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
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.)
- Final Draft
- Hollywood Screenwriter & Between The Lines
- Movie Magic Screenwriter
CELTX Storyboard Screen
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
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
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 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
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.
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!