The idea is that the first act of pretty much any movie ends around page 17 of the screenplay, or about 17 minutes into the movie (give or take a minute).
Act I is the setup. We meet the characters, figure out when and where we are, and then something happens that starts the ball rolling. The hero passes a threshold of sorts, and there’s no going back.
Here’s an example:
George Bailey tells his father he couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of his life in a shabby little office at his father’s building and loan 17 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life.
The rest of the movie is about everything that happens that stops him from leaving Bedford Falls and drives him to consider jumping off that bridge on Christmas Eve.
It isn’t just old movies that follow the 17-minute rule:
- Luke’s uncle buys the droids 17 minutes into Star Wars. The droids are what leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and, ultimiately, the Death Star.
- Buddy leaves the North Pole to find is real dad 17 minutes into Elf.
- The shark eats the little boy on the raft 17 minutes into Jaws. It’s the second attack that forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
- The Iowa farmer is thinking about plowing under the baseball field he built in his cornfield until Shoeless Joe appears 17 minutes after the credits in Field of Dreams.
Of course, the 17-minute rule isn’t set in stone.
In the book I was reading, Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 424, the chairman emeritus of UCLA’s film school calls it the “floating page 17” rule, meaning the scene setting up the rest of the movie should come around page 17. There are plenty of examples of where that scene comes sooner or later — but only a little sooner or later.
Hunter says, basically, that 17 pages (about 17 minutes of screen time) is about how long it takes to set up the story and pull people in. Sooner, and we don’t know enough about the characters to care about what happens next. Later, we just get bored.
Ever since I read Hunter’s book, I can’t help but notice when Act I ends and Act II begins, and when I check the clock, we’re usually around the 17-minute mark.