Screenwriting Software

Lately I’ve been working on some rewrites of a short script, and I find myself dividing my time between two different screenwriting applications. I’m not sure if I’m transitioning from the old (Final Draft) to the new (Celtx), or if I’m just trying to choose between the lesser of two frustrating applications. This post is intended as a kind of sketch of what I’ve been encountering over the last few days in hopes that some readers might contribute some comments on how what they’re choosing to use (and why).

Final Draft
I’ve been using Final Draft 6 since it was released years ago — like ’99 or 2000. For the most part, after several updates and bug fixes (version anyone?) over the years, it’s pretty stable. In the end, it does what it’s supposed to — it makes writing and rewriting scripts in “proper screenplay form” as simple as it is to type a regular text document in something like Microsoft Word. What more could you ask for? Well, a few things:

First, Final Draft has a copy protection scheme that is frustrating for the way I work. I support the rights of developers to profit off of their work, so I’m not opposed to copy protection. When I’ve paid for the program, though, it shouldn’t interfere with my ability to do my work. Basically, Final Draft’s copy protection allows for two “authorized” hard drives. The first problem with this is that it doesn’t acknowledge the way many of us use computers. I, for one, have three different computers (one at the office, one at home, and one laptop). But I can only install FD on two of these. Even worse, when a drive crashes (an inevitability, really) I have to actually call Final Draft and explain that I’d like to reinstall their application on my computer. At times, with some of their tech support, I’ve had to lobby to them that I’m not pirating their software but there really has been a hardware malfunction.

Even worse is their technical support: You get 20 minutes free in the first 90 days of owning the program. After that it’s $2.50/minute. This ranks Final Draft somewhere between my current cell phone company and the Philadelphia Parking Authority in the category of Customer Service.

Reports from other quarters that Final Draft 7 is a bugfest have kept me away from upgrading. My guess is that the reason for the bugs is that, having reached the limitations of what it can and should do in version 6, all the new, bloated features are interfering with the real reason many of us adopted the software in the beginning.

In sum, I’ve been grudgingly using FD6 with the suspicion that, sooner or later (because of computer or operating system upgrades), I’m either going to have to swallow hard and buy FD 7 or find a replacement.

Last weekend, then, while doing a polish of a rewrite, I made an earnest effort to make the switch to Celtx, the open source screenwriting/production application. I’ve written about Celtx twice before (here and here), and I’ve definitely been rooting for it because of the reasons listed above. In fact, after my last survey of the application, Celtx seemed ready for use.

Now, after a few days of working with it fairly rigorously, I feel like I’ve reversed my opinion of it again. Alas.

Among the bugs:

– I’ve had repeated problems with different document elements being mistakenly tagged. For example, some dialogue I’ve typed appears in all caps as if it’s a character name. So I’ll select that text and select “Dialog” [sic] to correct the problem. This fixes the selected text, but the text surrounding it — e.g., the character speaking the dialogue is now also classified as dialog. Needless to say, this is distracting and slows down the creative process. Very frustrating.

– I’ve encountered odd cursor behavior. Sometimes, as I move the cursor around, it leaves a non-blinking cursor in a previous spot. Not only is this annoying, it makes you question the overall stability of the application.

– The “underline” feature still doesn’t work. Not a deal breaker, I grant you, but it’s a glaring bug when clicking on a menu icon does nothing.

These are elemental problems that make me inclined to continue using FD6 for the short term, at least. Beyond these basics, though, there are elements of Celtx that still make it less than ideal:

– I still dislike the obligatory introductory menu that appears each time you load the program. Especially annoying is the fact that I can’t seem to erase the Celtx tutorial project from the menu even though I’ve deleted it from my hard drive. I’m sure there are people out there that like the menu screen, so perhaps the developers can make toggling it an option in the (under-developed) Preferences menu.

File saving is confusing. Inside my Celtx project folders are numerous files, which is a little confusing. I want to be able to save a “Celtx” document (as I do with MS Word, or Photoshop, or any other normal application), drag it to my jump drive, and open it on another computer. Is that so wrong?

– For all of Celtx’s features, you can’t highlight script text in yellow (or any other color). This is an immensely useful feature in Final Draft. It allows me to draw attention to something in a draft (so I can return to it, to spotlight it for a collaborator, etc.)

– I’d like to see keystrokes in the text elements’ drop down menu (e.g., “Dialogue Cmd-4”).

I want to have the option of breaking out of screenplay format. For example, if I want to type “The End” I should be able to simply center the text. (This feature would be useful, too, for the way I prefer to type out montage sequences.)

Online sharing. As I’ve written in previous evaluations of Celtx, I’m not interested in sharing my work via their online servers. And I don’t think PDF creation should be connected to registering with their online community. As a workaround I’ve simply used OS X’s “Print to PDF” feature, and then used the ever-useful PDF Lab to marry my title page and script. It gets the job done, but they’re needless extra steps.)

So, as of right now, Celtx feels like a case of software under-/over-development. I’d like to see the developers work out the bugs in the essential (that is, screenwriting) areas as it approaches Version 1.0, before pushing too far on the pre-production aspects of the program. The open source philosophy of the application, the general responsiveness of its developers and, admittedly, my frustrations with Final Draft have me rooting for it. Until then, I’ll probably return to Final Draft 6 in hopes that Celtx will fulfill its promise soon. If it doesn’t, I guess I’ll be checking out Movie Magic Screenwriter, which I suspect is overpriced ($250), but works.

Until then, I’ve got some question for the writers out there: What are you using? Are you having the same problems? And what would you like to see?

7 Responses to “Screenwriting Software”

  1. Steve Pick Says:

    RE: Celtx…

    Have you upgraded to 0.98?

    Script elements are treated as blocks, FD handles them the same way. If you change the script element on a block, it effects the entire block. You can either break up the blocks, or cut the text out and paste it in with the desired format.

    Underline does indeed work, it just that it doesn’t appear through the highlight. Select the text, select underline, then unselect the text. It iwll be underlined

    The sample project should drop out of the Recent Projects list as new projects are created.

    You can drag the Celtx project folder to a key drive and open it from another computer – thogh you may ahve to drag it to the disk first…

    Keystrokes are available for the elements, use ctrl + 1-8 for each of the elements.

    Any other features you would like to see you should request in the user forum,


  2. Paul Says:

    I’ve actually upgraded to 0.98 and still had these issues.

  3. Earnest Says:

    Honestly, I’m still going back and forth. I’d love for Celtx to be the one program I use. I do collaborate a lot with other writers, and I also use several computers so I enjoy having the central server to download from (though I’d prefer to upload to my own server). It’s the graphical niceties that I miss. I liked being able to see that I was coming to the end of a page– that made for great encouragement. I occassionally find myself running for good ol’ Final Draft, but I feel that with a little more work, Celtx will be good enough to supplant Final Draft. Celtx doesn’t have to have all the features of Final Draft. It just needs to be able to perform as reliably in everyday use. By the same token, I’ve stopped using Word altogether since Google’s Writely affords me all the functionality that I’ve ever needed from Word.

  4. Rashad Ferguson Says:

    Good post Paul,

    I have been a user of FD for almost two years and at times it has been a headache. That authentication thing is a headache and as usual it only punishes honest people. I know a few people with pirated version of FD so that authentication process is not working. A month ago Apple replace my Powerbook G4 the motherboard died with a MacBook Pro a MacBook Pro and what was the first application I wanted to install Final Draft and that process was quickly thwarted because I am out of authentications and you know I really do not feeling calling Final Draft. I was hoping that in this post you would talk about Movie Magic and I am really thinking about trying them and there $99 special for Final Draft users.

  5. David Lowery Says:

    I wrote in a previous comment about how there were things I liked about both Movie Magic and Final Draft, and so I use both for different elements of the screenwriting process. I have a purchased copy of the former, a ‘borrowed’ copy of the latter. Overall, I think Movie Magic is a far less frustrating piece of software – but I’ll warn potential buyers that it has exactly the same licensing issue. Although I think the customer service isn’t quite so nightmarish…the last time I needed to install it on a new computer, I just sent them an e-mail and they gave me a new license.

  6. Lee Nourse Says:

    I am writing my first screenplay, and have not yet purchased any software program. I’m currently trying to decide which program to buy, and have narrowed it down to either Final Draft 7 or Movie Magic. From what I’ve read here, it sounds like the latter is more user-friendly. I downloaded a demo copy of Final Draft and it wouldn’t even reformat my script. I had to do it line by line, and even then the spacing is not consistent. Maybe this problem is characteristic of Demo Copies, I don’t know. If anyone knows of pros and/or cons of either program that would help me make a decision, I’d appreciate hearing about them.

  7. Writing Tools and Project Management « Says:

    […] Writing Tools and Project Management Published January 23rd, 2007 Technology , Development , Filmmaking , Screenwriting , Atomic Inc. There are a lot of choices for screenwriting software out there. I have used Final Draft in the past, but I have been wanting to try Celtx, so I wrote my last short screenplay with it. My conclusion after an eight page short… Final Draft is a much more robust screenwriting application, but Celtx goes deeper than just formatting script pages. Celtx is not without its flaws, but overall it makes a great project management tool. You can find lots of great info on Celtx at DV Guru, Self Reliant Film, and many other places, so I’m not going to do a review. I’ll just try and explain how I intend to use these tools to manage my development process. […]