Back in 2006, I answered a reader question about page counts:
Every screenwriting book I’ve read, class I took, and basically the first rule I learned says:
ONE PAGE OF A PROPERLY FORMATTED 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?
I replied that the page-per-minute rule of thumb didn’t hold up to much scrutiny, and offered examples from my own work.
Then a few weeks ago, I started thinking about this question again, and realized there was an opportunity to reframe the question in a more concrete way:
For screenplays, what is the correlation between screenplay length and running time?
I asked data scientist Stephen Follows if he’d be up for tackling this question. He jumped into action, gathering 761 feature screenplays and comparing them to the running times of their finished films. Today, he published his findings.
The results largely match what I expected, and what I wrote in 2006:
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.1
While Follows finds there is some obvious correlation between page count and running time, the rule of thumb barely works in aggregate but isn’t very predictive for any given project.
Why does it matter? Because too many folks in the film and television industry have internalized one-page-per-minute as an axiomatic truth rather than a crude estimate. Any script that is longer than 120 pages is perceived as being too long. Indeed, some studios’ contracts specify that the writer may not deliver a script longer than 120 pages.2
In order to bring their scripts under this artificial limit, screenwriters waste time making tiny edits with the goal of moving page breaks. It’s pointless busy work.
Worse, the page-per-minute rule of thumb puts too much focus on arbitrary sheets of never-printed paper rather than the words they contain. If we’re worried about the length of anything, it should be scenes and sequences. But in 2020 we continue to treat screenplays as if they’re hand-typed on dead trees, forgoing digital tools that would allow for better security, collaboration and version control.
As an industry, we’re afraid to move to new formats for screenplays because we’re worried it’ll break the page-per-minute standard. But we don’t need to worry, because the rule of thumb was never really true.
Doing what makes sense
Is it appropriate to try to estimate a project’s running time based on the script? Absolutely.
Before a project goes into production, the script supervisor — an experienced professional who works beside the director on set — generally performs a “script timing” by estimating the time for each scene. It’s not perfect, but it better reflects reality. If a script times out to three hours, better to know it before production, so you’re not shooting scenes that won’t make it into the film.
Is there an opportunity for computer-generated running time estimates? Probably.
With machine learning, I can imagine systems that better predict how words on the page will reflect minutes on screen. But I wonder if it’s a false goal. Ultimately, running time is a factor of film editing. Scenes get dropped in post, and it’s very hard to anticipate these changes when looking at a script in preproduction.
This analysis was done on feature films, but every TV show faces similar issues. However, long-running shows have the advantage of knowing how their specific show works. My hunch is that every NCIS script falls in a narrow range of scenes and pages because they know what they need.
Big thanks to Stephen Follows for accepting this challenge and myth-busting this rule of thumb. Be sure to read, share and comment on his post.