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Monday, May 02, 2011

The makers of Movie Magic Screenwriter were kind enough to give me a review copy of their latest version, so I've been working in Screenwriter on some of my new projects to familiarize myself with it.

When I wrote CRAFTY SCREENWRITING, I did not like Screenwriter at all. It was a clunky port of a Windows program onto the Mac platform. I found that where Final Draft was intuitive -- it worked about the way I thought it should work -- Screenwriter was a classic Windows program. It had good capabilities, but you had to learn an arbitrary series of commands to get them going.

So I've been a Final Draft guy all along. I've bought (or got a review copy) of each version as they came along. (I liked Final Draft 8.)

But I've been hearing a lot about Screenwriter.

Screenwriter has always had one killer app. Movie Magic makes the budgeting software everyone I know uses (Movie Magic Budgeting) and some terrific movie scheduling software (Movie Magic Scheduling). The three programs are built to hook into each other. So you can save your cast list from Screenwriter and upload it into Scheduling, and you automatically know which scenes which characters appear in, and how many pages they are. This saves a lot of work for the production manager. When you're in production on a TV show, that's a big deal. Production managers would much rather you work in Screenwriter.

Somewhere in the intervening years, Screenwriter went through a heavy redesign on the Mac. It was always a fairly powerful program. It is now much more intuitive and much less cranky.

Its Import feature is much, much better than it used to be. It used to be quite a chore to port a Final Draft script over to Screenwriter. Now you can save from Final Draft to RTF, and into Screenwriter, and you will have very, very little cleanup to do. Even a port from properly formatted text goes smoothly -- which means you can effectively import a PDF into Screenwriter just by saving the PDF as text.

One thing I like a lot about Screenwriter is that it keeps your scene outline in a sidebar, so you can easily see how your scenes flow -- and change the scene order -- while looking at the pages. Final Draft has its Scene Navigator mode, but you can't look at the script at the same time. In fact, on Screenwriter, you can look at any level of outline, from Act to Scene to Beat, while also looking at your text.

Screenwriter still isn't 100% intuitive. It has its ways. For example, rather than hitting "tab" to go from a character name to a parenthetical, you hit "return" to go to dialog and then parenthesis to change the dialog to a parenthetical. If you want to actually put a parenthesis in dialog, then you have to go hunting for your manual to discover that you need to type "control-open-paren" to get a parenthesis in dialog. To uppercase something is control-U. (Screenwriter loves to use the "control" key, a sign of a Windows port.) None of this is a big deal, you just have to learn it.

MMSW comes with all sorts of features set to "on" that you have to turn off. For example, if you type a period, it adds two spaces automatically. I don't like two spaces after a period (see my post One Space or Two), but even if I did, I don't want them added automatically, because I automatically add my own spaces.

It has a minor flaw that, in index card form, you can't see more than 12 cards at a time. In Final Draft, you can view as many cards across as you like, so if you're willing to put up with small cards (or have a big screen) you can view half the script at once.

It is annoying that you can't OMIT a scene unless you lock pages. MMSW assumes that I would never want to do that. But sometimes I like to cut a scene but keep it available, because I'm not sure I really want to cut it. Sometimes I want to remind a producer or director that I've cut a scene, even though we're in development and long before the point where I'd be locking pages. In Final Draft, I can just OMIT the scene, and I can even revise the omitted header, so it can read:


And should I ever want that scene back, I can just "unomit" it.

Another minor flaw is that some of the shortcuts get in the way. For example, I like to open up white space on my screen when I'm working on a scene. However if I type "return" twice, Screenwriter assumes that I want a slugline -- because a screenplay should never have two blank lines in a row. I find that irritating. If I wanted a slugline, I'm fully capable of typing "INT." myself.

If you want to write (V.O.) after a character name, it's super-easy: just type "(v" after the name. But if you want to write (V.O. PRELAP), which is something I sometimes like to type, when I'm pre-lapping dialog from the next scene, it's vastly irritating. I have to type "(" after the name, then click on a dropdown list to allow me to "add as text," then type "V.O. prelap."

And apparently you have to do this every time -- there doesn't seem to be an easy way to add V.O. PRELAP to a list.

You can easily change definitions of the standard screenplay elements -- dialogue, character, transition, etc. But what if you want to define a new one? For example, I sometimes define a "song" element that looks like dialog, but has longer lines, and arbitrary line breaks. Or when I'm working on a bilingual script, and want a "subtitle" element to follow the dialog -- I don't see how I can do that in Screenwriter. But I can in Final Draft.

I can format dual dialog and see it onscreen in Final Draft; in MMSW, dual dialog only views properly once previewed or printed.

All this adds up to a little occasional frustration. I actually got my review copy a couple of months ago. I've been playing with it since then because I wanted to take the time to get up to speed. As a Final Draft veteran, it took me almost no time to learn how to do 95% of what I needed. But after over a month, there are still these little doodads that get in the way. It's possible that I could eventually figure out how to fix some of these issues if I spend enough time with the program. But why should I have to, when I can do them all easily in Final Draft? Production managers aren't the people I have to please, producers and directors are. And they read my scripts in PDF anyway.

My feeling is that Final Draft was built on top of a word processor. It assumes you know what you want to do, and will let you do what you want. If that causes formatting errors, that's your lookout. I feel like Screenwriter is built on something other than a word processor -- perhaps a database program of some kind. So if what you are trying to do does not fit Screenwriter's ideas of what a screenplay has to look like, tough luck.

Screenwriter seems ideal for someone who does not type very fast, for whom saving a few keystrokes is more important than being able to freely compose. Since I type slightly faster than I can think, I don't want to save keystrokes, I want to save brain cycles.

Incidentally, neither Screenwriter nor Final Draft, so far as I can tell, can put two pages up on the screen. That's frustrating. I have a beautiful 22" Dell monitor looming over my 15% Macbook Pro screen, so I have a fair amount of real estate. I'd really like to be able to see two pages at once. With so many nifty features packed into this program, is viewing two pages too much to ask?

All in all, Screenwriter is a good program. I give it a solid B+. It's something you probably want to know how to use. Your production manager will thank you for using it. From the survey I did of my own readers, it seems to be the preferred program among professional screenwriters.

But after a month, I am still trying to iron out issues. I will almost certainly finish the screenplay I'm writing in Screenwriter. But I think I might go back to Final Draft when I start my new one. And that is ultimately the only real recommendation I can give.

UPDATE: Note also DMc's terrible experiences with FD's customer service, linked in his comment below. I should also mention that FD uses a bad system of authentification where anything you do to your computer -- e.g. updating the OS -- can wipe out your authorization, requiring a call to customer service. (However, they cheerfully restore installs once you do call them.) Screenwriter uses a smarter system where if you lose your computer you can simply go to the website, delete the old authorization on the old/dead/lost computer, and transfer the authorization to a new computer.

Because I do prefer Final Draft, here's a link to buy it:

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It's not a bad program by any means, but like you mentioned, there are many little things that should be easy, but are made incredibly frustrating. Whenever I insert a parenthetical I almost always do so after writing the dialogue, in which case trying to put it in without having to copy and delete the dialogue first drives me crazy.

By Blogger tommy, at 1:28 PM  

Hi Alex,

I just wanted to point a few inaccuracies for the benefit of your readers:

- Final Draft version 8 has a powerful production tool companion software called Tagger that works seamlessly with Budgeting/Scheduling programs like EP, Movie Magic & Gorilla. You can bring in the cast list and do many more things by using Tagger. It is in your Final Draft Application folder. Unlike Screenwriter's format that hasn't been updated in more than 10 years, we are able to provide every bit of the script's information and metadata to scheduling such as a scene's title and summary.

- There is a Split Screen view in Final Draft version 8 that can give you a vertical or a horizontal split screen. These are found in the VIEW menu or as buttons on your toolbar. Using this, you can view two different pages of the same script file at the same time.

- Scene Navigator is a floating panel and as such, you can view it and your actual script at the same time. By clicking on a scene on the Scene Navigator, it automatically takes you to the corresponding scene in your script – a very helpful feature!

- Movie Magic Budgeting & Scheduling is published by EP (Entertainment Partners), while Movie Magic Screenwriter is published by Write Brothers. I know it sounds confusing, but it is the same brand for the two product lines, but completely separate companies. Final Draft and EP Movie Magic Budgeting & Scheduling are technology partners. Our products are designed to work together. Final Draft is the industry standard in screenwriting, with an overwhelming number of film and television companies around the world expecting to work with the Final Draft file format above all others. Hope this helps!

By Blogger Alejandro, at 2:05 PM  

This comment has been removed by the author.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 2:24 PM  

So long as you've got FD people shilling here alex, allow me to repost the "official opposition" -- my experience with Final Draft.

At this point I should also mention that in result of that post, I've had many conversations with professional television writers I know working in Canada, and at last count I had about fifteen or sixteen similar stories of the piss poor customer service provided by FD. Especially to Canadians, where there is no toll free option and you have to call long distance to talk to them.

They have a serious customer service problem, and they have never once apologized or acknowledged it to anyone I've ever talked to that's had a problem with them. They just parrot on about being "the number one choice of professionals."

As an early adopter of their program, (I paid for 4, 5, 6, AND 7 -- and wound up buying 8 since I wrote that post for a project where I INSISTED someone reimburse me for it -- they're not getting a dime more of my money) they have atrocious and arrogant customer service, release products before they are ready, and don't play as well in TV series production as Screenwriter.

The last 5 series I've worked on went MMSW because of this. And the few times I've had to call customer service, they've been great.

By Blogger DMc, at 11:19 AM  

@Denis: FD is not, as far as I can tell from my little survey, "the #1 choice of professionals," unless your definition of "professionals" is very broad.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 11:26 AM  

I didn't say that's what you claim, Alex. That's what they claim.

By Blogger DMc, at 12:24 PM  

I know you didn't say that, Denis! No worries, mate.

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 12:26 PM  

Count me in as a convert from FD to MMS.

There are actually some things I like better about the way FD handles stuff, but my experience is that stuff like the differences between when to tab and when to hit enter become second nature pretty quickly.

I remember buying the first version of FD that worked on OSX - that was my second version. It crashed on file saves. How did that bug get through quality control? Updates eventually fixed that problem - I think this was version six - but there were lots of random things that never worked right. (I could never get the collaboration features to work right, and it would crash periodically if you nested revision marks and/or dual dialog in the wrong way - I never could figure out how).

It was so buggy that I decided not to buy FD7, even though that was FD's advice to get some of those features to work. Skuttlebut on the internet was that FD7 was incredibly buggy at release - given my experience with the previous version, that didn't surprise me.

So I switched. And I've been very happy with MMS ever since. I've heard that FD8 isn't a buggy piece of ***, but, honestly, why would I give them more of my money at this point?

I switched because, as a working pro, I can't afford to have some random bug cause my script to crash consistently on some page because of some formatting choice I made that SHOULD work. I had that problem once too often with FD. Never had with with MMS.

By Blogger Ronaldinho, at 12:50 PM  

Both programs are not anywhere near what they should be. Because of the relatively small market, they just don't develop them much.

I emailed the Final Draft people about 3 bugs in their current version (v8) and their succinct reply was: "We're not going to fix those." They simply don't care.

When I was doing some work for a non-profit filmmaking group and I called and asked Final Draft to buy some ad space in the program for $200, they declined, saying they don't have much advertising budget. The guy at FD said "We don't really sell as many copies of Final Draft as people think we do."

So, low sales combined with an "I don't give a crap about customers" attitude does not make for a very good program.

I am always discovering bugs in FD 8, and it frequently exhibits weird behavior. Having used it since version 3, I have seen them actually REMOVE features that were good! Version 7 did not contain a list view of the scenes with pages numbers, so I skipped that one. And now, if you want to zoom the screen (which everyone with big monitors does), there is no shortcut on the menu bar. There used to be.

Basically, instead of adding features professional screenwriters like me want and need, FD spends its time doing useless things like making the program read your script out loud! Or embedding screenwriting seminars into their software. These are aimed squarely at the amateur as they attempt to be the Garage Band of screenwriting software.

By far the biggest failing of FD and Screenwriter is their inability to collaborate over the internet. Neither program has the ability to work on the script online with your partner seeing the changes in real time. FD fallaciously advertises that they can, but a quick internet search reveals that no one, yes NO ONE, has been able to make that function work. We tried it (and I am quite the computer geek), and it failed big time. Screenwriter says it will do this, but no one I know has made that work either.

Sadly, both programs are substandard. Basically, get used to one and it becomes "the devil you know." If only someone would make an angel available.

By Blogger Nickname unavailable, at 12:57 PM  

Personally, and this is probably not the best way doing things, I like to write my first draft in Final Draft because it's about a point and click simpler than Screenwriter.

Once it gets into any production or further drafts down the line? It's all about Screenwriter. This may also be because I'm doing independent webseries shoots and pulling hats all over the map, but Screenwriter is great for all those needs.

When it comes to a "spaghetti" pass? I do like Final Draft.

By Blogger Elize Morgan, at 1:06 PM  

"By far the biggest failing of FD and Screenwriter is their inability to collaborate over the internet. Neither program has the ability to work on the script online with your partner seeing the changes in real time."

If you use a Mac, the "screen sharing" feature of the operating system does this just fine. It requires that both people have a fast connection, and will get blurry when scrolling, etc, so if it's not "real time" it's at least damn close.

I find it amusing that Apple can make this work on a graphical level - which should be much more demanding of bandwidth and resources - and FD can't do it with text. MMS's came closer to working, but in my experience the OSX functionality just works better.

By Blogger Ronaldinho, at 3:45 PM  

You wrote: "If you use a Mac, the "screen sharing" feature of the operating system does this just fine."

Uh, first of all this requires using shell commands and messing with your router (if you even have one) and lots of other fiddly bits that are simply not acceptable to have to go through.

Secondly, using that method means someone CONTROLS your computer. This is not collaborating.

Sorry, that method is not workable at all. "Hey let's work on the script. All I need to do is have a password to take over your computer!"

It SHOULD be possible to share the script file and watch changes in real time, while at the same time having a Skype window open to talk.

And it would be possible if Final Draft were not owned and run by a non-writer who about quality. He's made this quite clear on numerous occasions. Apparently he's too busy caring about making your script talk to you in a computer voice.

Screenwriter is equally unworkable for collaborating. I downloaded the demo and we tried it -- no dice.

By Blogger Nickname unavailable, at 5:06 AM  

Well, NIckname, I was only doing that with my writing partner. Someone I trusted.

Before that sort of thing was available, we'd often be sitting at opposite sides of a table, sliding the laptop back and forth. So I was giving someone just as much control over my computer - heck, if not more, he could grab it and run out the door if he wanted.

Sure, I wouldn't do that with someone I didn't trust. But I wouldn't collaborate on a screenplay with someone I didn't trust, so that seems like a peculiar complaint.

(You're not giving the person any persmission to do anything you aren't aware of - you're not giving them access to your comp when you aren't there).

But I agree with you that it shouldn't be hard to have an application specific version of it.

By Blogger Ronaldinho, at 3:12 PM  

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