Screenwriting 2.0 in the Classroom? Teaching the Digital Screenplay

By Andrew Kenneth Gay

“A principle says, ‘This works . . . and has through all remembered time.’” (Robert McKee) (1)

“It’s very hard for people brought up in one era with one set of principles to come into a new era where the old principles don’t work.” (Anonymous Academic) (2)

Despite the ‘digital revolution’, the contemporary screenplay is still conspicuously analog in design and use, “a document that exists as a carry-over from a pre-digital era.” (3) Given access to a time machine, a Hollywood screenwriter working half a century ago would encounter little difficulty adjusting to the conventions of professional screenwriting in 2012. Sure, he would need to learn how to use his PC’s spellchecker and how to enable his word processor’s autosave functions, but this should end his brief orientation. Today’s master scene format — the standard formatting convention for Hollywood screenplays — was already described in detail by Lewis Herman in 1952: “No camera angles have been indicated. Only a scene description, character action, and the accompanying dialogue have been attended to.” (4) Screenwriting instructors have little incentive to change the way they teach because, in spite of the advent, indeed the proliferation of screenwriting software programs in the last fifteen years, the screenplay itself has hardly changed in sixty years. “This works . . . and has through all remembered time.” (5)

As the industry goes, so goes institutional instruction. The problem with this whole line of reasoning is that it rests on the prime assumption that professional screenwriting is a vocation a student may reasonably hope to enter after graduating from university or college with a degree in that field, an assumption that is absurd on its face. Screenwriting is a vocation like playing professional football is a vocation. Most university programs in screenwriting teach students how to write a spec script to be sold on the open market in Hollywood. Box Office Mojo tracked just 120 new feature films released by the six major Hollywood studios in 2011, (6) but the Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) boasts more than 12,000 members and registers more than 65,000 new screenplays every year. (7) Only 4,244 of the Guild’s members reported any income from screenwriting in 2010. (8) These odds make taking a university screenwriting course a little like studying to win the lottery. “This is why the craft of teaching the craft of the screenplay is for many more lucrative than the craft of the screenplay,” writes Howard Rodman. (9) Given these harsh realities, it may be time for screenwriting instructors to rethink our pedagogical principles. In my essay, I will engage in a little speculation about whether it may indeed be time for ‘Screenwriting 2.0’ and the digital screenplay.

As filmmaker, essayist and academic Kathryn Millard writes, “The rise of new technologies and networks means that writing now happens primarily in digital environments: on screens, personal computers, netbooks and myriad mobile devices. We compose digital texts for websites, blogs, wikis and interactive media, opening up alternative practices to those established around print.” (10) Teaching Screenwriting 2.0, for me, would mean integrating this technological fluency into the craft and study of the screenplay. Not only would this enrich the learning environment of our classrooms and offer students valuable skills for a variety of career paths, it might revolutionize the practices of screenwriting, just as Web 2.0 revolutionized our experience of the Web.

The term Web 2.0 was first coined by Web designer Darcy DiNucci in 1999. DiNucci envisioned a Web “understood not as screenfuls of text and graphics but as a transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity happens.” (11) Her predictions have since come true, but her term for this present-future — Web 2.0 — only gained traction in public discourse when Tim O’Reilly launched his first Web 2.0 Conference in 2004. (12) O’Reilly more than anyone has been responsible for defining the core principles of Web 2.0. Together, he and John Musser have defined eight core principles, but here I will look only at the five most easily applied to screenwriting: harnessing collective intelligence, perpetual beta, rich user experiences, software above the level of a single device, and leveraging the Long Tail. (13)

As O’Reilly and John Battelle report, “Many people now understand this idea [harnessing collective intelligence] in the sense of ‘crowdsourcing,’ namely that a large group of people can create a collective work whose value far exceeds that provided by any of the individual participants.” (14

) When students and teachers think of crowdsourcing, Wikipedia is probably the first example that comes to mind, but “[t]he Web as a whole is a marvel of crowdsourcing, as are marketplaces such as those on eBay and craigslist, mixed media collections such as YouTube and Flickr, and the vast personal lifestream collections on Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook.” (15)

The process of making a motion picture is inherently collaborative in nature, but the conventional screenplay has sometimes been viewed as an impediment to collaboration, resulting in a close identification of collaborative film authorship with unscripted improvisation. For example, according to Maria Viera, “All of [John] Cassavetes’ films following Shadows have well-thought-out, fully-formed, carefully detailed scripts with all lines of dialogue in place. Yet this end title card (‘the film you have just seen was an improvisation’) clings to the rest of Cassavetes’ works.” (16) For Cassavetes, this claim to improvisation was closely linked to collaboration: “I’m always aware that somebody else on the set may have some good ideas. For instance, I sincerely think that Ben Gazzara [star of Husbands] knows a lot of things about acting and film making that I don’t know, and I want them if he’s got them.” (17)Collaboration of this sort conflicts with the “shoot as written” (18) notion of the script as blueprint, a view that suggests “a fixed, single moment of control over the filmmaking process — leading to the implication that filmmaking is a mere process of assembly.” (19) This implication stands in direct opposition to the principle of harnessing collective intelligence. Screenwriting 2.0, on the other hand, might actually enhance the opportunity for collaboration and improvisation in filmmaking, since it would invite collaborators into the writing process long before shooting begins and allows participation to continue well into production.

Students might at first resist such an approach, concerned they could “disappear” into collectively written scripts, making it “impossible to determine or remember or care about who contributed what passages.” (20) But harnessing collective intelligence need not result in anonymous authorship. Wikipedia may prove a useful example here: “Text on Wikipedia is a collaborative work, and the efforts of individual contributors to a page are recorded in that page’s history, which is publicly viewable.” (21) Authorship is collective but not always or entirely anonymous. Wikipedia entries also have administrators who oversee the quality of each edit and have the ability to block abusive users and spammers. Classroom screenwriting and student film production could work similarly. Students might be assigned to write their scripts in a wiki platform. Faculty and classmates could then make editorial contributions to each student’s script wiki, with the original author acting as a kind of administrator, accepting or declining collaborative input into the master entry. In such an arrangement, user agreements would establish copyright: before contributing to a student or classmate’s script wiki, faculty and peers will release their claim to credit or compensation for any material they add to the final product.

The second of O’Reilly and Musser’s core principles I would like to discuss, perpetual beta, refers to the end of software release cycles. (22) Traditional desktop-based applications are released in distinct versions. When new versions are released, users are required to upgrade, often at an additional cost. Sometimes works created using one software version will be incompatible with another. Web-based applications, however, perpetually evolve, and those who use them always have access to the latest version and features. “Users must be treated as co-developers, in a reflection of open source development practices […] The open source dictum, ‘release early and release often’ in fact has morphed into an even more radical position, ‘the perpetual beta,’ in which the product is developed in the open, with new features slipstreamed in on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis.” (23)

During the principle photography of a motion picture, script revisions are common. “The changeability of the text is also reflected in its physical appearance. Screenplays are loosely bound and can be easily dismantled to insert revision pages.” (24) The process of keeping the entire cast and crew literally on the same page can become quite a challenge when revisions are released, giving rise to strict conventions for the tracking of these revisions. When a screenplay is locked for production, new revisions are printed on color-coded sheets of paper that indicate the date of revision, and the specific revisions themselves are demarcated in the margins by an asterisk. Each member of the crew can compare his or her script to another copy on set, and visually determine whether or not it is an up-to-date draft. The principle of perpetual beta in digital screenwriting would remove the need for such ‘version-control’ concerns. With a cloud-based script wiki, revisions would always immediately be available to everyone on the crew, as would the history of those revisions (just as it is in Wikipedia). For screenwriting instructors, this would also be an invaluable tool, making it possible for us to review not only our students’ final drafts, but their entire revision process. We could see which peer suggestions a student has decided to use and which were rejected. Students would not have to worry about whether or not their professor is grading the latest draft of their work, since updates will be automatic.

Another of O’Reilly and Musser’s core principles, ‘rich user experiences’ refer to the dynamic and interactive qualities of a Web site’s interface. (25) Peter Morville identifies seven facets of user experience-centered design, arguing that a Web site’s interface should be useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, credible, and valuable. (26) Where Web 1.0 was static, Web 2.0 is always in motion, and many sites act as Web-based applications that offer users a wide range of functionalities. Content and presentation change to offer personalized experiences for each new user. Audio, video, and animation elements are common. Users can respond to what they see and make changes, customizing and filtering as they see fit. Unlike its conventional paper counterpart, a truly digital screenplay could easily incorporate all of Morville’s facets of user experience. To help our students achieve this, we could teach them to embed audio and visual elements in their script wikis, to add hyperlinks to connect readers to notes and research, to integrate GPS data and location maps, and to use tagging “folksonomies” (27) and other meta data to increase the searchability of their projects, offering users a more flexible and rewarding experience. Now the script wiki becomes something more than a mere screenplay; it becomes a kind of living pre-visualization of the film to come, one which also has all sorts of added advantages for marketing work to film producers.

Cloud-based software applications also make it possible for users on different kinds of devices to interact with the same content. (28) This is what is meant by Musser and O’Reilly’s core principle of ‘software above the level of single device’. If we were to translate this principle to the teaching of Screenwriting 2.0, we would unleash one of its most powerful opportunities: writing above the level of a single narrative medium. “A new generation of screenwriters who have grown up in a networked world saturated with YouTube, TiVo, instant messaging, MP3s and cell phones as well as graphic novels are abandoning the idea of writing only for the movies,” Millard writes. “Instead they are embracing a more elastic, cross-platform approach.” (29) In cross-platform writing, often referred to as transmedia storytelling, “elements of a story are dispersed systematically across multiple media platforms, each making their own unique contribution to the whole. Each medium does what it does best — comics might provide back-story, games might allow you to explore the world, and the television series offers unfolding episodes.” (30) Teaching Screenwriting 2.0 might mean rejecting limited three-act design in favor of comprehensive storyworld creation. In this case, the script wiki would finally become “a transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity happens.” (31)

The transmedia potential of Screenwriting 2.0 also makes leveraging the Long Tail more manageable for students. First articulated in a Wired column by Chris Anderson and later expanded upon in his influential book, the Long Tail refers to a graphical representation of the market principles that drive the success of Web-based businesses like Amazon and Netflix. (32) “What’s really amazing about the Long Tail,” writes Anderson,

 is the sheer size of it. Combine enough nonhits on the Long Tail and you’ve got a market bigger than the hits. Take books: The average Barnes & Noble carries 130,000 titles. Yet more than half of Amazon’s book sales come from outside its top 130,000 titles. Consider the implication: If the Amazon statistics are any guide, the market for books that are not even sold in the average bookstore is larger than the market for those that are. (33)

As discussed earlier, Hollywood released only 120 feature films in 2011. Meanwhile, Web 2.0 content aggregators like Amazon, Netflix, Hulu, and iTunes have opened new distribution channels to content creators who can learn to leverage the Long Tail in their marketing. (34) Today far more motion pictures are made outside of the Hollywood system than within it, and the Web offers additional platforms for transmedia stories. If our students are far more likely to have their works produced independently, why do screenwriting instructors, especially in the U.S., continue to focus the majority of our teaching on the strict conventions of Hollywood screenwriting? By learning to leverage the Long Tail, screenwriting students will begin to market their works directly to independent filmmakers, release them across multiple platforms, or even use the Web for crowdfunding purposes and self-finance a feature film production of their own. We can help them do this.

“Films originate from written words,” writes Jean-Pierre Geuens. “Words here, now; images there, later. The question that has plagued the motion pictures almost from the beginning is how best to proceed from one medium to the next.” (35) Screenwriting 2.0 would attempt to integrate conception and execution through an interactive digital text, but would it work? Writer/director Chip Proser (36) has already begun applying Screenwriting 2.0 principles to his own writing, working in a form he calls the Online Graphic Screenplay (OGS). (37) Describing the OGS, Proser writes:

It is visual, like a storyboard or graphic novel only more detailed. […] It can include music, dialogue, animation, hyperlinks. It can be written online among a group anywhere in the world.  It is a stage in production that can be used to empower writers, and bring their vision to the audience without the interference of gatekeepers, producers, directors or Harvey Weinstein. It takes advantage of the internet. It also can be propagated to all potential buyers at the same instant, in order to create a bidding situation. It may also diminish the need for agents, God forbid…

Proser created his first OGS while trying to tackle the problem of visualizing his science-fiction adventure script, ‘Treasure of the Oort Cloud’. When the conventional screenplay form proved woefully inadequate to express his vision, he turned to another hybrid of image and text for inspiration: “Both studios and independent producers are currently buying up graphic novels and comics. They can see what they are getting, and the visual works may have attained a measurable level of interest with the audience.” Proser is not the first screenwriter to make this observation about graphic novels and comics. As Millard notes, “Screenwriter Jim Taylor (Election [1999] and Sideways [2004]) argues that screenplays could draw more on comics and the graphic novel in their formatting and layout. ‘I’m hoping to figure out a new way to make screenplays more expressive,’ he says (Kretchmer 2006).” (38)

The conventional screenplay is written for an insider audience, but the OGS can be enjoyed by anyone. “Nobody reads conventional screenplays,” Proser notes. “… at least not the mass audience necessary for a movie’s success.” (39) The OGS, however, leverages the Long Tail. “If a screenplay doesn’t sell or isn’t produced, you can still put it online and reach an audience.” Proser believes the OGS is also inherently well-suited to transmedia storytelling and storyworld creation: “the audience can be invited to contribute or alternative story arcs can be created… There is a choice to follow characters into their backstory… like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern… or concepts into hyperlinked educational footnotes. It can be used to create a game. It’s not just for features, it can be long form television or strictly online productions. We are no longer limited to the feature film form, based on how long your butt can interact with a chair or how long granny can hold her water.” While Proser admits that some feature film directors may find the OGS off-putting due to its overt visualization, he believes the form represents a net gain for the production process:

With OGS, you could use the screenplay as a template for the whole production. For example, characters can be dressed, lit, animated… They can be synced to recorded dialogue. Sets and costumes can be designed and developed, even lit in computer which lowers cost, and speeds the process. All departments can do a dry run before spending serious money… They can poll the potential audience for acceptance as they do it. At some point building practical sets or going on location may no longer be necessary. (40)

Proser believes students can easily work in a form similar to the OGS. While some conceptual artists were used to create backgrounds for Treasure of the Oort Cloud, Proser created most of his OGS himself using consumer-level software tools like Keynote, Photoshop, Aperture, and iBooks Author. “You can actually see what you’ve written. You can eliminate scene descriptions and unnecessary dialogue. And you can do each element of filmmaking. You can start to transition from purely the written word to the more or less elegantly visual.”    

In my view, teaching Screenwriting 2.0 in the classroom would produce both smarter, richer screenplays and more technologically fluent students equipped for teamwork in the digital workforce. Entrepreneur Zach Simms (creator of CodeAcademy) predicts, “In 20 years, programming will be just another blue-collar job or related to almost every major employment field.” (41) Unless university screenwriting instructors want their students left in the economic dust, it is time we move beyond teaching the screenplay as a closed blueprint for a Hollywood motion picture and start teaching it as flexible source code, adaptable to any number of media expressions. “Scripting,” writes Maras, “can be easily extended into the domain of computer programming, motion-capture, algorithmic decision-making, interactivity, dynamic media, and avatars, visualised across a range of screens (from mobile phones to iPods to Second Life),” (42) and these screens produce hundreds of thousands of jobs. (43)

Adapting digital principles to the teaching of screenwriting would not be without its challenges, of course. Many screenwriting instructors would need to learn these new concepts for the first time before we could teach them to our students. We would also be likely to meet with resistance, both from students and more traditionally-minded colleagues, but Screenwriting 2.0 needn’t replace all traditional screenwriting instruction. Proser argues that this digital approach “should compliment usual screenplay writing.” (44) Finally, the infrastructure isn’t yet in place to do everything proposed here without significant effort. For instance, while Final Draft, the industry standard screenwriting software program, allows writers to embed hyperlinks and export their scripts as html files, many other programs lack these features. As things currently stand, teachers would have to invent workarounds for their students in order to integrate screenwriting and the Web. Ultimately, however, I predict that the digital screenplay of the future won’t be written in software, it will be software, with the screenwriter in the role of programmer.


(1) Robert, McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: Regan, 1997): 3.

(2) Stephen Rosen and Celia Paul, Career Renewal: Tools for Scientists and Technical Professionals (San Diego: Academic Press, 1998): 46.

(3) Kathryn Millard, “The Screenplay as Prototype,” in Analysing the Screenplay, ed. Jill Nelmes (New York: Routledge, 2011): 146.

(4) Lewis Herman, A Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting for Theater and Television Films (Cleveland: World, 1952): 171.

(5) McKee, Story, 3.

(6) “Studio Market Share,” Box Office Mojo, accessed April 20, 2011,

(7) David N. Weiss, Tony DeSena, Christopher Keyser, Adam Rodman, and Alison Taylor, Writers Guild of America, West, Inc. Annual Financial Report (Writers Guild of America, West, 2011):

(8) Writers Guild of America, West, FYI: Guide to the Guild (2009):

(9) Howard Rodman, “What a Screenplay Isn’t,” Cinema Journal 45, no. 2 (Winter 2006): 87.

(10) Millard, “The Screenplay as Prototype,” 143-144

(11) Darcy DiNucci, “Fragmented Future,” Print Magazine (April 1999): 32,

(12) Mohammad Aqil, Parvez Ahmad, and Mohammad Asad Siddique, “Web 2.0 and Libraries: Facts or Myths,” DESIDOC Journal of Library & Information Technology 31, no. 5 (2011): 395.

(13) John Musser and Tim O’Reilly, Web 2.0 Principles and Best Practices (O’Reilly Media, 2006).

(14) Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle, Web squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On (O’Reilly Media and TechWeb, 2009): 2,


(16) Maria Viera, “The Work of John Cassavetes: Script, Performance, and Improvisation,” Journal of Film and Video 42, no. 3 (1990): 34.

(17) “Playboy Interview: John Cassavetes,” Playboy (July 1971): 56.

(18) Janet Staiger, “Dividing Labor for Production Control: Thomas Ince and the Rise of the Studio System,” Cinema Journal 18, no. 2 (Spring 1979): 16-25.

(19) Steven Maras, Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice (London: Wallflower Press, 2009): 123.

(20) Kohn, Nathaniel, “Standpoint: Disappearing Authors: A Postmodern Perspective on the Practice of Writing for the Screen,” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 43, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 443, &type=retrieve&tabID=T002&prodId=ITOF&docId=A56185140&source=gale&srcprod=ITOF &userGroupName=orla57816&version=1.0

(21) Wikipedia, s.v. “Wikipedia: About,” last modified March 31, 2012,

(22) Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software,” O’Reilly Media (2005): 4,

(23) Ibid.

(24) Claudia Sternberg, Written for the Screen: The American Motion-Picture Screenplay as Text (Tübingen, Germany: Stauffenburg Verlag, 1997): 36.

(25) Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0,” 5.

(26) Peter Morville, “User Experience Design,” Semantic studios (2004):

(27) Isabella Peters, Folksonomies: Indexing and Retrieval in Web 2.0 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2009).

(28) Eric Knorr and Galen Gruman, “What Cloud Computing Really Means,” InfoWorld, accessed April 20, 2012,

(29) Kathryn Millard, “After the Typewriter: The Screenplay in a Digital Era,” Journal of Screenwriting 1, no. 1 (2010): 21-22.

(30) Henry Jenkins, “Seven Myths About Transmedia Storytelling Debunked,” Fast Company (April 8, 2011):

(31) DiNucci, “Fragmented Future,” 32.

(32) Chris Anderson, The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, 2nd ed. (New York: Hyperion, 2008).

(33) Chris Anderson, “The Long Tail,” Wired Magazine (October 2004): 3,

(34) Jon Reiss, Think Outside the Box Office: The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing for the Digital Era (Los Angeles: Hybrid Cinema Publishing, 2010).

(35) Jean-Pierre Geuens, Film Production Theory (Albany: SUNY Press, 2000): 81.

(36) “Chip Proser,” IMDb, accessed April 20, 2012,

(37) Chip Proser, “Questions: Online Graphic Screenplay,” e-mail message to the author (March 31, 2012).

(38) Millard, “After the Typewriter,” 19.

(39) Proser, “Questions.”

(40) Proser, “Questions.”

(41) Jenn Wortham, “Codecademy Offers Free Coding Classes for Aspiring Entrepreneurs,” Bits (blog), The New York Times (September 14, 2011):

(42) Maras, Screenwriting, 179.

(43) Michael Mandel, Where the Jobs Are: the App Economy (TechNet, 2012):

(44) Proser, “Questions.”


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Frames # 1 Film and Moving Image Studies Re-Born Digital?, 2012-07-02, this article © Andrew Kenneth Gay