Final Draft’s 25th Anniversary
Co-creator Marc Madnick on leading the industry, the Final Draft awards and adapting to the needs of the modern customer.
by Ramona Zacharias.
“Write the screenplay of your dreams”.
For 25 years, Marc Madnick and his company Final Draft have been helping writers to achieve that goal. Co-founded in 1991 by Madnick and Ben Cahan, the latter’s technical savvy combined with the former’s marketing genius, and together they created a stellar product. With all three pieces in place, it did not take long for Final Draft to become the industry standard and it has remained as such for decades. It is now the number-one selling screenwriting application in the world and has been lauded by the likes of J.J. Abrams, Aaron Sorkin and Callie Khouri, among many others. It even won the Primetime Emmy Engineering Award in 2013.
Final Draft’s intuitive software application is designed to eliminate all the technical and formatting frustrations faced by screenwriters, freeing up the time they need to just write. They’ve managed to evaluate and anticipate the needs of their customers and stay in tune with changing trends, adapting and updating when wise to do so.
But beyond just the software, Final Draft offers support and recognition for writers in other ways. There’s the “Big Break” contest, which launched in 1999 and annually awards over $80,000 in cash and prizes. The Screenwriters Choice Awards are also held every year in Los Angeles and honor the best screenplays and teleplays, as voted by registered users. This year, the awards ceremony will see Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) inducted into their Hall of Fame.
Celebrating a quarter-century in an ever-changing industry, I chatted with Madnick about Final Draft’s genesis, some of its features and how rewarding the experience has been for him, both professionally and personally.
What were some of the challenges you encountered as an aspiring writer that made you want to develop this software?
I moved here in 1986 and for the first three or four years was also working in film production. So I didn’t really have time to do a lot of writing. I was also trying to be a comedian a little bit. Trying to balance all that and pay your rent was really difficult – I have a lot of respect for the people who make it.
I’m an A-type personality…if you ever came to my office and saw my desk, it’s empty. It looks like I have nothing to do. But that’s not the case – I have everything organized. My wife will say “how come you never keep a text message or email in your phone?” and I’ll answer “because if I had that text message or email, it would remind me that I have something to do”.
So with me, when it came to writing screenplays, I got caught up on how it was supposed to look – the formatting, the feel and the appearance. With the tools I had at the time, I was spending more time worrying about what it looked like than actually writing. I’d get three hours in a night to write and would spend the first hour writing and the next two hours fixing the formatting.
That was the trouble I had and I noticed a lot of other writers who had the same kind of quirks and personality as I did – we were very similar. So I think it was an issue that was across the board for everybody. Back then there was a notion that if you didn’t present your screenplay properly, then right away the agents, the managers, the studios, whoever was going to read it, knew you weren’t either a) serious or b) willing to take enough time to do it right. There were unknown, underlying kinds of rules…like you better have two brads, not three brads – remember that? You had to leave the middle hole open when you presented a script. And you had to have all the formatting right or otherwise they wouldn’t even read it.
When we came up with Final Draft, we took that fear away from you so you could just write. We created a software where you wouldn’t have to worry about it. Now, I couldn’t stop you from putting a brad in the final circle! But there were lots of those little rules like that and that was the trouble that I had.
Are the rules just as stringent today?
No, because everybody does it right now. They’re all using Final Draft!
Actually there was a time about five or six years into it, maybe in the mid-90s, where I would meet some agents or small production companies who took in unsolicited scripts. They would jokingly tell me they were upset because now they had to read everything since all the scripts they received looked professional. Whereas before, they had “professional” and “unprofessional” piles before they even read them. We made everybody have to work a lot harder!
Today you see a lot of “OK, send it to me as a Final Draft file” – over the 25 years, we’ve become the standard of what a script should look like. Even our competitors make their final product look as much like Final Draft as possible. Which I guess is an homage to us.
How did you first go about developing the software?
Ben Cahan was the co-founder of Final Draft – today he’s involved with a website called Talentville. Ben was already involved in producing software for scheduling and budgeting and film production – and we were buddies. We actually lived together before we sat down and started writing. The lack of formatting didn’t bug Ben as much as it did me! We had different personalities. But he could see that the tools available were just not doing the trick. He said “you know, I could write something better than this”. And I didn’t like working in film production anymore. So I said “if you write it, I’ll sell it…and we’ll make some money as we try and make it as writers”.
That’s really what the business plan was – that’s how we became us.
So now you have this product – how did you go about marketing it to the screenwriting community? From what I understand, it happened quite quickly and you were the industry standard within five years.
Well, we were always Macintosh for the first couple of years and then there were a couple of tools that were for Windows 3.1. We all knew each other and were helpful towards one another; we weren’t stepping on each other. But Ben was a terrific engineer and, while I don’t want to say too much about myself, I’m a really good salesman and marketer. At first you literally had to sell them one by one. So we would go to trade shows or fairs that had creative people attending…lots of times we’d go to people’s houses or they’d come in to see us. I got really good at showing anybody Final Draft, and if I was able to sit down in front of you, within five minutes I was able to convince you that that was what you wanted.
And then it was word of mouth! We provided great service to everybody who bought it. On top of that, the marketing campaigns were very clever – our tagline was “Write the screenplay of your dreams”. We were putting it on the back of movie magazines, like Creative Screenwriting or Premiere magazine. Sometimes we would even do SkyMall, thinking we would catch lawyers on a plane who always wanted to write a screenplay. We went across the country with timely ads and that tagline – that’s how we got a lot of people. We got the pros by showing up anywhere and everywhere we could in the LA and New York areas and actually just showing it to them. So it was that plus word of mouth, which was very helpful.
In 1996 we finished our Windows version, which came out for Windows 95. We were the first ones to have Windows and Mac and they were exactly the same. From that point on, we took off.
Now in its 25th year, how have you stayed on top of the updates needed to match an ever-changing industry? Both in terms of Hollywood and the technology.
It’s harder than ever now, to be honest. It really is, for small companies like ourselves. The customers expect perfection from their software. In the early days, if something was a little wrong or there was a glitch or it didn’t do something…customers were understanding. They’re not understanding as much today. They don’t want to see bugs, they don’t want to see problems.
They also want to see anything and everything they could want it to do, and it’s a challenge for us because we’re still basically a small company. We’re only 40 people. So to change with the times and do everything that writers want to do, it is a bit more of a challenge. Plus you have to do it on our Windows version, on our Mac version and our iOS version – and any other versions you want to develop in the future.
So it’s a challenge. But what we do is we listen to the customers. We’re constantly talking to them and finding out what they want. We knock it down to the most popular things that they want and that’s what we engineer in the future versions of the software. It’s very difficult today with the Internet to make everybody happy. Customers used to jump up and down for joy because we were around. We could do no harm in the early days. Today, the customer demands – and deserves – to have complete satisfaction. That’s what they expect and it’s getting harder and harder to do with all the new technologies and everything that comes into play.
For instance, the iPad version that we had. We didn’t create it right away – we kind of waited a little bit to see. We couldn’t afford to just jump right out and have an iPad version. We wanted to see what the adoption was going to be and what people were expecting to do on it. I bought one the very first weekend and thought “nobody’s going to want to write a full screenplay on this”. It took a while and a lot of listening to understand what they really wanted and what they were expecting so we could figure out what to make for them. That was a really interesting time in our business life – trying to figure out what best to do. Businesswise it made sense and we gave the customers something they could use. It was a tough decision. But that’s a perfect example to answer your question.
Going through your website and looking at all the various templates and features offered by Final Draft, what do you consider to be some of the most useful tools, particularly in this ninth and latest version?
What we’re seeing more and more of is people wanting more pre-writing tools. They want better outlining and are liking what we did with something we call “the navigator”. So we’re focusing a lot on the pre-writing tools. We’re working on a version 10 to come out next year and that’s what we’re hearing from people – better outlining and so on. I don’t want to give too much away right now until it’s ready to show…but there will be a whole different way of outlining and organization of your script before you start writing. And that’s what we’re continually working on and seeing people want most.
Tell me a little bit about the template library and some of what is offered through that tool.
Obviously movie scripts pretty much look the same, but they do have a few differences between production companies – like how BBC would do it from Warner Bros. And in the early days, a lot of people were asking about TV shows. All TV shows are done a little bit differently, especially sitcoms. So we started getting copies of scripts and making this huge library which we keep updated yearly with the hottest shows. So if somebody wanted to write a spec script for whatever show, they could set their Final Draft very easily to the formatting descriptions of that show.
It’s one of the tools we’ve been offering to help writers for years. We’re trying to think of anything and everything we can.
Tell me about some of the other services and opportunities you provide to writers, such as the Big Break contest.
Now we’re actually leaving a lot of the services to other people. There was a time where we published a magazine and there was a time when we read people’s scripts for them. We’ve kind of backed away from that because we want to just be what we are as a software company and provide the best tools we can for writing screenplays on all the platforms that we’ve been talking about.
But we still have the contest. And the contest, over its 15 years or so, has developed quite a reputation in helping to launch some careers. We’re really proud of that. It’s getting more and more entries every year and is getting bigger every year. That was the reason we started it – to try and see if we could be of any help to someone who didn’t have an agent in getting them an opportunity and maybe get their name out there. There’s a whole list of people who credit the contest in them getting jobs or getting their scripts sold.
But other than that, we’re not really doing too many of these services – we’re leaving that up to others. We want to focus on software.
I would imagine there have been many highlights over the past 25 years, including the Emmy Engineering Award that you received in 2013. But are there any in particular that stand out for you personally?
That’s a great question – you should have prepared me for that one!
I can’t tell you how many times – hundreds – where I’ve had the opportunity to meet the biggest and best writers and directors and actors…and I’ll say “I’m a really big fan of your work” and they turn around and say “I’m an even bigger fan of your work – thank you”. It’s the thanks that we’ve received from the biggest and the best in the industry over the years, even internationally. That’s a constant that happens and it’s really rewarding. Without mentioning anybody specifically, that happens regularly when we’re out and about. That’s a highlight.
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