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The History of the Screenplay

By Michelle Donnelly · February 3, 2015

Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, was the first to theorize that ‘the only thing constant is change.’ Never more has this adage been true than for the writing known as the screenplay. The concept of the screenplay, its use and its function has constantly evolved since the beginning of film. The dictionary defines the screenplay as “the written form of a movie that also includes instructions on how it is to be acted and filmed: the script for a movie.” The term “screenplay” or for that matter “screenwriter,” though, has not always been so. In its earliest years, the writing for a film was called a scenario. In time and after much transformation, came continuity scripts. Eventually what emerged is what we now know today as the screenplay.

Scripting had long been used for the stage and later writers most certainly borrowed techniques and ideology from those who wrote for the theater. As film became a more viable form of entertainment, we see ‘scenarios’ come into existence. As early as the 1890’s, when films were about a minute or two long, scenarios not only provided a brief summary, but they also assisted with marketing and became helpful explanations for an audience not used to viewing pictures on film. Unfortunately, much of the progression that occurred in these early years is still unknown, and most historians acknowledge there is much research still to be done in order to understand the true evolution of screenwriting in this period.

What is widely considered the earliest example of the modern script was written for George Melies’ 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon. The silent film, groundbreaking for its originality and special effects was also important for its transformative use of story. While “loading the gun,” and “splashing into the open sea” were descriptors that provided simple information about each scene, the thirty lines also described the action and provided locations, making it the closest example of a modern screenplay.

At twelve minutes, Edwin Porter’s 1903 film The Great Train Robbery was evidence of a trend that was sure to continue. Known for its use of the Master Scene Format, its script provided a structure for scenes verses descriptors for a series of cuts. Early on, the need for a script was pragmatic-scripts were helpful in understanding the amount of footage needed for a film. As narratives matured and film length increased, the production process became more complex and the need for scripting continued to expand. The widespread appearance of movie theaters also reinforced the need for an organizational aspect to filmmaking. The larger the audiences, the more sophisticated their taste, the more that was expected from films. From the first theater opening in Pittsburgh in 1905, the number of theaters would swell to 10,000 by the year 1910.

When contemplating the history of screenwriting, one cannot divorce the theories of screenwriting from the evolution of film production. The earliest films were often solo projects, from conception to completion. Referred to as the “cameraman system” this was the most primitive of filmmaking. Soon, directors became central to the process, but most movies were filmed with only a vague idea of what the director wanted to shoot. Often crews were kept waiting while the director planned what to film next. So it was when one of the most important figures in the advancement of the filmmaking process emerged. Thomas Ince was already well established as a filmmaker, but by 1912 it was clear that standard filmmaking processes were wasteful. Thus began Ince’s collaboration with scenario writer Richard Spencer. Spencer, as many scenario writers were, was a former journalist and would go on to write or co-write many of Ince’s biggest films including The Battle of Gettysburg and Custer’s Last Fight. Writing for film was a field that had gained prominence in 1909, and by 1912 the compensation for stories was considerable.

It was also in 1912 that Ince founded Inceville studios on 18,000 acres in California. Simply put, the ideas executed at his studio revolutionized filmmaking. Known for his large-scale and lengthy productions, the immense coordination involved meant, for one, that practicality was a priority. Therefore, Ince required each film to have a script prior to production, which he used to budget out the film. Second, Ince realized the efficiencies created by dividing labor throughout the process. No longer was the director the only one who knew the production plan. Credited with balancing art with business imperatives, in Ince’s world, the writer and the script were paramount. Shooting scripts would become more readily used and soon transform into what would become known as continuity scripts. Across all facets of production, every crewmember now had the precise plan as to how each movie was to be filmed.

One of the earliest books on the topic of screenwriting came from Anita Loos and John Emerson in, “How to Write Photoplays.” The 1920 book guided the so-called “aspiring photo playwright.” Loos and Emerson encouraged writers not to be swayed by pessimists who lamented the “many tons of manuscripts…rejected yearly” and instead enticed them to consider writing as a “practical” and “lucrative” profession. Within its pages, the book laid out what a writer should expect. It encouraged the would-be writer to write synopses with worrying about learning how to put it in continuity form, which could come later. As far as tools, Loos and Emerson claimed the trade “requires little in the way” of them. A typewriter, dictionary, thesaurus and access to literary aids seem to be the only prerequisites the two offer. They encourage those interested to read the trades and most importantly, to see films.

With the emergence of sound, the alteration of the screenplay continued. The first feature length talking picture was 1927’s The Jazz Singer. With it’s commercial and critical success and synchronized dialogue, the decline of silent films was sure to follow. The dialogue now vital to a screenplay would ensure its place in filmmaking production.

Any discussion of the evolution of the screenplay needs to acknowledge the importance of the economic transformation of the film industry into what is known as the Hollywood system. Considered to have begun around 1930, many believe its end to be in 1948 after the Supreme Court decision against the studios in the case of U.S. v. Paramount. Major studios such as Paramount, Fox, MGM and Warner Brothers had began to co-opt all aspects of filmmaking, from production to distribution. Further, they either owned theaters or set the terms of their sales of films to theaters. Studios worked within the contract system for all personnel including directors, actors and screenwriters, therefore they more or less controlled every facet of a film’s production including the script, its writers, directors and actors and even the film’s editing and score.

It was during this time that the continuity script was developed. At its core, the continuity script provided structure to the preproduction process; location, shots and a projection for the number of shooting days could be calculated. With its importance in every unit of production (from director to budget to set design), the need for consistency and uniformity was desirable. Script departments gained importance and the script began to function as a “blueprint.” A studio’s major objective was efficiency and cost control and a producer was in charge of organizing every aspect of the filming. Slowly, a producer’s role became more prominent than the director’s.

After the Supreme Court declared the studios in violation of anti-trust laws in its 1948 ruling, much of the studio structure went by the wayside. Soon, the auteur theory would become yet another pivotal moment in the evolution of cinema. Originating in France around 1954 and adapted a few years later in the States, the theory as William Goldman states, is that it is a director “who creates the film,” and hence, it is the director who is the driving force of a film’s production. Gone was the team approach to making a film and gone was the importance of the screenplay (and therefore a screenwriter), in the creation of a film. Instead, it was the director who was seen as the true author of a film. One often used example of the auteur theory is Alfred Hitchcock who is freely credited for the success of the films he has directed, yet for which he wrote none of the screenplays. As imagined, the theory is a hotly debated subject within the filmmaking community (more recently the Schreiber theory would directly refute the auteur claim with a writer centric approach that emphasizes the screenplay as the dominant factor in the making of a film).

Around 1970, actors’ salaries, along with the cost of producing a film, rapidly increased. Actors became more selective about choosing roles and the development of filmmaking as a “package” became prevalent. Quality scripts that would attract a sought after director and/or actor became vital in the new system; so-called spec scripts (speculative screenplay, written by a screenwriter with no promise of sale) gained in popularity and have done a great deal to revalue the screenwriter in the process.

Academics note that the current trend in scripts is toward a more literary style, with readability being key. No longer are there descriptions that are now considered either a director or an actor’s domain. Instead, story is crucial. Theories abound on how best to write a screenplay that will sell and how to make a screenplay stand out from the massive amount of scripts that surface daily. James Schamus (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) was recently quoted as saying, “when you have finished a screenplay, you have created approximately 124 pages of begging for money and attention.” Screenplays were born out of business necessity and much as it was in Thomas Ince’s time, it can be argued that the modern screenplay is as much an art form as it is a tool used in the day-to-day business of filmmaking.