The state of the screenwriting software art: 2014 edition

January 3rd, 2014 | by | screenwriting


Happy New Year!

But maybe I should stop doing this. If I really wanted to keep things short (and yet still completely accurate), this year’s State of the Screenwriting Software Art could be something along the lines of: “Not a whole lot has changed from last year.” And if I wanted to get extra wordy: “Or the year before that.” With the exception of Fade In, no other professional screenwriting software has seen a whole lot of new in recent years.

I hate to repeat myself, but: just because screenplays have been formatted the same way forever doesn’t mean the tools for writing them can’t get better. Computers change. Operating systems change. Mobile devices change (quickly!). And most importantly there are always evolving ideas about how to use technology to help us work better.

Oh, and before I get started, a disclaimer: Some people last year seemed to object because it appeared to them that I considered Fade In to be the best because I created it. They may have gotten that impression because I created Fade In, and I consider it to be the best. The reason for that is simple: since I made Fade In, if there’s something wrong with it I can fix it. If it’s missing a feature, I can add it. If there’s something that can be done to make the software better I can make it better. (And yes, the makers of every other piece of screenwriting software could say the same thing. You’ll have to ask them why they don’t.)1

Now here we go:

I put Fade In first because (a) going toe-to-toe with any other software on features, I think it’s clearly the best, and (b) because, speaking more objectively, updates are more frequent for it than for any other screenwriting software that I’m aware of. I do think that’s important, and I do think that folks find it valuable: that is, being able to request features, report issues, etc. and have them addressed or implemented or whatever’s necessary in short order and have a new update available often within a day or three — instead of waiting for years for it to be possibly included in some future version. As an example, a couple of updates were actually done from the Austin Film Festival, where you could come find me, request a feature or fix or improvement in person, and see it in a new download by that afternoon (or maybe the next morning).

The number of things added to Fade In over the past year is, as you can see from that version history, literally too many to list them all here, but to select a few: New import formats were added (such Adobe Story) and others were improved (like Fountain, RTF, and HTML); full-screen mode was enhanced, and new modes for focusing the text you’re currently editing and keeping the typing position centered on-screen were added; the interface for index cards was improved; revision handling was greatly enhanced, autosaving and recovery of backups were improved; the interface saw a number of enhancements, and there were a ton of performance and layout improvements and bug fixes. And that’s just the desktop version of Fade In Professional Screenwriting Software. Fade In Mobile saw quite a bit of work, too, improving functionality and form, especially on the latest versions of iOS and Android.

Fade In is now being used on feature films, network television series, cable television series, and independent films.

One of the people who took offense at the claim that Fade In was better than Final Draft was Ben Cahan, who happens to be…the original creator of Final Draft. Okay, so I guess that’s not particularly surprising; but what is kind of surprising is what, exactly, he said about Fade In’s claim to be better than Final Draft. In particular:

“Does it matter which is the best? To use an analogy, is Microsoft Word the best word processor on the planet? Who knows and who cares? Everyone uses it…”

I’m not quite sure how one is supposed to respond to that.

Does it matter which is the best? Yes. Yes, it does. It actually matters a whole lot. Screenwriters should be able to use the best screenwriting software available without being encumbered primarily by what other people are using. And a screenwriting application shouldn’t rest comfortably on the fact that “everyone uses it” and should actually try to be the best, in order to give screenwriters what they need. For better or worse, Microsoft Word probably is the best word processor on the planet — at least functionally. But before Microsoft Word, the overwhelmingly dominant word processing software was WordPerfect, and before WordPerfect was WordStar, a text-only, CP/M-based program that, compared to today’s Microsoft Word, barely did anything. Presumably it’s a good thing that things evolved beyond that, even though back then “everyone” used WordStar. Final Draft is fond of calling itself the “industry standard” as if that alone was reason enough to use it. (There are actually two industry standards: one called “PDF” and the other called “paper”.) WordStar was once an industry standard, too.2 And it’s no “happy accident” that Fade In comes out on top. Final Draft has had almost five years since version 8 was released to listen to their customers and put their multiple3 software engineers to work on fixing the bugs, adding desired features and functionality, generally making the software better, and releasing updates; it’s their choice if they didn’t.

I’ve already gone into recent detail about (some of) Final Draft’s shortcomings, so I’ll mostly let it off the hook here. Many thought that 2013 was going to be the year when Final Draft finally released their long-awaited new version. Version 9, first announced in 2010, then planned for release in 2012, then last year, still hasn’t appeared (although it’s now been promised again for 2014). Anyone familiar with software development understands that delays are common if not inevitable, but being years late with a much-needed update is, well…it’s a long time, and I actually feel bad for Final Draft users who have waited years to pay $80 or $100 for what some who have seen Final Draft 9 are calling an incremental upgrade.

Now, as for something in addition to Fade In that’s actually seen some recent development, there’s Fountain, the plain-text screenplay intermediate format4 developed by John August and Stu Maschwitz (and contributed to by a bunch of people including me). Specialized applications for writing in Fountain on a Mac have been created by both John (Highland) and Stu (Slugline).5

While I’m not sure I would recommend it as a primary editing format for the average, less technically inclined writer (as there is a special syntax to learn, and to really do any serious amount of work in it you’ll want one of those specialized applications, somewhat muting the promise of being able to work easily in any old text editor, and in the end you’ll still need to get your screenplay into something like Fade In or Final Draft anyway — although Fade In has supported Fountain from the beginning, so that part is easy), where Fountain really does shine is as a baseline interchange format for screenplay documents. If more programs supported Fountain import and export (or Fountain copy-and-paste), like Fade In does, then it would be so much easier to move screenplay formatted text between them. I’ve started looking into this with the developers of other popular writing software, and I hope that in the coming year it gets pushed a little higher on their radars.

There are a few others to take a look at before we’re done here:

Movie Magic Screenwriter was traditionally considered the “other” professional screenwriting software. Like Final Draft it hasn’t seen a new version for years. Unlike Final Draft there is nothing (at least publicly) on the horizon in terms of an update.

Adobe Story has, I’m fairly sure, updated itself within the last year, but I’d be hard-pressed to identify what, if any, substantial changes or improvements there have been.

Celtx has pretty much buried its free version and open-source roots — at first I thought the free download had been removed entirely, but after a little digging found it, last updated almost two years ago, at the bottom of their “Legacy Desktop Software” page. They seem to be pretty clearly moving away from their free introductory/hobbyist base and toward subscription-based services (up to $19.99/month per user!), which strikes me as pretty bold seeing as Celtx unfortunately never made it to a professional level of functionality.

And of course there are a handful of other programs that, while not offering the full range of professional screenwriting features, will to varying degrees allow you to create a document that looks like a screenplay, from Scrivener (which recently added Fountain import/export) to Writer Duet (which Craig Mazin recently brought up as having promising collaboration features, similar to how some people have been using Google Docs and Fade In for team scriptwriting projects).

That should do for now.

Happy 2014, everybody!

  1. This is a situation where it’s hard to be both humble (my natural inclination) and honest (also my natural inclination). But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, in this case, the odds are I’m both biased and right.
  2. And there are also “industry standards” for things like minimum acceptable groundwater contamination, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t aim, you know, higher.
  3. I mean, I assume. Final Draft has over forty employees. They must be doing something.
  4. An intermediate format is one that isn’t intended to be viewed as the final form; it’ll have to be processed/compiled/rendered somehow before that.
  5. I do think I get to tease John at least a little for talking about plain text as the future, when we’ve spent the last almost fifty years trying to get computers to make things actually look like they’re supposed to. Even Richard Stallman (RMS!), the progenitor of the quintessential everything-as-text editor Emacs, has recently courted heresy by talking about adding WYSIWYG functionality, after 38 plain-text years.

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