What is a Page One Rewrite? The ESSENTIALS of Rewriting a Script

A ‘page one rewrite’. It can be one of the most dreaded words a screenwriter can hear and something that most writers will hope to avoid. However, it’s inevitable that at some point in your writing career you will have to start a script from scratch.

It could be something about the structure that’s not working or something about the protagonist arc or well, everything. Either way, a page one rewrite will require you to keep the core ideas of your screenplay but potentially change everything about how those ideas are conveyed. It’s a scary prospect.

So let’s break it down. What exactly does doing a page one rewrite mean and how can you tackle it?

What is a Page One Rewrite?

So, you just typed “Fade Out” on a completed draft of your feature or TV pilot, and you are feeling a mix of pride, relief and just a little bit chuffed.

But is it production or even agent ready? Of course not, as most writers will know completing a draft is not the end of the process. It is not even the beginning of the end of the process. It is more the end of the beginning phase of project development. You are going to be doing plenty of drafting.

Drafts are part of life as a writer. More to the point you will be doing lots of revision, so get used to it. But once you finish your draft – and it is the best you can make of it – and you have registered it and even submitted it to an agent, then there is another form of revision required: rewriting.

“When a script’s central premise or characters are good but the script is otherwise unusable, a different writer or team of writers is contracted to do an entirely new draft, often referred to as a “page one rewrite”” – Wikipedia

Where drafting is considered more of an iterative process of refining action lines, transitions, and dialogue, rewriting is when you go back into a finished manuscript and modify parts of it like scenes, pacing or even the structure.

And a more extreme version of a rewrite is a page one rewrite. Here, that completed draft is stripped down to its conceptual foundation for a complete story rebuild. As the name indicates it is a “rewrite” from “page one” onwards.

Writing Hiding - Ruby Sparks

But Why a Page One Rewrite?

Why would a script that has spent months or years passing through multiple outlines and drafts be completed, only to then be sawn down to its nerve endings?

If the script is that problematic, why not just call it a day and move onto another project or idea? It’s a good question.

As they say: TV shows are worlds, and films are ideas. So, in a movie screenplay context, your screenplay may be based on a solid controlling idea, but its completed draft is not its best execution.

The positive point of view is that you have found something to work with, which is a good thing. But the bad news is when it’s at page one rewrite stage, there is a lot more uncertainty about what the best execution of the idea will be – considering it is likely that the studio/producer likes the idea or concept but does not like your plot, characters and/or dialogue.

And it might even be taken out of your hands for someone else to rewrite. This is often called “Rewrite Hell” or “Development Hell”, a potentially circuitous process that the project could be stuck in before it is greenlit for production.

In a TV Pilot context, given that TV is based largely on a “world”, the executives may like the world you have created, but want different story and cast designs – a different way to access that world they like.

In any event, if a writer is brought in for a page one rewrite it could also be a good opportunity for them to come in with fresh ideas to transform the project without being wedded to original structures, characters – or even genre. Some of the biggest action blockbusters of all time were elevated to become more “action-y” and “blockbuster-y” from a complete rewrite.

Writing is Rewriting

Page One Rewrite - Writing

The old sayings “writing is rewriting” and “rewriting begets good writing” are important maxims to keep in mind when considering redrafting a screenplay. However, just more writing is not necessarily what will help you with a page one rewrite.

  • A page one rewrite is required when there are significant structural issues to the story.
  • And to fix this you need to look at story design, conflict, theme, and tone.
  • A page one rewrite is not as the name may suggest, that only the first page is rewritten. It means, essentially, a rewrite from page one onwards, or writing it from scratch.

This is quite different from plain rewriting or drafting, which generally involves “punching-up” elements of the screenplay but retaining the key elements of the original version.

  • To take a car repair analogy, a rewrite is repairing an existing vehicle to improve performance, a page one rewrite could make it into a totally different vehicle.

So, to this end, a page one rewrite is as much about pre-writing than re-writing. You need to review the bones of your project to work out what needs to be retained and what needs to be written anew.

Although it is less than optimal to be told that your completed draft is almost completely unusable, rest assured that a page one rewrite is a frequent occurrence. In fact, some of the biggest movies have been stuck in development hell for decades.

The Irishman, Dallas Buyers Club and Jurassic World – to name a few – are all examples of movies that were given multiple rewrites and sat in “development hell” for a decade or more. So, if this happens to you, you are in salubrious company.

How Do You Know if You Need a Page One Rewrite?

The reasons most likely will be different to those that triggered rewrites from the high-profile examples above. It is most likely that the studio/network/producer who has bought your project loves the idea premise but has issues with the execution, structure, or plotting. 

If you just have issues with characters, dialogue or pacing there are some technical alterations you can make through further drafting/rewriting, but it is unlikely to require a page one rewrite.

Controlling Idea Emma Stone Writer

As a writer, there are various ways you can come to be involved in a page one rewrite. Types of page one rewrites may include:

1) When a studio/network/producer wants you to do a rewrite on your own work.
2) When a studio/network/producer hires another writer or script doctor to rewrite your script.
3) When you are hired to do a page one rewrite on someone else’s script.

The following are tips to keep in mind when you are in either position:

How to Tackle a Page One Rewrite

1. On Your Own Script

Keep a record of the notes you were given.

  • You want to note what they (the studio/network/producer) liked and what they did not. Obviously, you want to do more of what they liked and less of what they did not. 
  • If you are pulling your completed draft apart and planning a rebuild you want to know what can be salvaged.
  • It’s also important to note what is working and what isn’t. How is your script perceived? This is crucial to try and grasp in order to lean into the more successful parts and trim the less successful parts. 

Remember to retain your initial planning documents (e.g., character bios, story engines and beat sheets).

  • Although you need to undertake a complete rebuild, the elemental documents you used to get you to this point are going to help you understand what did not work or what plans were not executed optimally. 
  • Furthermore, these documents will help you fortify the new story to be stronger to ensure it does not have the same weak points as the original draft.

Get back to the core reasons why you wanted to tell the story. 

  • If there are problems with the execution but the conception remains liked, then it’s time to go back to the source of your idea. 
  • Why did you want to tell this story? What did you originally want to say?
  • Try and get in touch with the primary motivation for wanting to tell the story. Then interrogate how your current execution might or might not be conveying this message. 
  • Some parts might be working, others might not be. But by tapping into the purpose of your story, it’s easier to identify where and when this purpose is being fulfilled or not. 
Barton Fink Writing

2. If Someone is Hired to Rewrite Your Work

Okay, so let us focus on the positives. They like your idea, but they do not like your initial draft nor want you to rewrite it yourself. This happens to the best writers.

However, you can still participate with the page one rewrite to keep in good graces with the studio/network/producer.

  • Be collaborative and open. Try and remember that they like your idea and they want the best for it.
  • Remain helpful. Even if you’re not the writer they want to re-write the project, try and offer up help where you can.
  • Obviously, if you feel the project is really getting away from you and you’re not happy with the direction it’s going in, then you’re within your rights to say something.
  • However, try and always be flexible first. Don’t assume the worst straight away. Instead, be open to the project heading in a new direction. It might end up being better or different in a way you couldn’t have imagined. And if it goes the other way, then you know it’s time to make your voice heard.

Be open and prepared to work with the new writer.

  • They are your friend and a fellow writer. Be open to their ideas and try and collaborate smoothly.
  • You might be in their position one day too and so try and put yourself in their shoes.

Think about the long game, not your ego.

  • The project is the ultimate goal. Do what it takes to realize it, albeit within limits.
  • Particularly if you’re a new writer, a significant project to your name will help you in the long run.
  • So don’t let the short term obscure the long term. It’s all about playing the game and playing your hand at the right time. Don’t move too early and blow your hand.

3. If You have a Rewrite Gig

Build a relationship with the original writer to understand the original premise. 

  • If you are brought in to do a page one rewrite, it would serve you to develop a relationship with the original writer to understand where their idea came from, and what they were trying to say. 
  • This will further help you understand what the producer/studio/network liked about the original idea.

Understand what the producer/studio/network wants. 

  • You do not want to make the same mistakes the original writer made. 
  • Even if you liked the original, you must know who your boss is and this is the studio/network/producer, not the original writer. 
  • Work out what the studio/network/producer liked about the original idea and how they see the best execution of the idea.

Try and understand why you’ve been brought on board. 

  • This is not only relevant in terms of improving the project but also in why you specifically have been chosen. 
  • What is it about your writing style and/or you as a writer that made the producer/studio hire you? 
  • Try and identify, to the best of your ability, the answer to this question and consequently try and lean into your best skills and abilities. 
  • However, also don’t overthink it. At the end of the day, you’ve been hired to improve a script. This is your job and overthinking your own writing could leave you self-conscious and lead to writer’s block. 
  • With writing in general, you want to find a balance between knowing where your strengths lie and taking each project as it comes. This is the best way of always tackling what’s in front of you. 
Writer at Desk - Page One Rewrite

Famous Rewrite Examples

Do not be disheartened by having been ordered to start again on your screenplay. See it as another opportunity to play a video game once you know where the bad guys are coming from. 

It is an opportunity to improve your product. The thematic underpinning of a movie or TV show is what the writer really wants to say about the world, and a page one rewrite is your chance to refine that worldview.

And if that does not move you, just remember the road to production is paved with failure. Almost every major screenwriter, director and producer has been part of a laborious rewriting process. Most commonly they might not be page one rewrites as such but more like traditional rewrites. 

Some famous action blockbusters were not blockbusters until a major rewrite. Such was the case with Commando, for example.

  • Before Arnold Schwarzenegger was involved in the project, the original script was about an ex-Israeli soldier who had turned his back on violence. 
  • Enter action writer Steven de Souza, who rewrote the script, giving it the snappy one-liners, guns, and action that it ultimately became known for.  

And often projects have script doctors who you would never expect. Perhaps the most pertinent example of this is Noah Baumbach, who reportedly did around 60 pages of re-writes on Madagascar 3 and even got a co-writing credit. 

This proves more than anything that the re-writing process can be unconventional. And it’s often a circuitous route to getting the project in the form it needs to be in to succeed. Most importantly, as a writer, try as hard as you can (you will often fail) to not take it personally. As a certain movie icon would say, “it’s just business”. 

In Summary

What is a Page One Rewrite?

A page one rewrite is when a writer is expected to rewrite a script almost from scratch, keeping the core ideas and concept, but changing the manner of execution. This could include anything from changing the structure, dialogue, plot or character arcs. It’s different from a more simple rewrite, which is often more about polishing the script rather than completely rewriting it.

How Do You Handle a Page One Rewrite?

Whether you’re a writer who has been asked to rewrite your own script, or your script has been handed to someone else, or you’re a writer employed to do a page one rewrite – always remain open, flexible and collaborative. Try not to let your ego get in the way of the work and project at hand. Furthermore, don’t let your vision of one project get in the way of the next potential one.

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This article was written by David Ciampa and edited by IS staff.

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