By Lee Hamilton.
It’s an age-old question but considering how much time and effort goes into screenwriting, of course, you want to know how much money you can earn!
The short answer is potentially millions, but realistically, that’s only for top-tier screenwriters, of which there are few. For the rest of us, earnings depend on several factors.
Let’s take a look at them.
- How experienced you are. Writers with bigger reputations have a proven body of successful work behind them, can be trusted with larger projects, or have won awards, are going to be able to negotiate a higher payment.
- How many projects you are working on. Spec scripts don’t earn money until they’ve sold, but writers can also earn money by getting assignments. This can be re-writing your script after you’ve sold it, re-writing someone else’s script, or being a staff writer on a tv show, etc.
- What format you are writing in. There are different rates paid for different types of scripts, such as film, television, original material, or adaptation, etc. The size makes a difference. The bigger the budget, the bigger the pay, as in general, writers are paid 1-2% of a movie’s budget, although they’re entitled to ask for up to 5%, and the longer the running length of a tv script, the larger the pay becomes too.
- Whether you’re a WGA member or not. The Writer’s Guild of America is a union for writers, that offers support, health benefits, and guidance on the minimum that WGA writers should be paid. WGA members are guaranteed to be paid more than non-WGA members, but you need to have a certain level of experience to first become a member, plus an initiation fee of $2500.
Stories about the likes of Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight), Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct), and Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) selling their spec scripts for 2-4 million dollars each are inspiring, but they’re something of a rarity. The market has moved on, and thanks to a combination of the WGA strike of 2007, the financial crash of 2008, and studios subsequently betting on adapting already popular franchises, such as Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and Twilight, to minimize the financial risks, the chances of selling a spec script have drastically gone down.
To counter this, the evolution of streaming services and VOD has led to an insatiable demand for new original content, giving screenwriters much more power and potentially more creative control. Credited writers can earn residuals from past works, and there’s been an increase in residual earnings thanks to new media reuse. Again, it’s not always as rosy as it sounds, binge-watching prompted seasons to become shorter, decreasing from the traditional 22 to as little as 10-6, meaning that landing a TV writing gig might not provide a full year’s work anymore, plus as with features, it’s the seasoned experienced showrunners, or their teams, getting the big bucks, while mid-level writers may need to survive on getting one or two episodes a year.
The average spec sale today is around the $111,000 figure which roughly coincides with the average annual wage of American screenwriters, which is $106,340. So, it’s not to be sniffed at. But screenwriters don’t get a fixed salary or get a monthly paycheck, and instead, payments are broken down into installments, which will have been heavily negotiated and written into detailed contracts by entertainment lawyers.
That $111,000 feature spec sale might result in a first-installment of $46,000, but don’t forget about your agent’s 10% fee, the 5% that the entertainment lawyers going to take, and if you also have a manager, that’s another 10% straight off, leaving $34,500, but that’s all before tax, which potentially could take a big chunk of that, leaving you with maybe $17,500.
Unfortunately, most contracts stipulate that after the first payment, every payment after that is for another draft of the script (usually after developmental notes from execs, directors, producers, etc.) The problem then is that a screenwriter can be replaced at any time, meaning that the payments can also stop at any time. Even if you’ve written your own life story, unless it’s in the contract, the studio owns the IP and can do whatever they want, with or without you.
When it comes to Non-WGA members, they can make anything from nothing to low five-figure deals. Though independent films outside of Hollywood or production companies not affected by guild restrictions are certainly places to find work and build your body of work.
As with many other industries, you can’t expect to be paid top dollar straight away and need to start at the bottom and working your way up, making contacts, writing great material, and enjoying the process.
Screenwriting isn’t a guaranteed get-rich-quick scheme, you’ve got to be in it for the long haul. You need to be passionate about the craft.
Most emerging screenwriters are going to need a second job to cover the bills, and even after finding representation, most screenwriters aren’t able to write full-time without other earnings for a long time after that. Some websites you might not already know about that are great for finding work include ISA Writing Gigs, Screenwriting Staffing, Entertainment Careers, and Video Collective.
But if you love screenwriting, take active steps to advance your career, and have the support of a tribe of like-minded writers and filmmakers behind you, there’s no reason that you can’t turn your passion into a profit. A great story will always sell.
Lee Hamilton is a script reader, developer, and author. Lee was one of the original readers to join Shore Scripts and has since moved into education and development, penning numerous articles, workbooks, and writing courses.