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The Continuity Script and the Rationalization of Film Production

A young woman at a makeup table, talking to a young man.
A still from Triangle production The Firefly of Tough Luck.

In the 1910s, cinema matured as an industry and an aesthetic medium. Many studios expanded, standardized, and rationalized their production activities, turning to principles of scientific management to maximize efficiency and make films of increasing technical polish and stylistic and narrative sophistication. Central to this process were two related phenomena: the implementation of a strict division of labor, and the careful, highly detailed planning of production through the continuity script.

In the first decade and a half of cinema, studios made little distinction between the roles now filled by producers, screenwriters, directors, cinematographers. Division of labor increased during the one-reel era as studios expanded their operations to keep up with increased demand for the movies. There emerged a "director-unit" system, whereby a studio's talent would be split into groups (often with genre specialization), each led by one filmmaker. While earlier story films were shot based only on brief synopses, production quotas and budget concerns necessitated more detailed planning of each film with a scenario script. In addition to a synopsis, the scenario script included a full numbered breakdown of action by narrative event, a "scene plot" that listed these events according to the locations in which they were to be filmed, and information for post-production personnel (e.g., all planned intertitles, tinting and toning instructions). Around this time, many studios established dedicated scenario departments. Workers came up with stories – or got them from the hundreds of freelance submissions arriving at the studios each week – and turned them into scenario scripts.

Near the end of the one-reel era, the director-unit system gave way to the producer-unit system. While studios maintained director-led units, many of the managerial tasks, particularly in the pre-production phase, that had traditionally fallen to directors were assumed by central managers. Thomas Ince of Triangle stopped directing in the early 1910s and soon became one of the industry's first – and most powerful – central producers, running a 43-acre studio facility with over 1,000 employees. This system was closely linked to the rise of feature filmmaking, which required significantly greater investments per film and therefore much more detailed planning and managerial oversight than in the one-reel era.

This control over production was accomplished primarily through the continuity script – essentially a complete blueprint for and record of a film shoot. The continuity script featured many of the same elements as the earlier scenario script, but in significantly greater detail. It also contained shooting dates, highly detailed description of actions, footage estimations for each shot, complete budgetary data, and information on release prints and distribution. The evolution of the continuity script is concurrent with a set of profound changes in film style, as filmmakers began to explore in earnest scene dissection (i.e., the division of scenes into multiple shots). This emerging mode of representation required careful attention to the proper matching of positions and movements across shots – and the most effective way to do so was by planning every detail in advance. The continuity script led to a further division of labor within scenario departments, with "creative" personnel responsible for developing film stories and continuity experts responsible for converting them into detailed scripts.

To the right you can find links to documents from the Aitken collection relating to the production of Love or Justice (1917).

Bibliography/Further Reading:

Azlant, Edward. The Theory, History, and Practice of Screenwriting, 1897-1920. Diss. Univ. of WI-Madison, 1980.

Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915. Vol. 2 of History of the American Cinema. Ed. Charles Harpole. Berkeley: Univ. of CA Press, 1990.

Koszarski, Richard. An Evening's Entertainment: the Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley: Univ. of CA Press, 1994.

Staiger, Janet. "Dividing Labor for Production Control: Thomas Ince and the Rise of the Studio System." Cinema Journal 18, no. 2 (Spring 1979): 16-25.

- - -. "The Hollywood Mode of Production to 1930." Part two of The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. NY: Columbia UP, 1985. 85-154.

- - -. "Mass-Produced Photoplays: Economic and Signifying Practices in the First Years of Hollywood." Wide Angle 4, no. 3 (1981), 12-27.

- - -. "'Tame' Authors and the Corporate Laboratory: Stories, Writers, and Scenarios in Hollywood." Quarterly Review of Film Studies 8, no. 4 (1983), 33-45.

Selected 1910s Photoplaywrighting manuals:

Dimick, Howard T. Photoplay Making: A Handbook Devoted to the Application of Dramatic Principles to the Writing of Plays for Picture Production. Ridgewood, N.J.: The Editor Company, 1915.

Esenwein, J. Berg, and Arthur Leeds. Writing the Photoplay: A Complete Manual in the Instruction, Nature, Writing, and Marketing of the Moving-Picture Play. Springfield, MA: Home Correspondence School, 1913.

Gordon, William Lewis. How to Write Moving Picture Plays. Cincinnati: Atlas Publishing Company, 1913.

How to Write and Market Moving Picture Plays: Being a Complete Mail Course in Picture Play Writing Prepared in the Form of a Book and containing Twenty Complete Articles. Boonville, IN: The Photoplay Enterprise Association, 1912.

Sargent, Epes Winthrop. The Technique of the Photoplay. 2nd ed. NY: The Moving Picture World, 1913.

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