Anyone who’s read a screenwriting book knows that one page of screenplay is equal to one minute of screen time. Anyone who’s spent anytime on set knows this isn’t true.1 So why do the schedules and callsheet refer to “pages per day”? Shouldn’t we be counting the minutes we’ve shot?
Well, to start with, no one really knows how many minutes we’re going to be shooting precisely because we don’t know how many minutes each individual page represents. Speaking in terms of pages per day at least gives you a target to aim for.
One of the many tasks of the script supervisor is to time the script. She’ll actually read the entire script out loud, while making educated guesses about how long an action will take, and time the whole thing with her stop watch. She gives this information to the producers, so they can get a sense of their progress towards a finished film.
But the script usually only gets about a week’s worth of prep, at best. The information comes way too late to base a schedule around. The ADs and Line Producers have long ago set the production schedule, and the only information they had was the page count.
Not that the script supervisor’s timings are for naught. She also times the scene as we’re shooting, which tells the producers if the episode is going to be long, which is a problem, or short, which is a bigger problem.
Most importantly, the length of the finished scene isn’t necessarily reflective of how difficult that scene is to shoot. One of the AD’s major goals when scheduling a movie or TV show is that we shoot the same hours per day every day– 12 hours. That might mean 2 pages one day, 5 the next. No matter how many pages per day you’re shooting, the actual filming should still take the same length of time. You don’t want to pay the crew overtime, because that costs a lot of money, but you don’t want to finish early, either. Many on the crew have guaranteed minimums per day, and you’re paying them for doing nothing if they go home early. Plus, the director will be pissed that she could’ve shot another scene.
Granted, that goal can’t always be met, due to location restrictions and cast availability. It’s just the vagaries of the film business.
In the end, pages per day isn’t a terribly useful measurement, other than the fact that it’s the only one we’ve got.
- Even this untruth isn’t true. It’s hard to say one specific page is exactly one minute, but in most scripts, it tends to average out. I won’t guarantee a 90 page screenplay is a 90 minute movie, but I’d be willing to bet it’s in the ballpark.↩