The state of the screenwriting software art: 2013 edition

February 7th, 2013 | by | screenwriting

Feb
07

I’ve done this a couple of times now — sat down annually to summarize the state of the art in screenwriting software — and it’s not completely off-topic to wonder just what the point is, especially to do it as often as every year. After all, the 12-point Courier screenwriting format has existed pretty much unchanged since the first caveman banged out the first screenplay and went looking for an agent.

A fair point, maybe. But. While the screenplay format may well be the one single constant in human history, everything else changes.

Put it this way: a year or two were you even thinking about screenwriting on a tablet or iPad or smartphone? Were you storing all your scripts “in the cloud” so you could access and edit and share them anywhere, on any computer or device? Were you wondering why your screenwriting software’s text looked so awful on your monster-resolution Retina Macbook Pro, which didn’t even exist yet? And that’s to say nothing of ever-improving ideas of how software should work, and what it can do to make things easier for users — in this case particularly for screenwriters.

Fade In

Fade In Professional Screenwriting Software, written by me, is probably the most actively developed screenwriting software available, with a couple dozen updates released in 2012 alone. It runs on more platforms, has more features, supports more file formats, and is far less expensive than any comparable professional-level application. Obviously I’m a little biased, so I’ll let the comparison speak for itself.

The couple dozen 2012 updates (and three so far in 2013) include a new focused editing mode; automatic character name-changing; Adobe Story, old Final Draft (.fdr) and HTML import; direct ebook (.epub) and scheduling format export; enhanced index cards; folders and outline levels in the navigator, multicolumn formatting; new templates for radio, multimedia, and graphic novels; Retina text display; improved font rendering and international text support, document comparison; script error-checking; and a ton of other new features, enhancements, and fixes. The full and lengthy list is here.

Fade In is still the only pro-level screenwriting software that has full Fountain support, the only one with Mac OS X Retina text display, the only one with full Unicode support, and the only one that runs on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.

Fade In Mobile for iOS (iPad/iPhone) and Android also got some new features over the last year, including page numbers and night mode, Fountain formatting markup, and improvements to user interface, Unicode handling, and connectivity. The iOS version got a big boost with the addition of full-page, non-modal editing which makes Fade In Mobile on an iPad or iPhone a lot more like the desktop application.

Final Draft (and Movie Magic Screenwriter)

It’s been a while since the older legacy screenwriting applications saw a major update — Final Draft version 8 and Movie Magic Screenwriter version 6 came out in 2009 and 2007, respectively. They have both seen minor updates to address not working with recent Mac OS X updates but haven’t, to my knowledge, addressed any of the long list of bugs and deficiencies that might lead one to complain about them. (And Movie Magic Screenwriter still has a number of tools that won’t work on the last couple versions of OS X.) After the third annual round-up saying essentially the same thing, I’m not sure how to better get the point across: it’s been years and they haven’t been fixed. But they keep selling the same old software for $250 a copy.

People can occasionally be found asking/hoping/theorizing about some future, speculative, yet-to-be-announced version 9 of Final Draft. They’ve asked Final Draft Inc. directly about things like Unicode text and support for Apple’s latest high-resolution Retina Macbook Pro computers. The problem with those things is that, in addition to what people have already observed, it’s a safe bet that Final Draft is running on some pretty old technology.1 I suspect that will make something like Retina text in particular, which is dependent on more recent OS features, hugely difficult and pretty unlikely until Final Draft undergoes a major rewrite or re-architecting.

I’ve actually found it sort of curious that Final Draft Inc. has this past year been offering Final Draft 8 for sale on the Mac App Store for the same price as the non-app-store version for on sale. The curious part is that paid upgrades are obviously part of Final Draft’s business model. They don’t give Final Draft 7 owners version 8 for free. They charge them $80 for it (vs. the full price of $250). But here’s the thing: Apple explicitly doesn’t allow paid upgrades.2 So Final Draft Inc. will either have to provide Final Draft 9, if it ever materializes, free of charge to Mac App Store purchasers or deny them an upgrade altogether. Unless they give free upgrades to everyone, option #1 is not going to sit well with those non-app-store purchasers who do have to pay for an upgrade. And option #2 would undoubtedly make people pretty angry and bitter that they had purchased through the Mac App Store. For a lower-priced app this might be slightly less of a big deal, but Final Draft on the Mac App Store costs two hundred dollars.3

(Mind you, it wouldn’t be the first time Final Draft did something that, pricing-wise, was unusual. The iPad-only Final Draft Writer finally came out in 2012. Final Draft had previously, with Final Draft Reader, gotten a good deal of grief from their users who were very disappointed at having been promised a mobile Final Draft app for more than a year, but were suddenly told they’d be getting something that was reader-only. What was more eyebrow-raising was that they initially charged twenty dollars for the reader app — that delivered neither what Final Draft had originally announced nor what their users were expecting — and which was, by their own admission, essentially a technology test for the eventual writer app. Twenty dollars! For a reader app! That they explained was basically a checkpoint in the development of the “real” app! And then, by the time Final Draft Writer came out, Final Draft Reader was released for free. So. Final Draft first charged their most eager and loyal users, the ones who would step up and buy a reader app that they didn’t even want, an exorbitant — by app standards — amount, and then afterward released it to anyone else who wanted it for free. Price differentiation is a proven marketing trick, but man…did anyone not feel used?)

Some of the others

Celtx, which once meant the free and open source application popular with some amateur screenwriters, has begun exploring a path that is less free and less open-source.4 You can still download a free desktop version, but in addition to the $14.95 “Celtx Plus” version (with a couple of additional features), you can now subscribe to a $9.99 per month “Celtx Edge” account to get online editing with features like PDF output and Final Draft (.fdx) import. Celtx also introduced “Celtx Script” for Mac OS X which costs $9.99 and, somewhat surprisingly given the price, offers less functionality than the free desktop version.

Adobe’s Flash-based Story software took a similar tack in 2012, moving to a subscription “Story Plus” service, also for $9.99 a month. The paid service is now necessary to work without an internet connection, to use the standalone app instead of the in-browser version, or to have access to features like multiple revisions. Adobe Story Plus now costs $120 a year. Final Draft 8 costs $250 and came out four years ago. That means if you use Story Plus for as long as people have been using Final Draft 8, it will cost a whopping $480(!), and it doesn’t do as much that screenwriters need as Final Draft does. It certainly doesn’t do anywhere near as much as Fade In — despite the fact that, over those four years, Adobe Story Plus will cost, literally, ten times as much.

(Update: Since I first posted this, I’ve been asked why I didn’t include program X or program Y, and the answer is pretty straightforward if not particularly complimentary: they’re just not part of the equation. Program X and program Y just aren’t professional-level software; they’re not suitable for taking a script through development, rewrites, pre-production, more rewrites, and production on a project of any real size; and they are not used in the professional film writing/making world. Yes, there are multiple other “screenwriting software” choices out there that will enable you to write something in a screenplay format so that when you’re done you have something that looks pretty close to a real screenplay, but that’s merely the tip of the iceberg of what screenwriting software can and should do. Especially if you’re paying for it.)

Courier Prime

Screenwriter John August was, once upon a time, a graphic designer, and — like any good and decent person — is offended by the general ugliness of the screenplay-standard Courier font. John (who’s one of the people behind Fountain) always has an interesting technical project or two going on on the side, and he recently enlisted font designer Alan Dauge-Greene to come up with, essentially, a better Courier. In January they released Courier Prime.

It’s a nice font. It’s a marked improvement over almost every other Courier variant (especially the dreaded, anemic Courier New5). It displays very similarly to Fade In’s Courier Screenplay — which is a good thing, because everyone should be using a solid, strong, well-balanced font for screenplays — although Courier Prime has a whole new, unique take on italics. And it works seamlessly with Fade In Professional Screenwriting Software and Final Draft for Mac. (Although Windows users will apparently notice that Final Draft doesn’t get along so well with Courier Prime. Final Draft blames the font.)

Please, everybody, use a better Courier. Really.

Really, really.

Next year I’ll write all about screenwriting in your flying car.


  1. It’s at least partly PowerPlant, a mid-1990s Mac OS Classic programming framework. Type strings “Final Draft.app/Contents/MacOS/Final Draft” — everything beginning with an “L”, like “LTextEditView”, is PowerPlant.
  2. An entirely separate issue is that the Mac App Store will not allow new features/upgrades for applications that haven’t been properly sandboxed — they’ll only allow bug fixes. Non-Cocoa software (including legacy applications that predate OS X) can be very, very difficult to sandbox.
  3. There’s actually an option #3, which is somehow converting app store purchasers to non-app-store, but that’s much easier said than done. First of all, as Wil Shipley points out in that linked op-ed, Apple would be furious with them for trying to do an end-run around app store policies. Not to mention that Apple definitely doesn’t provide developers with any means of verifying or listing valid app store purchasers. And then even if FD is somehow able to figure out who is entitled to an update, do they remove the old Final Draft 8 from the app store? What about people who bought FD8 from the app store but don’t want to upgrade? What if they need to reinstall? Do they lose access to FD8? Or does the old, out-of-date version 8 stay listed forever, causing ongoing confusion with people buying the wrong thing? Like I said: curious.
  4. Since Celtx is based on the Mozilla brower, they’re required to make the source available under the Mozilla Public License, and the latest available source seems to be from sometime early last year. But it doesn’t seem like the source for Celtx Script or Celtx Edge is available, period. It also looks like they’ve removed any prominent mentions of “open source” from the front page of the Celtx website.
  5. Way back before I began to use screenwriting software, I used general word processing software for scripts. I remember that when I was finished one, and before I sent it off, I’d print it and make a photocopy of a photocopy in order to fatten up and blacken the font.

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