In a recent article, I endorsed the long-standing “rule” that a spec script should never be more than 120 pages in length, a position that a number of my readers -- who I assume are spec-script writers that have had their overlong pieces rejected -- took exception to. As objectors to this rule often do, they cited a number of wonderful films that run longer than two hours and so, given the old rule of thumb that one page of script equals one minute of script time (which is, by the way, pretty darn accurate), must have had screenplays longer than 120 pages: The Godfather, Pulp Fiction, The Dark Knight, etc. My readers are correct -- these are all great movies with screenplays much longer than the accepted norm. However, they have overlooked one very important point -- none of these films began life as a spec.
Movies begin their journeys to the screen in a number of different ways -- as spec scripts from outside writers, as adaptations of best-selling material from other media (books, plays, comics, old TV shows) to which a studio or producer has acquired the rights, or as properties developed by talent (actors and directors) as projects for themselves. If a project begins life in one of the latter two ways, then the script “rules” tend to be loosened. If it takes three hours to tell the story of a particular best-selling novel, then a studio will let both the script and the film run that long (if doing so will make the film a gigantic hit). And if a highly sought-after star’s or director’s pet project runs long, the studio will allow it to run long in direct proportion to how much that particular talent’s name is worth at the box office. But when it comes to original pieces of material, the rules tend to be adhered to pretty strictly (at least in the initial evaluation stage). Besides the usual concerns about budgets (the cost of a film rises exponentially the longer it runs) and the desire to make movies as short a possible (so that they can be screened as many times a day as possible), there is another and I think extremely legitimate reason for this.
A spec script is an original story conceived directly for the screen. To attempt one, a writer needs to have a firm understanding of the parameters of cinematic storytelling. For many reasons, both creative and practical, it is generally accepted that the running time of the average commercial narrative film should be somewhere between 90 and 120 minutes, so a screenwriter needs to figure out how to tell his/her story in that amount of time. The existence of the thousands and thousands of feature films made over the past 90 years proves it is possible to do so, and numerous paradigms and guidelines have emerged that, if followed, can help a writer get the job done. So when anyone involved in motion picture story development picks up a script that runs longer than 120 pages, he or she is going to assume that the writer couldn’t get the job done and that the script is either going to be poorly structured or contain lots of extraneous material -- or both. And 99 times out of 100, that development professional is going to be right.
Now, you may indeed have a story that truly justifies a page-length longer than 120 pages and if you do, then the reader will recognize this and is not going to penalize you for running long -- after all, a great story is a great story. But just make sure that you aren’t fooling yourself, because I warn you that in all of the years that I have been reading and analyzing specs, I have only once come across one that ran longer than 120 pages and deserved to. The rest all needed to be seriously restructured or else have 10 or 15 pages chopped out of them.
Ultimately I think the lesson here is that you have to be as ruthless in editing and streamlining your work as you possibly can be, because if you don’t, someone else will be. The difference is that if you do it, you’ll end up with a leaner, tighter, and probably better script. If someone else does it, all you’ll end up with is a PASS. As my old high school English teacher, Sister Catherine, always used to say: “Brevity is a virtue.” And, as she also used to say: “Listen to Sister Catherine.”