James Cameron’s script for Avatar was the template for an epic. At 162 minutes, the Avatar movie is a LONG epic, but here’s the deal:
Jake Sully meets his avatar eight minutes into the movie.
That’s page 8 in a script that uses proper screenplay format, and it’s prime real-estate for that Inciting Incident to really suck in the reader.
If you look at Cameron’s original Avatar treatment (do a search for “Avatar scriptment”) that was written years before the movie went into production, the story opens on Earth and shows us the environmental devastation that we’ll soon learn has prompted humans to explore deep space for more natural resources. It goes into a long-winded (but fascinating, at least on paper) explanation of the importance of energy to space travel. We meet Jake Sully as he fights in a war and is paralyzed in battle, then approached about filling his brother’s job on Pandora. This was all SETUP that Cameron originally felt was crucial.
But he junked it for the movie so the audience would get into the action as soon as possible. He started the shooting script LATER so we would find the focused throughline–the spine of the story that drives the action–as soon as possible.
This is not the first time that a James Cameron movie has cut out exposition in Act One to get the story moving faster. The most well-known example would in Aliens, where he removed early scenes that explained how Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) lost her daughter. This was meant to strengthen the bond that she will later make with the orphan girl Newt when Ripley rescues her from the blood-thirsty aliens.
But the film didn’t need it. The script was powerfully focused on the theme of family, leading to a clear confrontation between Newt’s two adoptive mothers, Ripley and the Alien Queen (“The Bitch!”), fighting over the custody of the child. Once they had that ending, it was just a matter of reverse-engineering the story to push to the climax in the most surprising and thrilling way possible.
Also, take note of when Jack in Titanic wins the poker game that puts him on that ship with Rose. If you have the time, the Titanic script and the Titanic movie are a nice comparison.
Just as you want to start your scenes as late as possible and end as soon as possible, the same goes for your entire script. Get it moving, suck us in and don’t let us go until we Fade Out.
Here’s an emphatic reminder from me about those crucial first ten pages of screenplay:
Good Luck and Happy Writing,
Related: Don’t Suck, Suck in the Reader!
p.s. For more free screenplays, including Avatar scripts, see imsdb.com, which has free scripts in html format (but I’m sure if you do some searches you can find an Avatar PDF download, as well).