Tools & Toys: Words of Whiz-dom

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Whether you're plotting the next Citizen Kane or just pitching Pampers, finding the right screenwriting software is a drama all its own. Concept-driven technophobes whose best ideas start on cocktail napkins need not fear. Programs like Final Draft (finaldraft.com) and Screenplay Systems' Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000 (screenplay.com) will swallow your inspired verbiage and spit it back at you in standard industry formats. The only challenge is deciding which software fits your needs.

For example: You of course want to script audio and video side by side. Even with useful box and table functions, standard word processing applications are bound to bring headaches from rearranging, repaginating, and realigning stray text. Final Draft AV ("Just add words") solves this problem with a two-column script template that keeps your audio and video instructions together forever, even when you rewrite. While Final Draft has become a Hollywood staple, the AV version was designed specifically for shorter jobs like TV and radio spots, corporate presentations, infomercials, and other stuff film students never thought they'd end up doing.

With Final Draft AV's instant formatting, the tab key jumps the audio/video column divide; the return key boxes off individual takes. You don't need columns? Opt for the radio format. All the technical information you need (writer, director, agency, account number, revision date) fits conveniently in compact, customizable headers and footers. In short, the program is a no-nonsense way to get copy into a format the industry has come to expect.

Every ad creative has a film inside his or her head, which is perhaps an excellent place for it. Should you persist, Movie Magic Screenwriter 2000 will help you take your ideas beyond Madison Avenue. Like Final Draft AV, this application provides a dual-column AudioVisual scripting option. But it also provides formats for film, theater, novels and TV sitcoms (including sample templates for everything from Ally McBeal to Xena: Warrior Princess).

Formatting aside, Screenwriter does nifty things like color code text. With the tap of a button, it helps you add act, scene and character information and avoids ad nauseam repetition of instructions like "fade," "dissolve," and "back to scene." The Name Bank helps name your characters and adds them automatically. With text-to-speech technology, each character gets its own computer-generated voice and reads your script back to you in something not unlike an AT&T operator on Valium. If you're co-writing, the iPartner feature allows for online collaboration. Screenwriter also lets you save text in the ubiquitous PDF format and publish scripts directly to the Internet.

Like most word processing programs, each product offers the ability to type in several fonts and text sizes and alter text through underlining, italics and boldface. Both offer comprehensive spellchecking and a thesaurus. Where Final Draft touts its 120,000-word English-language spellchecker, Screenwriter offers dictionaries in several European languages.

Both programs boast of their import and export capabilities. In addition to proprietary formats, both applications save script as Rich Text Format - a stepping stone to most other word processing formats. Screenwriter will import from several formats and export for Plain Text, ScriptThing for DOS, Scriptware Tagged and HTML Publishing. Nonetheless, translating between rival formats is far from effortless, and a Final Draft AV document translated to Screenwriter can lose its charm.

While both packages get you where you're going, they drive differently. Final Draft AV, which retails at $249 (you can get the $149 introductory price until June), is spartan and utilitarian. Screenwriter offers some great bells and whistles for $269, but using it for a 30-second TV spot may feel like taking the Batmobile to the corner store when a Ford Escort would do just fine.

Both products are Macintosh- and Windows-compatible and ship on single, dual-platform CD-ROMs. With Screenwriter, you don't need the latest, state of the art computer or even a whole lot of RAM: Windows 95 running on a 486DX or better CPU should work just fine, as should Mac OS 7.1 or later working with a 68030 processor. Final Draft AV requires a minimum of Windows 98/Mac OS 8.1 running on at least a Pentium or PowerPC processor; you'll also need 20 megs of hard drive space and 32 megs of RAM.

If you're orchestrating an Anna Nicole Smith comeback, you may find the miracle you need in Screenwriter's abundant text toolbox. If your protagonists are "just watchin' the game and havin' a Bud," they can do that with Final Draft AV.

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