Between the Lines: ScreenplaySubs Creator Talks About the Value of Reading and Watching a Screenplay

A huge part of learning how to write screenplays is, of course, reading screenplays. It is invaluable to read both classic and terrible screenplays to learn about character arcs, story structure and formatting. Writing this column has taught me so much and it has been a delight to read a screenplay and watch the story unfold on screen. What about watching a film alongside reading the screenplay? That’s where ScreenplaySubs comes in: a browser extension for Netflix that syncs up the screenplay for a film you’re watching in a side-by-side display. So far, there are thirteen films you can watch with its screenplay including Lady Bird and The Social Network. I was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Egan Bisma, the person behind ScreenplaySubs, on the conception of the software, how it was made and the benefits of viewing a film in this particular way.


GS: Let’s start with your background: are you studying or working? Is your occupation related to screenwriting or film at all?

EB: I recently graduated from college and have been working for one year now as a Web Developer, completely unrelated to film. I planned to pursue a film studies degree back in high school to become a film editor but decided at the last minute to pursue computer science while doing film related activities on the side. I did have some interest in computer science, and it was an intriguing time to switch directions since, after all, college is the time to ‘redefine yourself’ right? Unfortunately, procrastination led me to not do much on the film side throughout college. This realisation was one of the driving forces to start a film-related project after graduation.

GS: What led to the creation of ScreenplaySubs?

EB: I wanted to contribute to the film world somehow since I did still have an interest in film and thought that there’s no better way to do so than using something I’m already super comfortable with: computer science. I’ve taken an interest in watching movies with screenplays side-by-side to analyse how much of the screenplay I can see in the movie. It was cumbersome to take the time to find exactly where in the screenplay a movie scene is, having to pause and play every time. This definitely detracts me from thinking productively. It would be great to have screenplay lines appear when streaming movies, similar to how captions work. That’s pretty much how the idea of ScreenplaySubs came about.

GS: How did you even begin creating ScreenplaySubs? What was the process to get it up and running?

EB: ScreenplaySubs calculates the similarity between captions and script dialogues to determine the timestamps of the lines in the script. If a caption and a script dialogue are similar enough, the timestamp of that caption is tagged into the screenplay line. Additionally, it also tags timestamps based on ‘unique’ words, meaning words that appear in both the captions and the screenplay for only a few times. For example, if there’s a dialogue that contains “inexplicably” once in the script, then we can confidently sync the script line without doing further work. These concepts are nifty since, given the implementation is correct, it’s able to timestamp screenplays with respect to all the scene reorderings or deletions that usually happens in post-production. This algorithm is not perfect though. Sometimes scenes aren’t able to be timestamped, which is either because they were omitted from the movie, or that they might have little to no dialogue that the code weren’t able to automatically tag the timestamps. If it’s the former, there’s not much to do, but if it’s the latter someone has to manually go over those scenes and tag the timestamps.

GS: Is ScreenplaySubs a community-led effort or do you have a small, dedicated team?

EB: ScreenplaySubs is entirely handled by me at the moment, although I’m starting to find contributors and look into ways to leverage crowdsourcing from the community.

GS: What is your personal experience of watching a film side-by-side with its screenplay? What do you gain from it?

EB: I meant to build ScreenplaySubs as a research tool where you can analyse different patterns within a film, including actor delivery. For example, Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is known for having a wacky personality, which is heavily reflected in his body movements. You can find out whether these movements are part of the script, or part of improvisation on set. This could be useful for anyone trying to analyse Johnny Depp’s performance. You could also imagine extending the scope of the analysis to Johnny Depp’s filmography.

Let’s look into a more concrete example in Steve Jobs. On the verge of the iMac launch, Steve Jobs had a series of confrontations with his coworkers, the last one being with one of the original members of Apple- Andy Hertzfeld. After a contentious debate, Steve finally had time to rehearse the launch by reciting some lines.

ANDY exits.

STEVE stands there a moment... then launches into a practice run of a section of the presentation so he can wipe away what just happened.

STEVE (CONT'D): What is remarkable, what's hard to fathom but true is that for a given clock rate a power PC chip is twice as fast as a Pentium II chip.

STEVE (CONT'D): In other words a 266 Megahertz G3 is twice as fast as a 266 Megahertz Pentium II or a 266 G3 is equal to about 500 Megahertz. Take a look at BYTE Magazine's BYTE Marks, the gold standard for--

There's a knock at the door--

STEVE: Come in.

JOANNA enters.

Prior to all this, Steve made decisions every moment in a highly calculated manner. Not only on Apple, but also on his personal life. However, the first action line shows that all these arguments from people closest to him has started to take a toll on him, a feeling he is very much unfamiliar with. The film presents this scene similarly with one small but important difference that lies in the editing. We can see extremely short cuts of bonding times between Steve and Lisa, acting as a visual manifestation of Steve’s struggle to maintain composure. One could argue the editing of the film elevated this tug-of-war state of mind conveyed in the screenplay. I bet there are more things that people can benefit with ScreenplaySubs that I couldn’t think on top of my head!

GS: What has feedback been like from those who have used ScreenplaySubs?

EB: The consensus is pretty positive, although there has been quite a number of users reporting bugs on the extension. This is to be expected since ScreenplaySubs is in such an early phase. I had to make a decision whether to increase the quality of the current features or ship more features with possibly more bugs. I chose the latter for better or worse. There have also been feature suggestions, the most requested one being support for other streaming platforms including Prime.

GS: How do you envision the future of ScreenplaySubs?

I envision that in the future there will be sort of an opposite feature of ScreenplaySubs, where users read the screenplays, and click on a specific line which redirects you to the movie on the corresponding timestamp… support for Amazon Prime, and other major streaming services… a streamlined approach for anyone to fix incorrect syncs.

As much as I want to contribute more to ScreenplaySubs, there’s the reality that juggling between that and a 9-5 job is unideal in the long run, which led me to decide to halt to project indefinitely. However, I plan to release all ScreenplaySubs code on the internet in the hopes of passing the baton to generous contributors.


You can download the browser extension at www.screenplaysubs.com