Take Fountain… for All It’s Got

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One of my great regrets is that I didn’t take a screenwriting class during my many years of studying, especially at film schools such as UCSB and NYU. While I don’t know how to construct a screenplay, I can read one, and I do know that most screenwriters use specialized software, such as Final Draft, that makes the formatting process much easier. But as an art form, it’s lost to me.

Last night, I learned about Fountain. To put it in "pitch" terms, it’s "Markdown for screenwriters."

The great thing about Fountain, and Markdown for that matter, is that it requires no special software. You can write a screenplay or a web document with a basic text editor. This solves a huge problem for fledgling screenwriters, who won’t have to buy any special software. Every computer operating system has a text editor. You can use the dreaded Notepad on Windows, the serviceable TextEdit on a Mac, and even the cryptic but powerful vi if you’re more of a Unix geek. If you want something more featured, text editors are relatively inexpensive. I like using iA Writer for Mac and iPad, or Writing Kit for iPad and iPhone. My all-time favorite text editor for the Mac, BBEdit, will set you back $50, and I hope they build Fountain support one of these days.

Another great feature is these languages are as future proof as you can expect. We who traffic in "media", specifically electronic and digital media, lose countless hours of sleep wondering how much longer will we be able to retrieve music, movies, and text stored on such media. I hadn’t worried about this danger until I visited a audio/video restoration outfit here in New York. One of the techs showed me a ball of tightly tangled, thin wire. I didn’t know what that was until he revealed that it was recording wire, which was a consumer recording medium available in the 1930s. This shop was one of a very few that had access to the playback machine for this wire. However, he said that the wire was so tangled that "there wasn’t enough money on this earth for him to physically untangle the wire." Preservation or restoration is basically impossible.

Whenever I write a document, I wonder when all my college essays, syllabi for classes I’ve taught, and reading will end up like that wire. When in the future will some tech look at my MacBook Pro or iPad, and say, "Oh man, there’s no amount of money in the biosphere for me to figure out these machines!"?

The only real way to preserve all these documents might be to just print them out and and keep them dry. It worked for our grandparents with paper, just like it worked for medieval Europeans with parchment, and just like it worked for Egyptians with papyrus. As I tell my students, "paper is permanence."

In the short term, one of the best ways to ensure access to your documents is to save them in a human-readable form. Plain text files ensure that, for as long as humans can read and can open a file on a computer, someone can read them. They won’t have to have the latest version of some proprietary software whose vendor went bust a decade ago. If you can retrieve the file from a disk, which is a big "if" in the long term, you can read someone’s screenplay.

The other thing that I really like about Fountain and Markdown is that it lowers the barrier of entry for fledgling screenwriters and web writers by using something easy, robust, and very inexpensive to use. When you open the gates like this, you get more work. Granted, the average quality if the work will decrease because there will be some very poor writing out there, but the true value lies at the margins. The quality of the greatest work will increase.

I hope this catches on with screenwriters as Markdown has with some savvy web writers.

(Photo via Wikicommons)

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