Does it matter if a feature comes in around 81 pages? I have got it at 97 pages at one point but it felt forced and worse for it. As this is a spec script would a reader take one look at it and think the writer knows nothing because it's not even met the standard page length and automatically pass on it? Or would this page length be acceptable? OR... is this a blatant sign that I haven't enough story and I'm in denial and need to totally rethink? Is 90 pages the very minimum?
This is a great question. The standard accepted length of a screenplay is usually between 100-120 pages. Some scripts come in between 90-100 and some tip over into 120-130 (and beyond). If you’re a reputable writer with a significant award gleaming on your shelf (Bafta, Oscar etc) then submitting an overlong draft (120+) would be acceptable, especially as most of the time the script will be enjoyable enough to warrant such a duration.
For most new writers however, it seems that the shorter the script, the better. But that doesn’t mean too short either. From a reader’s point-of-view, you want to get through a script fairly easily and hope that the story will be a neat and entertaining experience anywhere between 90-110 pages. If a script comes in between 90-100 pages but is an enjoyable well-written affair, it usually demonstrates that the writer has natural talent with craft and structure, and has made the reader’s job easier that day by giving them a good, and short, script to get through.
However, if a script comes in between 90-100 pages and is lacking in some key areas of plot and character development, then the reader will bemoan the absence of those extra pages that would have helped to fulfil the story into a more satisfactory experience.
Basically, you shouldn’t panic if your script comes in short. It’s all about whether the story works and if you, the writer, are happy that the script is in its best presentable condition to be reviewed and considered. I have read scripts that have come in under 80 pages long but such a page count has yet to yield a good story. It is fairly common to receive scripts between 80-90 pages long, and this is okay but not recommended if you really want to get a stamp of ‘Consider’ on your report.
With a 80-90 page count you’re giving a reader immediate ammunition to dismiss your script with its underserved structure and character development. I wouldn’t recommend submitting scripts that run under 85 pages. It almost guarantees that there’s something not quite right about the timeline, structure or emotional development of the story. If it’s between 85-90, you might just pull of a deft and neat story, but it really has to deliver rather than just making the reader think: “well, the writing’s okay but the story’s too short.”
Personally, I like receiving scripts that run between 90-100. I think this is a good page count to have because the spec pile is more and more about whether a writer can write rather than “let’s make this script”. So, with a page count between 90-100, I’d be looking for a lean but well-crafted structure, unexpected plot twists and satisfying character development that all leads to an enjoyable ending.
When I’m writing, I’m pleased when a first draft comes in between 90-100. It’s always easier to add the necessary material to improve the script’s page count (and the story’s entertainment value naturally) than it is to remove scenes and amend the structure of an overlong screenplay.
In specific response to the question, I would say that 81 pages is likely to be too short. The fact that the script felt forced at 97 pages is probably a good indication that the story does need to be told around a short duration but take a closer look at the characters and story and try to honestly appraise whether the story’s working to its full effect. If you can’t decide, have the script assessed by an independent reader (don’t submit it to a studio yet) and see what they think.
Lucy and the Optimistic Reader have competitive rates, check them out. I charge £60 per report (3/4 pages comments) just in case anyone’s interested. Alternatively, there’s the Script Factory (link to the right). Whatever you decide, you have to feel confident and secure that your story is justified in its style and presentation, no matter how long or short it’s playing. Good luck. And more questions welcome, it really helps to generate blog posts.