questionmarkEvery screenwriting book I’ve read, class I took, and basically the first rule I learned says:

ONE PAGE OF A PROPERLY FORMATED SCRIPT = APPROX. A MINUTE OF SCREEN TIME.

I know one page of say a battle can last five minutes whereas one page of quick dialogue my last ten seconds if the actors talk fast… So my question is, is this rule true?

Has your 120 page script been a 2 hour movie or was it more like 90 minutes?

My main reason for asking this is I want to make my own low-budget movie. And the best tips I get say keep the script 90 pages or shorter. And to make it a play (dialogue heavy, one location).

However, from my short film experience and being an editor, I saw a 90 page script of a friend be only 55 minutes when edited. And I know Kevin Smith’s CLERKS was 164 page script, but is only a 90 min movie because of the dialogue.

So, how can I find an accurate length of the movie before I shoot it. Or should I have a 130-page script if I want to make my own feature? How do the big boys figure out if there’s enough actual screen time on the pages?

– Matthew Kaplan
New York City

Your instinct is right: the one-page-per-minute rule of thumb doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. True, most screenplays are about 120 pages, and true, most movies are around two hours. But the conversion rate between paper and celluloid is rarely one-to-one .

That’s why when a movie is in pre-production, one of the script supervisor’s first jobs is to time the script. She or he reads through the screenplay with a stopwatch, estimating how long each scene will play, then adds up the total running time. Generally, they go through the whole script twice, averaging the times.

How accurate is the script timing? Well, that depends on how well the script supervisor has factored in the director’s style. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain featured long, contemplative shots of the heroes herding sheep, which another director might have dropped altogether. But generally, the script timing is in the right ballpark.

Although a script supervisor has more experience, you can time a script yourself. My advice would be to read the dialogue aloud, while trying to pad for non-spoken moments. It’s easier with some scripts than others.

As far as my own films:

Go was 126 pages, but came out at 103 minutes — without any major scenes left out. It wasn’t play-like, but the pacing was quick.

Big Fish was 124 pages, and 125 minutes long. To my recollection, only one significant scene was omitted, so the page-per-minute rule came close.

Both Charlie’s Angels movies went through so many drafts during production that an accurate page-count is impossible. But the first drafts were around 120 pages. The original film was 98 minutes; the sequel was 106. The pacing was obviously quick.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: 128 pages, 115 minutes.

Corpse Bride: 73 pages, 76 minutes.