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The Story Behind Film Script Collecting


The Celluloid Paper Trail: Identification and Description of Twentieth Century Film Scripts just arrived at Oak Knoll Books! Author Kevin R. Johnson was kind enough to answer a few questions from the Oak Knoll staff. We learned about the major factors involved in establishing the value of a script, the Holy Grails of the script world, and the importance of evidence of use in value.

Do you want to know more about the story behind script collecting? See below for the full interview!

For Oak Knoll’s online listing for The Celluloid Paper Trail, available for immediate order, click here.

Kevin R. Johnson will also be holding a seminar to discuss The Celluloid Paper Trail at the Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair. See here for details.


Interview with Kevin R. Johnson:

When did the collecting of film scripts as a physical object (not just as a film artifact) begin, and how has it developed since that time?

There are many dealers who sold scripts well before I did, so obviously there have been collectors for some time. I would say it’s been a going concern since the late 1970s. But in the time I’ve been pursuing scripts and rare paper relating to film production in earnest, meaning since 2004 or so, the interest has gone through the roof both with collectors and institutions. I think it has a lot to do with the turn of the century, and the view that cinema was, as Paul Schrader once said, the art form of the 20th century.

For a few years we sold only to a few rabidly enthusiastic collectors and nearly no institutions. Today we sell a script to a totally new customer nearly every day, and institutions all the time.


How do you establish the value of a film script as a collectable object? (is it film popularity? provenance? annotations?)

Well, certainly a film’s popularity is a point of value. But there are countless pockets of micro-interest in cinema, just as there are with books. A lot of people wouldn’t know what I mean when I say “the Val Lewton film cycle,” but the ones that do know are a very, smart, excitable bunch, and for good reason. Beyond that, I would say broadly that the two major factors are artifactual value and content value.

Artifactual value amounts to a direct visual connection between a script as an historical object and a person knowledgeable of its history. For example, we once sold John Wayne’s working script for The Searchers, where Wayne had written “JW” in bold letters at the top left and top right. Anyone who loves that film immediately understands what they are seeing. I once saw George A. Romero’s working script for Knightriders in a three ring binder. Every page was in its own mylar sleeve, with notes in marker on the mylar, and the boards were bound up in duct tape–made that way by Romero because he was constantly working outside in the weather and didn’t want the pages to get wet or the boards to warp. How cool is that? The whole story, right in front of you.

Content value has to do with the content present in the script that did not make it to the film, as well as what that content tells you from multiple perspectives–regional, thematic, cultural, etc. That aspect is the one most institutions gravitate toward, for obvious reasons of research appeal. A great example would be a script from the late 1930s or early 1940s with high-and-mighty notations from the Hayes Code demanding removal of the saucy dialogue or addition of more brassieres.


Normally, condition is critical to the value of a collectable book; how does condition figure in the value of a film script, if at all?

Certainly a script always needs to have its condition accurately assessed. But unlike books, unless a script is falling apart or incomplete due to pages having been lost, condition is pretty much the last thing I worry about. I am much more concerned with the opposite: is there evidence that the script was used in the making of the film? Is it lightly or profusely annotated? Ring stains, dampstains, dog-eared corners, folded pages, and fraying? All these aspects are evidence of use, and extremely important in terms of general provenance.

Put another way, the more scripts I see, the more beautiful a well-used one becomes. I can understand a collector who is seeking perfection, but that collector will wind up with very few scripts that have much of a story to tell. Filmmakers weren’t running around trying to keep their scripts fresh and clean–they were using them to make movies.


How do the languages of the book world and the film world mesh together in The Celluloid Paper Trail?

That was a very tough problem when I was developing the book. On one hand I focused on rare paper concerns, meaning proper identification, terminology, research, and the elimination of possibilities in a search for the script’s core value as a book object. On the other hand, it is impossible to properly identify a script without having a basic understanding of the development process associated with it–and understanding where that script fits in the process.

A film starts with a synopsis or a treatment script, then moves on into multiple drafts, a final draft, then the shooting script stage, again involving at least 2-3 draft iterations, then post-production scripts. Beyond that, you need to understand how stenographic departments worked, the kind of annotations specific to filmmaking, and the minutiae of style aspects relating to different studios both during and after the studio system era.

A different and equally big problem to solve when writing the book was to use terminology that collectors and dealers would comprehend, but that a librarian would not dismiss out of hand. Erin Schreiner, the director of the Bibliographical Society of America, is a friend, and was priceless in terms of letting me know the kind of language librarians would expect. Or even tolerate! Beyond that, I had to just decide for myself how Catholic I was going to be in riding that line. My goal was to create a book that scholars would want to reference and to use. I want them to wear this book out.


Are different versions of a script (treatment, draft, shooting, post-production, etc.) thought of and valued as different “issues,” or are they all considered a continuous creative and production stream? Which are the most desirable?
Scripts at every draft stage can be useful, desirable, and valuable. Toward the end of shooting, when the last revised shooting script is handed out, its text is obviously approaching a terminus in terms of content variance from the film being completed–in other words, it will bear a greater and great likeness to the film.

Post-production scripts, which are a down-to-the-second representation of the edited film, have the least content value. But even those scripts become valuable, for example, when studying a lost film (the script is all you have!) or studying annotations relating to sound or effects editing, which is still going on after the film itself has been edited. I wish there were simpler answers, but the charm of a working script is that every one tells a different story.


What exactly is a “presentation copy” of a film script?

A presentation script can be one of two things: (a) a presentation in the “book” sense, where a script that is simply inscribed to another person on the set of the film by a cast or crew member, or (b) the more formal definition, wherein a script used during filming is bound in leather, and has the name of the person who used it embossed on the front board so that it can be nicely shelved in their library as a memento. The latter kind were made often during the studio system era (meaning up until the late 1960s), much less so after that.


There must be other extensive lists, directives, and records associated with film production, such as guides to set design, props, continuity, and choreography; do they become part of the script or are they archived and collected separately?

That kind of associated documentation is actually even harder to find than scripts, because far fewer copies were duplicated for the specific technical concerns you’re getting at, such as lighting, prop management, or a production schedule. When those documents do turn up, they almost always found laid in or bound into a script.

Expanding on that idea, there are two holy grails in the script world: the first is the script supervisor’s annotated script, noting every change made to continuity, scene deletions, takes that were chosen, etc. The second is what is referred to as a “production bible,” which usually contains the shooting script, but also a huge amount of documentation relating to every production aspect of the film. Beyond that, of course, any script that is profusely annotated brings a wealth of information to the table regarding ideas that were proposed, pondered, or dismissed. You also sometimes see grocery lists!


How does the script, including its changes and annotations, play into the often extremely complex choreography involved in filming or, vice versa, how does the choreography involved in filming play into the development of the script?

Again, a very rare kind of documentation to find. Rare like incunabula. When reading a script for a musical, typically the cataloger will find a statement that reads something like “Follies musical number here,” followed by a continuation of the narrative. All the actual documentation relating to that choreography and other concerns outside the narrative is duplicated separately from the script in very small numbers, and in some cases the document is even unique. A Busby Berkeley annotated notebook for a musical would be a wonderful find indeed.

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