Movie scripts, or known in the industry as screenplays, are the blueprints that producers, directors, cast members and everyone in between rely on to produce the film.
Simply put: without the screenplay there is no movie to work on.
So how long does it take to write a screenplay?
On average, professional screenwriters can write a draft of a feature length script (75-110 pages) in a period of two to three months, or a period of 60 to 90 days. Rewrites are usually finished in 30 days or less. You can write the first draft of a screenplay at the pace of 5 pages per day to finish in less than 30 days, but only if you’ve outlined it.
If we take the outline into account, then the development process for a professional writer could take longer, anywhere between six months to a year. Some writers take multiple years in the outline stage before they finally sit down to write.
For example, Jordan Peele outlined the script for his directorial horror movie debut Get Out for about five years before he wrote the whole thing.
By the time he sat down to actually write the screenplay, it took him less than a couple months to write the actual screenplay pages and get them ready to shoot.
For his next film, he had less than a year between Get Out’s release and the February 2018 announcement of his next film, Us. This means Peele likely wrote the film’s script in six to nine months.
While this was a much faster turnaround, he revealed in an interview that he had the idea of an evil doppelganger ever since he was a teenager taking the train home, so it had been brewing in his brain for years.
How long does it take to write a script for a 2 hour movie?
In the industry, one page of a screenplay is considered equal to one minute of screen time. That means that in order to write a two hour movie, you need to write roughly 120 pages. If you write one page a day, that’s 120 days. If you average 3 to 5 pages a day, this could be as short as 24 days or as long as 40 days.
That being said, most movies don’t have to be two hours, let alone 120 pages. The ideal length to shoot for is between 75 to 110 pages. Any more than 110 and you better have a good reason.
Any professional movie script contract will typically give a writer 12 weeks for a draft. However, professional writers should be able to write a feature film in 8 weeks. While the whole 12 weeks is to write the script from page 1, the script also needs to be rewritten and polished before handed over.
This timeline doesn’t account for outline time. A professional writer might take anywhere from two to six weeks to outline a paid assignment before they enter the actual writing portion of the contract.
When you write on spec it’s much more variable, but if you’re a professional, you are probably juggling multiple spec outlines in various stages at any given time.
Also, many producers could work with first time writers to flesh out an outline for months before they commit to actually option the film.
After the first draft is handed over, there will be another 8 week rewrite period followed by a 6 week polish period.
There can be (and frequently are) multiple “mini-rewrites” in between these official passes as both sides, the producers and the writer, want to make the script as good as possible without adding new terms to the contract.
Keep this in mind and be prepared for multiple unpaid “tweaks.” Just make sure to keep track of them!
How long does it take to write an episode of TV?
Writing for TV is unique because you work within a team of writers for four to six weeks as part of a writer’s room where the team “breaks” the story of the entire season and every individual episode within it.
After a story comes “off the board”, the writers assigned to each story will go off and write their episodes for a period of two to three weeks.
This includes two days or so to flesh out the story, one week to write the outline, and after revisions are made, sometimes a writer has less than a week to write the full episode.
This type of timeline is common and will be expected of any professional writer, so its good to condition yourself to write fast and on the fly with your personal work.
As for a Spec TV pilot you write on your own, take as long as you need on the first one and be prepared to rewrite it a lot.
Once you’ve got it in a place you’re happy with, you should move on to the next project and write that, only this time on a faster timeline.
Original pilots take approximately the same time to write as a feature film since it will take a ton of rewrites to really make an original pilot great.
Keep in mind a pilot will likely be used as a writing sample to get you staffed and likely won’t be sold outright until you have some credits under your name.
How long will my first movie script take to write?
First time writers should take as long as they need to write the script. It will probably take much longer than a professional because you’re still learning. That said, the first movie script you write will likely follow one of three paths:
Path 1: The optimal way
You come up with the idea for the script. You get excited, and all the ideas start flowing in. You jot down tons of notes, and every day it feels like you have a new piece of inspiration or some breakthrough to carry you forward.
At a certain point, the dam breaks and you can’t go another day without writing the damn thing. You jot down a thorough outline with every point mapped out and then you jump into writing pages.
But then all of a sudden, you start to run out of steam. It’s not perfect in your head anymore, it’s on the page and it’s imperfect and ugly. So you go back and you start refining what you’ve written already. And now it’s looking pretty good so you keep going.
Eventually you get to the point where you have to write the first scene that you can’t see in your head. You know some important stuff needs to happen but you have no idea how. You slow your pace down again, or even take a break to let it simmer for a minute. You could either stall out here and run out of momentum or wait for a breakthrough then persevere.
Pro tip: What you should do at this point is write the bad version. Just get through the scene. Literally write in red font “Billy comes in. He shakes Jane’s hand. They converse, then nod, signifying the deal has gone through. Then FBI Jeff breaks down the door and reveals the whole thing has been set up. SMASH CUT TO THE JAIL CELL-”.
And then move on and write the next scene. It’s important when you write your first script to remember that perfect is the enemy of done. You will likely edit and rewrite your movie script anywhere from 30 to 200 times. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. Worry about getting it done.
If you run into a writers block check out this article with more tips on how to get through it.
In this stage, you should aim for 2 to 3 pages a day. If you’re struggling, strive for at least 1 page a day. If you write 1 page a day, you will be done in three to four months. Including a two to three month “ideation and outline stage” you will have the first draft of your script done in six to seven months.
Keep in mind, this is just for a first draft. In order to finish a movie script, you need the director to yell “that’s a wrap on post” and then kick you out of the edit bay. Don’t feel bad – feel lucky you were invited to the edit bay at all!
Path 2: the optimist’s gambit
The second path you could take to write your screenplay is what I call the optimist’s gambit. This is where you are so excited to write your script, you start writing it before you know where it’s going.
This is usually a very bad idea, but can lead to some pretty cool stuff if you take your time and don’t give up.
What’s going to happen is you have an idea. It might be based on a scene, or a character, or, well, a vibe. This vibe as we’ll call it is an awesome movie in your head.
In fact, you know once you crack the story it’s going to be great. You just have no idea what the story is, or who’s in it, or what it’s about, except for one or maybe two things.
Maybe it’s a couple scene ideas, or a bare-bones structure of the three acts and where the character starts and where it’s going to end. Maybe it’s just lines of dialogue, and you need to follow the conversation to see where it ends up.
You start jotting down notes and come up with enough that you feel confident to write some pages. Hell, the pages might even be good.
So you keep layering on more conflict and some twists and turns and maybe some disconnected scenes that you know you want in the movie somewhere and now you’ve got this living document that’s half screenplay half brainstorm session…
And then wham. You stall out around 30 pages because you’ve run out of gas, and you realize you didn’t have a map and had no idea where you were trying to go in the first place.
This could be the end of the road for you, so you give up and either try again on a different idea or give up on writing all together.
Pro tip: Now is the time to create an outline to follow so you know what your story is, what the stakes are, and where it’s all going.
For more on story structure, check out our articles on the topic here.
The path from here will likely mirror either path 1 or path 3. Speaking of path 3…
Path 3: the outliner’s hell
Path 3 is what I like to call stuck in outline hell. Many big budget Hollywood movie scripts get stuck in what’s called development hell where they never get the greenlight to go forward.
The screenwriter equivalent of that is the outliner’s hell, where you as the writer never give yourself the greenlight to write the damn movie.
This could be for a couple reasons. One reason is you’re not ready yet. You’ve been tinkering with an idea, but it hasn’t fully come together. You have a vibe, but you haven’t fleshed out a structure and you’re not an optimist, so, you know. Let’s not get crazy here.
You’ve read all the structure books, you’ve followed the path of Dan Harmon’s story circle many times, you’ve read as many screenwriting blogs as you can (like this one!) and you have a killer beat sheet template ready to fill out whenever you crack the story.
You know what you need to do, you just… haven’t got there yet.
So maybe its the idea. Maybe its just not all there.
Or maybe a better, more shiny idea pops into your head. And now you’re writing notes and coming up with potential storylines for that idea.
Maybe you get farther and fill out your beat sheet.
Perhaps you even write a two pager, or a five page treatment, or a fifty page treatment.
Or a 300 page treatment! (honestly at that point just make it a book!)
But… you still don’t write it. You’re not ready. It’s not perfect yet. What’s the point of starting it when you know there’s a better version of it waiting in the wings? Why waste the time?
You already work two jobs and writing after 6pm just sounds exhausting.
So you don’t write it. Maybe you share it with some friends who are writers. They give you notes on it. Maybe you implement them into the outline, maybe you keep them in a doc called “notes for next pass” and don’t even apply them to the outline.
Maybe you move on to the next idea. Maybe you never write it.
Pro tip: If you keep coming up with cool ideas but never write them, this is called playing in the sandbox. It’s really fun to build sand castles. You spend enough time in the sandbox, you can even make some really awesome ones with turrets and battlements and a big ole moat.
But a sandcastle is not a real castle. If you want to make a real castle, eventually you have to take your design out of the sandbox and apply it to real castle materials.
To avoid this trap, you need to commit to writing the bad version.
Take your awesome, thirty or fifty page outline that took you three years to get perfect and copy it into a Final Draft file.
Add the scene headings, expand on the description and turn it into action lines and lines of dialogue, and take out any descriptions of things the viewer can’t see on screen, and Voilà! You have a screenplay. A bad screenplay, but a screenplay nonetheless.
No, not just a bad screenplay. Even better: a done screenplay.
How fast can you write a script?
One of the fastest screenplays ever written, if not the fastest screenplay ever written, was The Breakfast Club which John Hughes wrote in two days.
A former advertising copywriter, Hughes was known for writing screenplays in twenty hour binges over the weekend in his prime.
While this is not recommended, it is possible to write a first draft in two, three, or even four days with a strong outline and incredible focus.
Some writers lock themselves in a room for a few days up to a few weeks in order to concentrate and finish a screenplay.
Keep in mind you’ll still have to rewrite your script many times once you finish the first draft. But it’s 110 times easier to edit the first draft of a done screenplay than write 110 pages of a nonexistent screenplay.
Here is a list that Screencraft put together (curated by writer Shanee Edwards) on the top 10 fastest movies ever written:
|Movie name||Screenplay production time|
|Breakfast Club||2 days|
|Cabin the Woods||3 days|
|Ferris Bueller’s Day Off||4 days|
|Sex, lies and videotape||8 days|
|Taxi Driver||10 days|
|Do the Right Thing||14 days|
|Barton Fink||21 days|