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Indie Gear: Small Screenwriting Software Startup Takes on the Behemoth that is Final Draft

Life as a Screenwriter - H 2013

With a slick user interface and plethora of unique features, Fade In is a fresh alternative in a stagnant marketplace.

In the world of screenplay composition there is one name to know: Final Draft. Introduced in 1991, the screenwriting software quickly became the industry standard. Over the years, a host of competitors have come into the fold, including Movie Magic Screenwriter, Celtx and Adobe Story, but each has used the same template for their design characteristics -- Microsoft Word. Enter Fade In, a new piece of screenwriting software that has taken a wholly different approach.

The first impression: a sleek, modern, and dark UI that looks more like a content-editing tool than a word processing program -- similar to Adobe Lightroom or the CS6 Photoshop redesign. The text is perfectly sharp on a Macbook Retina display, for which Final Draft has yet to provide support.

If you're the nostalgic type who regularly holds forth on the benefits of using a typewriter -- the lack of distracting images and icons, no toolbar, no navigation, just the author, the paper and his words -- you may be a fan of Fade In's Full Screen mode. Everything is gone, save the document and the scroll bar along the right rail. Which begs the question: How has this feature not been included in every other screenwriting program? Similarly, a "Focus Current Text" tool reduces the opacity of all text around the selected line, and though it may sound extraneous, it's a nice touch for analyzing small bits of dialogue or action lines.

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For consumers and content creators, a customizable interface has become the expected software experience. Like your smartphone's apps, the formatting modules within Fade In (Navigator, Format/Roster, Toolbar) are completely dynamic, and can be dragged and dropped anywhere on the page. If dragged to the edge of the screen, the modules snap into place. One would think that Adobe Story, coming from a maker who's formatting modules are dynamic in nearly all of their editing suites, would have included a similar feature, but no such luck.

Of course, at $50 -- one-fifth the price of Final Draft and equal to a five-month subscription to Story Plus -- it doesn't have all the whiz-bang tools of its bigger rivals. Notably, there is no speaking function. Even though it's in a cold, computerized tone, listening to dialogue spoken by different voices can be a godsend for writers who have spent months alone with a script. Then again, if you already have Final Draft, Fade In does allow import and export of FDX and FDR files, so jumping back and forth between the programs is relatively easy.

If you've ever been frustrated working with a piece of software and thought, "I could build a better one," Fade In's creator Kent Tessman would tell you "the most important thing at the start is to underestimate how much work it will be." By his own account, Tessman was a screenwriter who was "sitting down to work on my next indie feature and was just disappointed with the latest Final Draft update. I was also very unhappy with FD Inc.'s business model, which involves selling software for a premium price -- $250 a copy -- and then fixing [some] bugs only with another $80 upgrade to the next version. I couldn't believe that there wasn't something better out there, and I got to thinking that someone could write one, and hey, that someone might as well be me."

Tessman seems unwilling to pigeonhole himself as a software developer, "I'm a filmmaker, first and foremost. I'm not in the screenwriting software business. Whether or not to fix a bug or implement a new feature isn't, to me, a cost-benefit analysis. Basically what I want is the best screenwriting software for people -- including me -- to use." Startup founders are notorious for using this kind of user-centric rhetoric, usually abandoned if an increased user base and profits validate the business model. That's when every decision becomes a cost-benefit analysis.

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Over a year after its release, the program is finally garnering acclaim in Hollywood. WGA member Craig Mazin, scribe of The Hangover Part III and Identity Thief, wrote to us about the software: "In my experience, there's a lot of fatigue among professionals toward Final Draft. The world of software is evolving at a breakneck pace except in this area, which seems to be frozen in 2002. Screenwriting software is a pretty mature product. We need very specific functionality, and once we have it, the rest comes down to aesthetics, tech support and format standards. Final Draft has built much of its success around its proprietary format becoming a de facto standard, but those days are pretty much over."

In an interview with the Systematic podcast, one-time Daily Show correspondent, actor and writer Rob Corddry declared, "Fade In is now the Final Draft killer."

As consumers, we've become accustomed to minimalist design, and it's well know that the success of Apple Inc. is largely due to the modern design aesthetic applied to their products. People don't buy iPhones because they have the fastest processor or the longest battery life. They buy them because they're beautifully crafted pieces of machinery, inside and out, software to hardware. For screenwriters, as noted by Mazin, it's been a different story -- forced to be content with the status quo of programs created by developers with little or no focus placed on design.

Could you live on Fade In alone? Yes. Would you want to? Probably not. Will screenwriters with an eye geared to UI design compose in Fade In and use Final Draft for it's auxiliary features? Most likely. Hit the comments below with your thoughts: Will the newcomer Fade In ever overtake Final Draft?

Example of the window layout with formatting modules: