Screenwriter Salary: How Much Do Screenwriters Actually Make?
If you’re wondering whether a career in screenwriting is even worth a try, ask yourself this: do you enjoy doing it? If you haven’t even tried, then what are you waiting for? Give it a try! The thing is that screenwriting is a difficult career to break into; the way to the top is a very complicated system within Hollywood, especially when talking about payment. Like the Peerspace Concierge team, this blog is here to answer questions, specifically surrounding the mysterious case of the screenwriter salary. Hit up the Concierge team at Peerspace for any questions surrounding locations to help you make your pre-production a smooth transition onto set.
The screenwriter salary basics
Truth of the matter is that there is no salary. Not a consistent one anyway, and it definitely varies between individuals. How much a screenwriter makes a year varies on:
- The amount of work — Not just how many projects they’re working on but also whether a screenwriter is having to provide outlines, treatments, or multiple drafts for each project.
- The kind of work — There’s a difference in payment when working on a television show, an indie feature or a studio film. Is the screenwriter writing an original idea or adapting from existing material?
- The screenwriter’s skill level and reputation — More seasoned screenwriters have more experience in the machine and therefore are more easily trusted with bigger projects. There is also the appeal of an award winning screenwriter and even general word of mouth within the industry to take into account.
That is all dictated by whether a writer is a WGA member or not. The WGA stands for the Writers Guild of America, which is a labor union that represents writers in film and television. The WGA provides health benefits, a community, and guidelines for the extremely complicated work of how to pay writers for specific types of projects.
In order to get into the WGA, they require a certain amount of writing experience in the industry and a $2500 fee. You quite literally have to pay your dues first. But by becoming a member, screenwriters are guaranteed to be paid more than a non-WGA writer. The WGA has a thorough list of minimums that employers have to pay writers for.
The nitty-gritty of the screenwriter salary
Here is a list of minimum amounts for both TV work and feature film work as of 2017. For a more thorough breakdown you can also check the WGA booklet of minimums.
Feature film screenplays
- Original Film + Treatment — From $72,662 to $136,413
- Adaptation Film + Treatment — From $63,581 to $118,240
- Original Film (no treatment) — From $48,819 to $99,937
- Adaptation Film (no treatment) — From $39,729 to $81,763
- Story Idea or Treatment Only — From $23,841 to $36,346
- Rewrite Film Screenplay — From $24,437 to $37,255
- 60 Minute Network Prime Time Teleplay — From $25,451 to $25,963
- 30 Minute Network Prime Time Teleplay — From $18,864 to $19,244
- 60 Minute – Non-Network Teleplay — From $18,778 to $19,728
- 30 Minute – Non-Network Teleplay — From $9,690 to $10,180
Although the numbers for television screenplays might be less than feature films, in reality a television writer’s salary stacks up. TV screenwriters have the consistency of several episodes and the assignments stack up quickly the longer the show runs for.
Other factors to consider are that the page count, the amount of time given on a project and the project’s budget. The higher the page count, the more money is earned by the screenwriter. The less time the writer has to complete an assignment, the more work they have to put in, but the more money is earned. A project from a huge production studio such as Walt Disney or Warner Brothers is going to pay more than an independent project.
How do screenwriters get paid?
There are three ways screenwriters can get paid: assignments, specs, and with residuals.
Assignments are concepts that studio executives and production companies want to begin development on. Producers usually pursue a story idea and run it by studios to try and get it made. When this happens, writers come in to pitch their version of that idea, basically a job interview in screenwriter terms.
Specs are scripts from a screenwriter’s own initiation. They don’t get paid to write it, they write it because they feel strongly about an idea and will hopefully be able to sell the script. Even if the script isn’t sold, specs are a good way to gain more experience and to show possible employers what you can do. Screenwriters can try and sell specs to existing television shows or to try and get hired by proving they understand the ins and outs of that show enough to write for the show.
Residuals are for writers that have already sold a screenplay. Writers in the United States are not able to own the copyright to their work, the studios own that. But writers get paid for the reuse of their work, that money is known as residuals. One of the biggest residual incomes are TV reruns.
Despite all these ways for a screenwriter to make money, it can be a while before that money makes its way to their bank account. It is required that screenwriters get paid up front for half of the work before they start as a form of collateral, because unfortunately without it, a screenwriter might not be paid fairly. Usually a screenwriter gets paid in chunks, so it could be years before the last chunk is finally received. Each stage of writing (first draft, rewrite and the polish) is received in halves – at the beginning and after completion.
Words of advice
Don’t spend your money all in one place, a screenwriter “salary” is not guaranteed. Even if you sell one script, be smart about how you save until the next sale. Often young screenwriters are eager to quit their day job, but selling one script doesn’t guarantee the beginning of your career. Screenplays are bought all the time but might never be made. However, don’t let this discourage you.
As long as you are pursuing screenwriting because you genuinely love it, then by all means keep hustling. Talent and dedication is sure to shine through. Something that is also recommended is finding a team of aspiring filmmakers who are willing to shoot your writing. It’s great when you can have a lot of scripts on deck but even better when you have films you’ve written ready to show.