is the scene essential to the flow? In other words, that dialogue heavy coffee house sequence with the witty one-liners needs to go, no matter how funny or brilliant it may read on paper. This isn’t ‘Friends’, it’s your movie!
When it comes to your screenplay you need to be like a cop working at an accident scene, waving rubberneckers along, preventing traffic from building up, maintaining the flow, “Keep it moving, folks!” That’s your job, always keep it moving, and always keep it under 120.