You’ve heard stories about studios paying millions of dollars for scripts. Probably prompting the deserved question, “How much do screenwriters make?”
Today, we’re going to take a look at the events that got the spec market to where it is today, in 2019. It’s not easy to figure out how studios and networks operate and what they really want. But we’ve got the insider’s perspective, and we’ve done the research.
You’ll leave this article with confidence, ready to give yourself the best chance possible before you and your reps submit a script to Netflix, Paramount, or HBO.
1. Screenwriter salary stories
Shane Black got nearly $2 million for his script for The Last Boy Scout in 1990, setting a high-dollar record in the process. (He had previously sold his script for Lethal Weapon for $250,000 in 1984.)
Only two months after Black's record sale of Boy Scout, Joe Eszterhas laughed all the way to the bank by selling Basic Instinct for $4 million, with $1 million of that going to producer Irwin Winkler.
In 1994, Black was back, this time selling his script for The Long Kiss Goodnight for an unprecedented $4 million lump.
Then, twenty years later, Adam McKay and Will Ferrell split a $4 million check for Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. (Yes, if you write with a partner, you have to divide the haul.)
Those are standouts. So, when you break it all down, how much do screenplays sell for?
Look, there’s a clear history of a screenwriter salary hitting that seven-figure mark. Then we get to television and syndication, and the question of “How much do screenwriters make?” snowballs.
But, the unfortunate twist for screenwriters is that scripts selling for millions is unheard of in this century. Especially if it's an original screenplay idea.
Selling a script, and how to sell a script, are different animals these days than they were thirty, twenty, even ten years ago.
Really, there's no fixed, clear answer to screenwriter salary. Most screenwriters don't take home a bi-weekly paycheck for the same amount of money every pay period. Instead, they work on the freelance, ad-hoc model found in many creative industries.
Photographers, cinematographers, novelists, actors, and other artists tend to approach jobs and projects one at a time. And when a job or project ends, it's time to look for the next paycheck.
So how much screenwriters make isn't what it seems, or nearly what it used to be. But people figure out how to sell scripts all the time.
How do you do it? And when you do, how much dough can you expect?
We'll get there.
HOW TO SELL A SCRIPT
2. The wild spec market of the 1990s
Learning how to sell your screenplay is complicated. Before we get into more methods on how to sell a script, we have to take a look at how the market got to where it is. That’ll help us understand the best practices and techniques you need for selling a screenplay.
After the 1988 Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, there was a flood of spec scripts (scripts written on speculation) because professional script writers had 155 days off of work.
There was also such a demand for content, screenwriting agents (and writers) found themselves in rare positions of power. Selling a screenplay had never been easier.
This, in turn, fueled the wild days of the '90s. That's why screenwriter salaries ballooned. From week to week, the answer to "How much do screenwriters make" kept increasing.
So a new policy took effect when selling a screenplay. Studios had from Monday to Friday to make a decision. Every Monday, spec scripts hit the market and by Friday they were either bought, or left in the dust.
This tightened deadline created its own form of drama, as bidding wars began for great scripts. That back-and-forth between the studios drove up prices and inflated screenwriter salaries.
Those were the days.
And that provides a bit of exposition for how we got to selling a screenplay in the modern day.
We'll look at what happened. First, you'll want to make sure to study exposition in film to increase your chances of selling a script of your own.
Check out this video.
So what happened?
There’s only so much money to be made at the box office and flops started to mire bottom lines.
Remember that Last Boy Scout script that fetched $1.75 million? Its overall budget was $75 million and it’s box office leveled out at $60 million.
That’s $15 million down the drain.
So studios drifted towards more surefire, less risky properties like comic book movies, sequels, and remakes, played it safe, and made profits on the back end at places like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video (RIP to both).
By the time Y2K hit, the spec business was dragging. It would nosedive sharply with the rise of technology in the 21st century.
HOW TO SELL A MOVIE SCRIPT
3. The WGA Strike of 2007
In 2007, the WGA went on strike once more, this time to demand increased residuals for their work.
The advent of Netflix, Hulu, and other digital platforms changed the way studios profited. The writers wanted, and deserved, their piece of the pie.
While the writers more or less won, the strike turned into a breath of fresh air for executives. The power writers once wielded was long gone. Selling a screenplay, and finding a seven-figure answer to the question "How much do screenwriters make," became rarer. The industry has never really recovered.
This is especially true because immediately after the strike ended, the 2008 financial crisis reared its head. This drastically changed the way screenwriting agents tried to sell a script.
It also killed what used to be a seven-figure screenwriter salary and made it incredibly hard to answer the question, “How to sell a movie script?”
When the financial crisis hit, it affected the way studios funded their properties. When the banks dried up, so did budgets for development and production.
Major studios favored proven franchises such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight, and Hunger Games. Hedging bets became the priority, because that's what Hollywood is, after all — a gamble.
Regardless of whether you're a writer or a major studio, every time something is made in Hollywood, it's done with the hope that it'll be profitable.
More often than not, it isn't.
Selling a script became tougher than ever, and spec scripts have turned into more of a profile piece than something to be produced.
But even though the economy has, more or less, righted itself, the spec script market is still long gone. The priority of studios still rests squarely on limiting losses.
Modern Screenwriter Salary
4. How much do screenwriters make?
Once you’ve figured out how to sell a movie script, the money just rolls in, right? Well, a modern screenwriter salary depends on the kind of screenplay being written.
It also depends on whether a writer is in the WGA or not.
In the 2017-2018 period, WGA spec script sales ranged from $72,600 to $136,000. The average? Around $110,000.
There are different WGA minimums for everything, from a 15-minute episode of television, to selling a movie script, to a big budget feature film. Even then, those are divided into different prices. A TV script can be divided into “story by” and “teleplay by” credits. Those are worth two different things, monetarily speaking.
Selling a movie script to a company that has signed the WGA agreement will get you a minimum of $72,662. But you don’t get all that at once.
Payments for selling a screenplay are done through installments like this:
That means that the original treatment will get you $32,922. But, whether or not you write the script or another draft after that is completely up to the studio. They don't have to hire you again.
Even if it’s your life story and your baby that you worked on for years, once you sell a screenplay it’s not yours anymore. It’s the studio’s intellectual property (IP) and they can do with it what they will. If they want to burn it, they can burn it. If they feel that after the first thirty grand it's not worth continuing, they'll shelve it forever.
But let's say you have a good relationship with this studio and they like your treatment. So they hire you to write it into a script.
That gets you $28,612.
At this point, you've netted $68,534. That's not bad.
Your next draft? They only have a few changes.
You make them quickly and they get you that final $11,127.
But as your checks come in the mail you start to see some deductions you didn't know about.
Your screenwriting agent takes 10%. There goes $7,200.
Your manager takes 10%. There goes another $7,200.
Your lawyer wants 5%. There goes $3,600.
So you have 75% of your fee left.
But now you have to pay Uncle Sam. There goes at least another ten percent, plus whatever your accountant charges.
All in all, you might walk away with anywhere from sixty to forty percent of your check, depending on how many people you have to pay.
Which, best case scenario for this deal, is $43,597.20.
Joe Eszterhas is, once again, laughing all the way to the bank. Selling a movie script is not a great mathematical way to get rich quick.
Is it possible to make a higher screenwriter salary? Yes, absolutely. But it's hard. That example was done for a low-budget feature film. That's if it costs, in total, less than $5 million.
But if you check the box office numbers for most films these days, they're well over that. That being said, the more expensive a script is projected to cost, the harder it will be to sell.
Compare that to how proven franchises are taking up the majority of any studio's budget.
Add that to the number of writers already working, the number of writers who want to work, and the odds of selling a screenplay — much like the check you'll take home — drastically decreases.
So how much do screenwriters make today? Not a lot (anymore).
SELLING A SCREENPLAY
5. How to sell your screenplay
Learning how to sell a screenplay is not easy — in any way shape or form — and part of that is because there’s no Hollywood HR department putting out ads for writers.
You can’t set up a brick and mortar store on Ventura Boulevard to sell a script. Yet, screenplays are sold every day.
The best way — and the most proven way — to sell a script is to use your own network. Who do you know who works in Hollywood? How can you help them and how can they help you? Who do they know?
Much like there’s six degrees of separation between anyone in the world and Kevin Bacon, there are likely two degrees of separation, max, between you and someone whose job it is to buy scripts.
How do you sell a screenplay? Start with who you know, and go from there.
Another way is to become an expert on the subject through other means. Is your script about a mom? Become a successful blogger about being mom.
Is your script about the crazy stuff your dad says? Start a Twitter handle documenting every word and get as many followers as you can.
That’s one way to sell a screenplay.
Having a following is like having a fastpass at an amusement park. It immediately puts you to the front of the line with any producer or agent you submit to, and it opens up a world of recognition.
Hollywood isn’t just about who you know, it’s also about who knows you.
Additionally, if you lack industry contacts, winning a contest is a great way to gain recognition and get your work rewarded.
About screenwriting contests
Most screenplay contest judges are executives and agents. By entering screenwriting competitions, you'll get your script read by executives, agents, and managers. They’ll make recommendations about how to sell your screenplay. Quite often, the winners of competitions like the Nicholl Fellowship gain representation and even sign a development deal afterward.
And, if you win, you can put "award-winning writer" at the top of your resume.
Regardless of which of these methods you choose, how to sell a screenplay always comes down to writing a great screenplay.
As we mentioned earlier, there are a number of ways to get your script in the hands of an executive. Despite the market breathing its last breaths, that doesn't mean your spec script is dead in the water. And those aren’t the only ways to get your foot in the Hollywood door.
Spec scripts can be fantastic opportunities to showcase talent and potential. They're calling cards, profile pieces to impress executives and agents with. They’ll sell scripts for you.
A good spec can be the tool to get you into a writers' room as a staff writer on a new TV show. It could also get you a general meeting with a studio executive who might put you in consideration for an open writing assignment (OWA).
OWAs are typically how movies get written these days. An idea is generated in house — or by a bigger name that doesn't want to actually do the writing — and assigned to a writer.
So to get that screenwriter salary in 2019 you may need to be willing to accept that the spec you worked so hard on might not get made, but it will get you paid.
And the more you work, the more you’re worth.
It’s usually not until someone has a good decade or two under their belt when they start to see the high six, maybe even seven-figure deals.
Studios still sign “term deals,” where writers are paid a high retainer to work exclusively for that studio’s properties, but not nearly as many as they used to.
The hardest part about working in Hollywood, though, is that first job.
6. Check your script format
Alright, you want to know how to sell a movie script so you can answer firsthand the question, “How much do screenwriters make?”
Before all that, let's focus on an important way to make your script professionally viable: script formatting.
When you're writing a spec, you can be creative. You can lean towards a gripping experience with a reader in mind, as opposed to a line producer. You can infuse the writing with your own style, your own unique storytelling flavor.
Your own voice.
But even the most out-of-the-park spec scripts have to stay in bounds when it comes to industry-standard script formatting.
In order to sell a script, you not only need a great story, but it’s got to be properly formatted. It is, after all, a script — not experimental literature, not an epic poem. Even if you want to sell a script for a lawn bag full of cash and you honestly couldn't care less if the thing ever makes it to the silver screen, you still have to write it with production as your focus.
Having a properly formatted screenplay is not only about appearing professional, it’s also about helping out the production when your script does sell.
After your script goes into production, jobs depend on it being properly formatted so crew members can complete their tasks.
In order for each department to be on the same page, the script is broken down by an AD so that all the various departments know what they’re responsible for in each scene.
Creating a script breakdown involves tagging elements like characters, props, costumes, and a huge list of other categories.
In truth, almost every script needs to be reformatted for production before beginning the script breakdown. Keep this in mind when writing your spec, let yourself explore and cross lines, but don't push your luck.
In a spec script, you can bend the rules of formatting to enhance the reader's experience — but break the rules at your own peril. Write as cinematically as possible for your readers. That is, make the flow and visuals as engaging and vibrant as possible. Just remember, it's cinematic because the end-goal is to see it in an actual cinema. Formatting hammers this home.
Now that you know why it’s important to have a properly formatted script. In the next section, let’s learn about the history of the spec script market so you can understand the modern screenwriter salary.
HOW TO CROWDFUND MOVIES
7. DIY funding and the rise of Indies
But let's say you really want to get that script made. Hollywood has passed and they don't know what they're missing. Well, today a viable and legitimate option is to just make it yourself.
With Kickstarter, Indiegogo and even the capabilities of just an iPhone, making your movie independently is more popular than ever.
Additionally, what you can do with that has also become a powerful tool to making Hollywood listen when it initially didn't. People were finding new ways to answer “How to sell a screenplay?”
A storied example is when Kevin Smith made Clerks for $27,575. It's theatrical release netted millions. If he hadn't submitted his black-and-white independent film to Sundance, he wouldn't have gone on to make the other hits like Chasing Amy, Mallrats, or Dogma.
If you’re doing your project like this, you may want to incorporate some creative budgeting. Check out our video below, and find your own unique ways that net you large amounts of production value for next to nothing.
But, as we've discussed, new technologies create new business.
High Maintenance was a web series on YouTube before it was picked up by HBO. Something that would have been impossible before 2005.
iPhones and other smartphones can record HD video, no longer requiring expensive rolls of film and special cameras.
Finding an alternative to the traditional Hollywood system has become one of the best ways to get into the Hollywood system.
The answer to how to sell a screenplay to a studio is looking more and more like making the film itself. And how to sell a screenplay online is becoming how to get my indie film online.
Another example is the film Buried. Written by Chris Sparling, he wrote it under the guise of "How can I make a movie that I can shoot in my living room?" So he wrote one about a man trapped in a casket.
That type of ingenuity, combined with how well-written his script was, got the attention of buzzy director Rodrigo Cortes. That got the attention of Hollywood.
Suddenly, the movie he was ready to shoot in his living room turned into a $2 million affair with a $21 million box office total. Not bad work.
So, while getting that elusive screenwriter salary might not be all that it used to be, there are still plenty of opportunities to be a screenwriter.
You don't have to submit a script to Netflix to get your movie on Netflix. Figuring out how to sell a screenplay without an agent yields new prospects every day.
There are more opportunities than ever before, but competition has also increased dramatically.
That doesn't mean you can't turn your dream into a reality.
TV Writing & Development Master Class
How much do screenplays sell for? Now you that you know, why not begin to really develop your idea? You can’t get paid if you don’t have something to show, and this is the first big step.
StudioBinder has created a TV writing and development master class that will help you build your show idea. It will to get you started, keep you on track, and maybe give you the tools to sell scripts. Start working now.