The Film Insider: Choosing a Screenwriting Software Program

If you're reading this, it's likely that you're looking to write professional screenplays with as much efficiency as possible. You'll know what an industry standard screenplay looks like and are familiar with the technical requirements. And you'll be familiar with the concepts and techniques of the writing process for film. Now you've decided to buy a certified software program that will have you churning out a string of blockbuster scripts, like Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) or Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, The Da Vinci Code). The two screenwriting software programs that are most used by professionals (and advertised) are Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter. However, there are several smaller players on the market that may serve your needs well, depending on your budget and specific writing needs. In this article, I'll brief describe some of the available screenwriting software programs, and then compare and contrast features across the various programs.

Note: If you're new to screenwriting, you might want to read my other articles first (Using Microsoft Word for Screenwriting and About Screenwriting Software Programs) and save yourself some money and frustration by easing your way into the domain of screenwriting software

Screenwriting Products

All fully-developed screenwriting software programs offer basic screenplay layout and text formatting features. Each program then adds a range of advanced features to make it stand out from the competition or uses the old reliable competitive strategy of offering similar features at a lower cost (which isn't a bad thing if it still fulfills the writer's needs.) For an overview of common advanced features in screenwriting software, see my article "About Screenwriting Software Programs."

Here's a list of currently available screenwriting software programs (in alphabetical order) and a brief description of what each offers. (Be aware that screenwriting software programs appear and disappear as often as Oscar-winning actors and actresses, so this list will change over time.)

  1. Celtx
  2. Dreamascript
  3. Final Draft
  4. Hollywood Screenwriter & Between The Lines
  5. Montage
  6. Movie Magic Screenwriter
  7. ScriptWare

CELTX Storyboard Screen

Celtx

According to its Web site, "Celtx is the world's first fully integrated solution for media pre-production and collaboration." This software program goes far beyond a screenwriting template and includes a story development tool, several script templates, scene organization cards, a multi-author collaboration option, and the ability to generate script breakdowns, import and organize storyboards and create production schedules. Perhaps what's most remarkable about this software program is that its source code is openly shared and the program is FREE to download. The software is still in its early release stages but could promise to be a serious contender in the screenwriting software arena.

Marion Grace Woolley at suite101.com wrote, "Final Draft has been praised by professionals as having a more detailed report function and being better geared to film-makers as opposed to straight screenwriting...whereas Celtx is purely pre-production. If you're looking to write scripts, Celtx is fine, but if you want to make films it's advisable to invest."

Web site: http://www.celtx.com

Dreamascript

As a new player on the market, Dreamascript offers some interesting new features to set itself apart from other screenwriting software products. For one, it has a building block approach to the entire scriptwriting process, taking you through idea generation, scene description, story structure and character definition before you even get to writing dialogue. You can consult other screenwriters online to request feedback, and troubleshoot story and character problems. The overall script formatting and layout comes at the end of the writing process when Dreamascript bundles up your work into a professional script. But Dreamascript doesn't stop there. It also includes a free copyright and professional review services, and marketing and selling tools and guides.

Web site: http://www.dreamascript.com

Final Draft

The biggest player in the screenwriting software market, the Final Draft Web site describes its software as combining "powerful word processing with professional script formatting in one self-contained, easy-to-use package." A host of celebrated movie makers including Tom Hanks, Alan Ball, James Cameron, Oliver Stone and J.J. Abrams all swear by Final Draft as THE scriptwriting tool to use. It offers all the advanced script formatting and layout features you'll need to simplify the writing process, including a sophisticated panel layout that enables you to display different parts of your script in two panels on your computer screen. For example, you can view and compare two different script pages or show a script page beside the index-card scene layout. This feature will help you navigate quickly between various scenes of the script to manage connections between plot points, character development and story continuity.

Although it allows you to "tag" elements of your script for exporting to movie scheduling software, Final Draft does not include the actual production tools such as breakdowns, schedules and storyboards within the software program. In other words, you'll need other software to perform the other aspects of your film production planning and your extended production team needs. For the independent filmmaker, it can be convenient to have more tools integrated in one program, such as with Dreamascript or Movie Magic Screenwriter.

Web site: http://www.finaldraft.com/products/final-draft/index.php

Note: Final Draft offers another variation of its software called Final Draft AV. This program is "designed for professional writers of commercials, corporate and training videos, documentaries and presentations. [It] keeps the audio and video columns automatically aligned when text is added, edited or deleted." [http://www.finaldraft.com/products/final-draft-av/]

Hollywood Screenwriter & Between The Lines

Hollywood Screenwriter is a basic script-formatting word processor with several script templates, making it a simplified version of its big brother, Movie Magic Screenwriter, and similar to one of the many Microsoft© Word screenwriting template plug-ins. At $34, though, it certainly offers the right price for a screenwriter who has no intention of interacting with the other preproduction staff on a film and just wants to focus on writing (and hopefully, selling).

Caution: Support for this product seems to be dwindling as Write Brothers, Inc., the creators of Hollywood Screenwriter, are steering writers to buy Magic Movie Screenwriter instead. Therefore, this software is only available through third-party resellers, such as Amazon.com, Writers Store (www.writersstore.com/product.php?products_id=3210) and Storymind (http://storymind.com)

Hollywood Screenwriter is only available for Windows operating systems, so Mac users can use Between The Lines. Similar to Hollywood Screenwriter, this is a basic and inexpensive script formatting tool. It offers index-card scene planning and screenwriting tips and essays. It's available at http://dramatica.stores.yahoo.net/belibsoforma.html.

Montage

Montage is the only screenwriting software exclusively developed for Mac OS X, which may make Mac users more comfortable with this program than with others that have been adapted from PC-based development. However, it's only a screenplay formatting word processor without too many advanced features.

To support writers who collaborate with Final Draft users, Montage allows you to import and export Final Draft script files. Other than offering simultaneous panel views of different script elements, such as a character view or locations view, Montage has a handy story design feature that helps you write scenes, add characters, and make notes, before writing the actual script elements.

Web site: http://www.marinersoftware.com/sitepage.php?page=104

Movie Magic Screenwriter

With Movie Magic Screenwriter (MMS), Write Brothers, Inc. has managed to develop the biggest competition for Final Draft, making it only other major player in the screenwriting software field. According to the testimonials, it has managed to convert many Final Draft users. MMS offers all the basic and advanced script formatting features on steroids including over 100 templates, excellent scene organization tools, multi-panel views and an online collaboration tool. Part of their loyalty and user support may stem from the fact that the software was developed by produced screenwriters and that they're "the only company to win an Academy Technical Achievement Award for screenwriting software." What really appeals to me is that MMS integrates with a suite of other film pre-production software programs including Dramatica Pro (for story development), and StoryView (for story outlining and planning), EP Movie Magic Budgeting and EP Movie Magic Scheduling.

Note: Movie Magic Screenplay Studio bundles Movie Magic Screenwriter with Dramatica Pro and StoryView for a more complete set of story and script development programs. Also, despite the uncanny (and surely intentional) similarity in names, Movie Magic Budgeting and Movie Magic Scheduling are not products developed by Write Brothers, but rather by Entertainment Partners.

Web site: http://www.screenplay.com

Scriptware

Another script formatting word processor, Scriptware offers the usual set of keyboard shortcuts and auto-text features to increase your screenwriting speed by eliminating tiresome formatting operations. In addition to the index-card scene planning, Scriptware allows you make notes, color-mark different script elements, generate breakdown reports and export lists (such as characters, scenes, props, costumes, and special effects [SFX]) to Movie Magic Scheduling.

Web site: http://www.scriptware.com

What Happened to Sophocles?

No, I'm not referring to the Greek playwright but rather to a nifty software program that has recently gone AWOL with a broken Web URL, deleted pages from Wikipedia and a smattering of rumors on screenwriter forums ranging from a sudden software sellout to the tragic death of the software founder, Tim Sheehan, all of which makes it worthy of an investigative documentary to some fan-boys. Although Sophocles is (was) another word processor for writing screenplays and other dramatic scripts, it included some apparently very useful tools for visualizing the story's structure through its two window-pane screen setup, one offering the usual script format view and the other showing a graphical tree-view of the screenplay outline. Anyway, unless you learn differently in the future, consider Sophocles as history.

What's the best script software?

A Google search on the Internet will yield a host of other screenwriting programs, many of which are now obsolete and all of which are variations on the programs I've described above. So how do you decide which program is the best for you? First, remember to determine what exactly you need the program to do. If all you want to do is write scripts that look like professional screenplays, you can probably get away with something cheaper and simpler to use than Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter (MMS). But if you're a seasoned pro and working in the industry, you'll probably need a program with more features and compatibility with your filmmaking colleagues.

So if you're feeling both democratic and capitalistic, you'll go with Final Draft because as Lenore Wright declares on her Screenwriters Web site (www.breakingin.net), "the best selling program is Final Draft, next is Movie Magic Screenwriter and then Scriptware (is) close behind." Keep in mind, though, that Movie Magic Screenwriter has the same or more functionality than Final Draft. Plus, many producers and assistant directors may be using Movie Magic Budgeting and Scheduler, and these programs import MMS scripts easier than those from Final Draft.

When I read over several user reviews on independent screenwriter blogs and forums, two very interesting distinctions moved Movie Magic Screenwriter ahead of Final Draft, customer service and software stability. Many users had unpleasant and expensive experiences with Final Draft's customer support, while the Magic Movie Screenwriter technical support was prompt, helpful and free. There were also several complaints about annoying ‘bugs' and awkward user quirks in Final Draft. One user wrote, "[Final Draft] has always had too many ‘quirks' for me compared to MMS. But [the Final Draft] marketing folks have done a Gates-esque job of making it the industry standard, even though [in my humble opinion] it's an inferior product."

Each software product has its champions who are firmly convinced that the software they use offers the best features and value based on their personal experience. Many MMS users praised its interface and functions as being more "intuitive" than Final Draft's. And this brings up the most important deciding factor for anyone considering screenwriting software-does the software work with how you work? I wish I could declare which software program is the BEST program for everyone, but it's up to you to try them out and determine which one fits your writing process best.

Feature Comparison

To summarize, here's a table that compares many of the features and prices of the many screenwriting software program. The prices shown are recommended list prices for the boxed CD-ROM version of software; you can likely pay less through a reseller (remember to check eBay, too) or for a downloadable installation. Think about what you need, download some demo versions, choose a product that fits your style and get writing!

Screenwriting Software Comparison Table

Comments 23 comments

Denise 8 years ago

What about Movie Outline? I just read a review in Creative Screenwriting Magazine and it sounds v. good. Have you used this?


Peter Szabo 8 years ago

Hi Denise,

I think I had just discovered this program when I was finishing the article. I have not tried it out but it certainly looks like a useful program with a great range of features. Not a bad price either, being just over $200.

Let me know if you you try and what you think.


Denise 8 years ago

Hi Peter. I downloaded the demo and it's pretty good. I think I will use it on my next project with my writing partner who is much more experienced than me and always step outlines his stories before writing the screenplay. Movie Outline looks ideal for this, and the script formatting seems to work just like Final Draft which is what I'm used to.. so no learning curve on that front.


Peter Szabo 8 years ago

Thanks, Denise, for the update. I've been using Celtx for a few months now, but am intrigued by how Movie Outline handles the step outlining. I'll check out a demo version sometime soon.


lafenty profile image

lafenty 7 years ago from California

I am a Movie Magic Screenwriter fan. I started out using Final Draft, but made the switch several years ago to MMS. I love it. I have a writing partner who lives in another state, the MMS feature of instant messaging has been invaluable, alowing us to write in real time and communicate.


Peter Szabo profile image

Peter Szabo 7 years ago from Guelph, Ontario, Canada Author

That's great to know, and validation of what I've been moving toward myself. I've been using various freeware items (most recently Celtx) but want to be able to use more functionality. I've been wary about Final Draft because it's so heavily promoted, while MMS just looks more appealing and practical. Thanks for the feedback.


"B" profile image

"B" 7 years ago from Portland, OR

Thank you so much for the info this is exactly what I've needed! I've been searching for a few days for a good program for screenwriting and it was very helpful getting a breakdown of the top ones.


Peter Szabo 7 years ago

Wonderful. I"m so glad it helped, although it's probably getting out-of-date already, with new programs coming out all the time.


lulu 7 years ago

Can anyone tell me how Movie Outline campares to Cinergy?


Robin 7 years ago

I've been using or trying to use Final Draft AV for over a year now. It's the buggiest program I've ever used. I installed it on a laptop and a desktop and it constantly crashes. I have a string of emails from their 'support' department none of which helped at all. Although the audio and visual line up features are better than using Word table, the constant need to save and having the program crash at crucial times is extremely frustrating. I would strongly recommend against this product. Personally I'm ready to trash it, can you recommend a more stable program for AV scriptwriters?


Peter Szabo 7 years ago

Hi Robin. Thanks for the feedback on Final Draft. I think Movie Magic Screenwriter would be a better way to go. It has similar, if not more features, it's still an industry standard tool for the film and television industry, and it's more stable.

I also hear good things about Movie Outline and it's web site reveals some very cool features and functions. However, I have not a chance to try it so I'm unsure about its stability nor its ease-of-use and practicality as a script writing tool.


Bob 6 years ago

Hi Peter, have you tried SceneWriter Pro? (http://www.scenewriterpro.com) I have been using it for years after switching from Final Draft. Main difference for me is the fact that I now concentrate on writing scenes instead of the whole script.

At the end of the day, all screenplay programs do a similar job (format your screenplay) so anything which actually helps you write is a good thing IMO.


Michael McMann 6 years ago

Hi Peter I've just started using Montage on my Mac and wish I had read your MS Word article before purchasing it. The AutoText feature was new to me and could have solved some of my problems.

One of the most surprising things is that in the ‘Script’ window – unlike MS Word where I can format styles easily to prevent this – page breaks mid-element are common, so that an 'action/direction' paragraph, for example, breaks between pages (rather than finishing or forcing over to a new page) which I find most disconcerting. Now the user guide informs me that this is resolved on the printed page with ‘(MORE)’ and (CONT’D). The limited printing experiment I did left me unconvinced.

I suppose I’m so used to Word page breaking to my formatting that it’s something I’ll just have to live with. However, there are further problems with the application and it’s based on Mac’s own free TextEdit which has limited word processing capabilities. There some good features such as the 'Scenes' pane. However, I also downloaded Final Draft only to find it does the same with page endings so perhaps it’s a common feature of screenwriting applications.

Regards,

Michael


Peter Szabo profile image

Peter Szabo 6 years ago from Guelph, Ontario, Canada Author

Hi Michael. Thanks for the feedback about Montage. I understand your familiarity with MS Word and also appreciate controlling page breaks. However, the page breaks in the middle of script elements is common in all professional screenwriting programs, since the script page sizes and text layout should conform to industry standards. All professional scripts have the text run to the bottom margin and then break, regardless of whether the script element is completed or not. Which is why they created the (MORE) and (CONT'D) tags.

I've been having fun with Zhura lately, which is free, web-based software (http://www.zhura.com). There's an upgrade version of course that requires monthly payments, but the free version works quite well.

Good luck with your screenwriting.


Matt McRobie 4 years ago

Hey Peter,

You should also check out Setkick (http://setkick.com) - they are a web and ipad based production management tool. I have used them recently on a production, and must say I had great results.

- Matt


Peter Szabo 4 years ago

Thanks, Matt. Coincidentally, I just bought the Gorilla software suite for breakdowns, budgeting, scheduling, call sheets, etc. This Setkick app may come in handy for on-set or on-location though.

- Peter


gramon1 profile image

gramon1 4 years ago from Miami

I started with Celtx. It is fantastic and free. Then, I got a free copy of Movie Magic at the Inktip convention. I love it too. They are both great. I suggest to anyone starting to write scripts to get Celtx. The idea of using a word processor with a template sucks. Writing is difficult enough to spend time thinking about word processing issues.

My favorite thing about Movie Magic is its correction features, such as changing from upper to lower case, etc.

One think to consider is that if you want to switch from one software to the next you just select all, copy, go to the other software, and select paste. The formatting tends to be mosly fine.

Thanks for the article.


Peter Szabo profile image

Peter Szabo 4 years ago from Guelph, Ontario, Canada Author

Thanks for the comment.

I still use Celtx for basic screenwriting, but as I"m developing my Producer skills, I'll soon be adding Movie Magic to my toolkit to better support the full production flow. Thanks for the tip about copying-and-pasting--great solution for otherwise incompatible software.


Jane Hatch 2 years ago

I tried to copy and paste from a Word document to Celtx--that didn't work. But happy to hear you can copy and past from one screenwriting program to another.


gramon1 profile image

gramon1 2 years ago from Miami

I haven't tried it, but if I wanted to copy from a word processor to Celtix or Movie Magic, I would first save as Rich Text, Copy Rich Text to my email program, and copy to Celtix.


abisola akinsete 2 years ago

Hello am new to this. I want to write script but don't know what to do, am a media consultant. 1What do you think I should do first 2 what kind of movies or videos do these templates produce eg sercular or religious 3i have read the above comments on the different kinds of templated but how do they work because I cannot write to save my life. Please guide me.


Peter Szabo profile image

Peter Szabo 2 years ago from Guelph, Ontario, Canada Author

Hi Abisola.

I'm not sure how to best answer your questions. The templates are for any kind of movie, television, or any audio-visual script, and are basically empty containers with predesigned page outline, paragraph, and character styles. It sounds like you're looking for guidance on how to write scripts, but these software programs only help writers to write in a professional screenplay format. The software won't help you learn how to write a good script. If you're looking for help on how to write, you're best to search for books or courses on how to write for whatever subject (marketing videos, narrative fiction, documentary, journalistic) or medium (film, TV) you're interested in.

Thanks, Peter


gramon1 profile image

gramon1 2 years ago from Miami

When I decided to become a scriptwriter, I read and followed the exercises in a few books. Then, I wrote a script and sent it for coverage. It was returned with a million mistakes. I corrected them and sent it back. It came back with half a million mistakes. Again a few times, and I decided to use a different service. They found many new mistakes. Soon, I realized that each reviewer found different problems. I wrote another script and sent it to my third favorite script doctor. I followed her corrections and sent it to my second favorite script doctor, and then to my favorite one. I did this with a few scripts and it gave me a very good sense of what to do and what to avoid.

Not being in Hollywood, I realized that it is almost impossible to get your scripts produced by Hollywood. Not just because of nepotism, but also because of differences in the most basic concepts. So, I switched to play writing and production. Being a playwright is fun and you get to interact with the audience.

By the way, Celtix is the best programs for mit very appealing.

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