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.

Celtx 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?