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Is Final Draft the Final Answer? On Alternatives to the Popular Screenwriting Software

Photo: Christin Hume, courtesy Unsplash

If you’re a screenwriter or want to be a screenwriter, then at some point you will have used Final Draft. Co-founded in 1990 and now in its 12th version, the Final Draft screenwriting software boasts both a user-friendly interface and features related to both outlining and production. Final Draft’s great success—complete with a Primetime Emmy Engineering Award it received in 2013— has led it to become known as the “industry standard” for screenwriting.  

But at the same time, Final Draft has attracted a fair amount of criticism. Some screenwriters have complained about its high price, glitches, and the specifics of its feature set, saying the program doesn’t support their creative process enough and doesn’t have features they need. And some contend that Final Draft’s great popularity is not because of its prowess as screenwriting software, but more because of a kind of complacency, an acceptance of Final Draft’s limitations without actively seeking for, or creating, alternatives.

“I think there’s a sort of Stockholm syndrome that’s kicked in with Final Draft. Everyone’s used to it, and they’ve gotten up to speed with it, so it feels weird just to try to change,” says screenwriter John August. In addition to writing films such as Big Fish (2003) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), August is the creator of Highland, a prominent Final Draft alternative. Currently known as Highland 2 (though August refers to it as Highland and notes that is what future versions of it will be called), this software originally began as a tool that August had asked software engineer Nima Yousefi to create that would be “a digital hammer that could smash open [a] PDF and take the text out of it.” August then wondered what would happen if he could take the text and turn it back into a PDF, which led him and his employees at Quote-Unquote Apps to develop Highland as screenwriting software. 

Highland is distinguished by its plain text philosophy. That means it allows you to start typing and formats the text as you write. For example, if you wanted to write a character’s name in Final Draft so you can write dialogue underneath it, you’d have to hit the tab key. But in Highland, all you need to do to format dialogue is type a character’s name in all capitalized letters and write dialogue underneath it. That will automatically center the dialogue. While the tab feature and autofill “smart type” function in Final Draft is effective, there is something comforting about Highland’s ability to take simple commands and translate them into screenplay format. Another example is how, in Highland, you can write a transition by putting a greater than symbol in front of the words “cut to” and having it format immediately into a transition on the far-right side of the page. 

“Your application should be smart enough to recognize what it is actually doing,” August says. 

August’s experiences as a screenwriter have informed how he shaped Highland. Earlier in his career, he would have a separate file that contained all the material he wouldn’t currently need for a screenplay but didn’t want to lose. After working with editors who used non-linear systems such as Final Cut Pro and Avid, which enable them to store important material that they might not need at the moment, he developed a series of features for Highland called The Bin and The Scratch Pad that allow screenwriters to save blocks of text next to their document. August has also used Highland to improve his own experiences of writing screenplays. His desire to have a specific format for movie musical lyrics led him and his team to create a simple feature in Highland to format lyrics in screenplays—which involves putting a tilde before the lyric—that came in handy when he was writing Frankenweenie (2012). 

Another well-known alternative to Final Draft is Fade In. Created by screenwriter Kent Tessman, Fade In has its own formatting style, which some screenwriters find advantageous. A major feature of that style are tabs that allow you to have lists of characters and locations in addition to enabling you to see your scenes listed chronologically with information about their location and length (both in terms of page numbers and running time). Fade In also has helpful features like The Dialogue Tuner, which allows you to see everything a single character says in one window to make sure that their dialogue is consistent across your screenplay.

Prominent screenwriters using Fade In include Kelly Marcel, who started using Fade In in 2012 after Chernobyl screenwriter and creator Craig Mazin (a noted user of the software and co-host of Scriptnotes with August) told her about it. Marcel had previously used Final Draft and was frustrated with it for several reasons, one of which was its formatting capabilities.

“Its predictive features are completely outdated and consistently override what it is you’re trying to do,” says Marcel. “I’ve been stuck in parentheticals for weeks!”

Marcel has used Fade In to write such high-profile films as 50 Shades of Grey (2015), Venom (2018), and Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021). She loves its ability to let her move toolbars to wherever she wants and the ease with which she can turn a PDF of a screenplay into a document which she can rewrite and alter within Fade In. In addition, Marcel appreciates how Fade In keeps her scripts for her so that, if she doesn’t press save and the power cuts out while she is writing, she does not lose her work.

“You have no idea how many heart attacks Kent [Tessman, the creator of Fade In] has saved me from having!”

Fade In has become such a central part of Marcel’s career that she has bought it for her assistants so they can all work in the same program. “Having worked in almost every screenwriting software I can honestly say that this is the easiest and most pleasant to use,” she says.

Another thing that makes Highland and Fade In attractive to new users is their cost. Final Draft 12 offers a 30-day free trial before charging a flat fee of $199.99. The company also charges for upgrades. In contrast, Highland and Fade respectively cost $39 and $79.95. They also both have free options which allow you to use the software to write multiple projects for an indefinite period and do not charge for updates. The free version comes with some limitations, though. These projects are imprinted with a watermark that says “made in Highland,” while projects written in the free version of Fade In bear the words “printed with the demonstration version of Fade In.” In addition, the free option of Fade In only allows you to write a few projects. But the free options of this software can still offer users a taste of what life can be like away from Final Draft.  

“We want to make sure that the free version of Highland is useful to everybody, and they can really see how it all works. If they choose to use it for their own things and they don’t pay us, at least they’re not using Final Draft. At least we’re giving [them] something better than that,” August says.

Despite their differences, Final Draft, Highland, and Fade In are all examples of file-based screenwriting software. That means they allow you to save your work on your laptop as a file. 

In contrast are web-based systems such as WriterDuet, Arc Studio and Celtx. They are opened and used within a browser. These systems save your work in the Cloud and charge you for using their pro versions on a monthly, price-tiered basis. WriterDuet and Arc Studio also offer free versions that have limitations, while Celtx offers free trials for each of its different tiered levels. The web-based approach has its own advantages and is one which some screenwriters prefer.

“I think it probably encourages the software to be sort of user-friendly and simple in its interface because it has to exist within this browser,” says writer-director Michael Sarnoski. His screenwriting software of choice is the web-based WriterDuet. He has used it to write the screenplay for his directorial debut Pig (2021) as well as the ones for his upcoming films A Quiet Place: Day One and Sabrina. Sarnoski initially began to use WriterDuet eight years ago because it was free (there is still a free version, but it only lets you write three projects) but grew to love its accessibility.

“I like writing in something that feels like anyone who has an internet browser could pop into this thing and write in it,” Sarnoski says.

WriterDuet is most famous for its collaboration feature, which allows writers to collaborate in real time and in the same document with great ease. This function is a popular one among web-based screenwriting software, including Arc Studio. Comedian and screenwriter David Wain has praised Arc Studio’s ability to allow him and his collaborators to work together in real time (which partially led him to become involved with the company professionally), and Riot Games creative director/writer Christian Linke has noted that it helped him and his collaborators write the first season of their Emmy award-winning show Arcane.

Sarnoski hasn’t used WriterDuet to co-write a script, but he cited its other distinctive features as benefits to his screenwriting. For example, WriterDuet added more robust outlining features shortly after he had finished Pig. Sarnoski, who had earlier emailed the team at WriterDuet to ask about including such features, was invited to be a part of a group of users who tested them. These features allow users to write full outlines and embed them in their scripts to be used and collapsed at any point in their screenwriting process. 

“I used those features on Sabrina and Quiet Place [Day One] and they were super, super helpful,” Sarnoski says. 

One possible disadvantage to web-based screenwriting software is the fear of losing files. This happened to users of Scripped.com in 2015, when a poor transfer process and technical errors resulted in the loss of all of their users’ screenplays from the website’s servers and backups. But Sarnoski isn’t concerned about losing his files because WriterDuet hasn’t had that issue yet, and he can backup his work from the cloud. There is one area that Final Draft receives consistent praise for, and that’s its production features, such as its revision mode and features related to locking scripts, which preserve scene numbers and help create shooting schedules and shot lists. Highland has a revision mode, but it does not have features that allow you to lock pages because it clashes with its plain text philosophy.

“If you are going to insist on locking pages, that’s going to change your relationship to the document because things just aren’t going to flow the way you sort of expect them to flow,” August says. But Highland can export its files as Final Draft files for production uses, and August is exploring adding more production features in future versions of the software. 

“We’ll see whether that sort of enters you into a new mode or if it really is a different kind of app that is doing some of the higher-level production stuff,” August says.  

Fade In has production features, including ones for page/scene locking and a revision mode, but Marcel has not used them. Fade In does not export to Movie Magic’s commonly used budgeting and scheduling software, so she has had to export her scripts as Final Draft files.

Sarnoski was concerned when Pig entered production that he would have to change over to Final Draft to lock pages and create revision drafts. But he learned that WriterDuet has production features that can do all of that. Sarnoski ended up using WriterDuet throughout production on Pig, and only occasionally made a Final Draft file to send to his script supervisor if she asked for it.  

Every screenwriter has different needs, which means that there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription for which software you should use. Despite criticisms, many screenwriters continue to enjoy Final Draft. Some screenwriters, like Paul Thomas Anderson, even use Microsoft Word (although Anderson has referred to it as “the all-time worst program” in an interview on The Bill Simmons Podcast). But screenwriters can only know which software works for them if they have a thorough knowledge of what is available and how it can empower them to use their creativity to its fullest potential. The tools are there. Screenwriters just need to grab what works for them.

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