It’s one of the most often-asked questions by rising screenwriters and my screenwriting students: “How long should my feature script be?”
The answer to this question is, to my mind at least, one of the very worst answers any question can possibly receive:
By Zeus’ beard, what a horrible answer to any question that is! It’s like when you tell someone you love them and they respond, “Thanks.” (Not that that has ever happened to me, of course! Note to self: pitch a blog post about “unreliable narrators.”)
I know, I know. “It depends” is not what you were hoping to hear. It’s somehow easier if the right answer is, “Exactly 105 pages! Not 105 and a half! Not 104! 105 or we shred it!”
Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way.
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The Goldilocks Rule
That said, there are broad strokes to follow about script length. This sort of thing is often called a “Goldilocks Rule.”
You remember Goldilocks. Nothing was ever good enough for this high-maintenance home invader: the porridge was too hot or too cold. This chair’s too hard, another one’s too soft. Red flags everywhere with this one, people: Do. Not. Date.
Just like with Goldi’s impossibly high standards, when it comes to screenplays, there’s definitely such a thing as too short and too long. The problem is that those numbers keep changing.
Once upon a time, as recently as the 1990s or as the youths refer to it, “the late 20th century,” the standard script length was still being taught as 120 pages. One page in script format roughly equaling one minute of screen time, this would result in the average two-hour feature film.
Truth be told, most movies were already less than two hours long at that point. Film data guru Stephen Follows crunched the numbers on movie lengths for the years 1994-2015 and found a major sweet spot at right around 100 minutes — which would correspond with scripts that are about 100 pages long.
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Although I haven’t found more recent data, I suspect that average movie lengths overall are about that or even shorter by now. The exception here is that the most talked-about titles, the top 10 or 20-grossing movies of every year, tend to be big-budget epics that are longer than most other films, in an effort to give audiences more bang for their buck. You know the kind of movies I mean: sprawling superhero battles that end three times and don’t come with an on-screen “bathroom break” warning, but really should.
No insult intended, by the way: I love a good bladder workout from a 3-hour effects extravaganza.
Back to the that original Goldilocks point I was always eventually going to get around to:
These days, many screenwriting contests require a minimum of 90 pages. While many script readers charge extra to read anything longer than 120 pages. So, I think that’s probably where the guardrails are today: 90 minimum. 120 maximum. Shorter than 90: sketchy. Longer than 120: may I politely suggest that this is a TV show?
This doesn’t answer the question, however: what length is the perfect one?
As legendary filmmaker Marty DiBergi would say, “Enough of my yakkin’!” Yes, that’s a This is Spinal Tap joke. I only think in movie.
Sure, obviously a blogger for WeScreenplay is an authoritative word on nearly any subject. However, it never hurts to ask others to weigh in. So I did. Honestly, I was expecting them to say, “It depends.” But they didn’t let you down.
In addition to being a hilarious screenwriter and improv comedy king, Troy Anthony Miller is a professional script reader. He had this to say, from the reader’s perspective:
“Readers like me aren’t going to ding a script if it’s over 120, but that number shows up on your coverage top sheet, and the executive looking at that number is not going to be happy. Basically, there’s still a stigma of 120 pages max in Hollywood — they’d love it if it were 90-100.
“As a writer, you want to do everything in your power to keep your reader engaged. Longer scripts may not help with that. I’d say you really want to stay under 120, and as close to 100, for your own benefit.“
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Screenwriting professor Bill True, who is also the department chair of the School of Film and Theatre at Scottsdale Community College — and a produced screenwriter himself — says the following:
“I tell my writing students 90-110 pages, with the caveat that if you’re going over 100, keep it as close to that as possible. Honestly, I think readers get pretty twitchy when they see scripts over 110 pages. 100-105 pages seems to be a real sweet spot these days.”
Oren Uziel is a screenwriting top gun whose list of produced credits includes 22 Jump Street, Mortal Kombat, The Lost City and my personal favorite (which he also directed) Shimmer Lake. His upcoming projects include Fast X: Part 2, Detective Pikachu 2, Clue and a live-action TV series version of Spider-Man Noir. He has definitely picked up a little pocket change as a screenwriter here and there. His very educated take on script length:
“If your main character flies and/or drives cars faster than the speed limit, 118 pages; if your main character cries or recovers from a serious illness, 106 pages; and if your main character goes into a very dark basement, falls in love with her best friend or has to repeat the same day over and over again, 94 pages.
“Why? Action movies are expensive, people expect a longer show and they have set pieces that eat up pages. Dramas require more time developing satisfying character arcs. Horror, romance and comedy are best served by efficiently executing one great idea and then getting out before you’ve overstayed your welcome.”
What have we learned? The only thing that’s certain is that the ideal page count is really a ballpark number, and one that changes over time. So write the number of pages that are best for your script and your story — while staying aware of conventions and industry expectations.
And, as always: enjoy the process!
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Karl Williams is a screenwriting instructor at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona. He has won the Comedy and Sci-Fi Awards at the Austin Film Festival and the Jack Nicholson Prize for Excellence in Screenwriting at UCLA, where he earned his MFA. In addition to blogging, he co-hosts the screenwriting advice podcast Get Your Story Straight.