A Screenwriting Salary – how much do scribes REALLY earn?
Although it’s hard to get on the screenwriting salary ladder and even harder to stay on it – let alone climb beyond the middle rung – it is possible to make a living as a screenwriter (though Herculean levels of self-discipline, at least one other string to your earnings-potential bow, and a partner who is both financially and emotionally understanding are all useful).
This guide to a screenwriting salary is just that: a guide, and should in no way be seen as a promise of automatic career steps or guaranteed earnings. It’s an attempt, or stab even, at digging deeper into how much writers earn and at what level of the business. For those who haven’t hit the levels cited, at the age suggested, this is also largely irrelevant and should be taken with a giant brick of salt.
After all, like David Seidler and other screenwriters who broke in late, who cares when you get there? It’s all about the body of work when the curtain closes…
If you’ve got determination and you can forge that with ever-improving craft, you’ll be there or thereabouts eventually…
So, again, we stress – this is a steer or a stab or a loose guide or a speculative insight only into how careers (and the money that goes with those careers) progress! And that’s all it is…
In addition, the guide focusses heavily on what writers earn in television. For a lot of screenwriters TV represents their best shot by some distance of earning a mortgage-paying amount of money. Film commissions are certainly out there, but can lack the kind of joined-up pathway outlined below. The way that feature film commissions line up with the spec market might also lead some screenwriters to view feature film commissions as butter rather than bread.
TV salaries line up with a more traditional salary structure, whilst spec script sales and commissions can be harder to quantify. For example, however, the average for a spec script sale in 2017-2018 was circa $110,000.
We’ll also be focused largely, as guides, on what the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) minimums are. This is assuming you’ll be a writer with the WGA, the union for writers, which as a professional writer is highly likely and advisable. You’ll need to qualify to be a member of the WGA first and join, which we will outline in a minute…
Every screenwriter’s journey is different.
Also, the progression can be a very steep pyramid, with exponentially higher levels of attrition at every tier (though no-one knows who’s going to climb to the top till we see them there; an instance of William Goldman’s much-abused maxim being properly applied). However, you could be one of the handful of screenwriters who climbs to the heady heights and fifteen years later wittily relates your idiosyncratic career path in an Industrial Scripts Insider Interview.
It should be taken as a given that a screenwriting salary is never spread equally over twelve months (indeed, as you progress it won’t even be spread equally over consecutive years) but there is a path that can take you from $10,000 in a good first year to $250,000 in the very best of the years that follow.
Although creatives tend instinctively to shy away from anything regarding money (other than spending it) all these figures are gross, which means you need to think seriously about the chunk you won’t get to spend immediately (or at all).
A considerable (and escalating as you progress) part of your screenwriting salary should exist in that hateful spreadsheet column known as “deductions”. These include agent‘s commission at an average of 15%, manager’s commission at 10% , accountant’s fees, Income Tax, pension, savings and investments.
Because you’re a freelance, it’s essential that you find a way to be solvent in the years when there’s no work at all, as well as the months that you’re waiting for payments to land. Indeed, it’s a brutal fact that professional writers need to be able to manage their finances with a level of granularity unknown to those on regular salary jobs (and although you should have an accountant, you are still personally responsible for every single pound that comes in and goes out).
So, here is Industrial Script’s very loose guide to what a screenwriting salary looks like, based on current industry rates and a best-case career progression, starting with…
Tier one: Baby/New Writer Straight out of film school
In your first few years as a professional screenwriter, your screenwriting salary will need to be cumulatively structured with a level of imagination and persistence almost equal to those required for writing the scripts themselves. Your earnings will hopefully pay your rent – they might even cover some bills – but an early years’ screenwriting salary bears zero resemblance to a traditional monthly paycheque from a regular job.
You’re probably aged between twenty-two and thirty-five.
You’ve graduated from film school, studied screenwriting at college after school or as a mature student (the studying and screenwriting-to-order with professional feedback being far important than the qualification itself).
With a fair wind you’ll have made a short film as writer-producer or writer-director (anyone who does all three equally well is pretty much guaranteed a career, it’s so rare). You may even have grabbed the digital bull by the micro-budget horns and made a low budget feature.
You should have graduated with at least one saleable feature-length screenplay (if not, you’ll regret it). If you’re smart, you’ll have asked an intelligent and pertinent question of every agent who came to give your student group a guest talk, sourced their email address and sent them a short but mesmerizingly clever email while you were still a student – something that would guarantee they remembered you eighteen months later.
You’ve sent all these agents the final draft of your saleable feature-length script, but you don’t just sit back and wait, because waiting can take up to six months and that’s half your first year gone. Instead, you apply to every single new writing scheme that’s taking submissions (steering clear of the vast majority looking to charge you to enter, as only a few are legit). And you set calendar alerts for all the ones that aren’t currently open.
You submit to every writing competition or course you can find, such as BlueCat or Sundance Lab. You attend every event you can (such as the Insider Interviews series), mingling with as many producers, directors and fellow screenwriters as time allows (and don’t mistake a Facebook post, tweet or email as having even 5% of the impact of a face-to-face conversation).
- A spec script sale to a neophyte producer at circa $2,000 – $5,000 (and if you went to film school you’ll know several producers already);
- A commission from a TV producer for a pilot script (based on a pitch created on your own dime) at around the same;
- Plus a wide range of funding available, from $10,000 to $30,000 worth of funding from, for example, some of the competitions or courses mentioned above.
…your screenwriting salary for each of your first couple of years could be as much as $20,000.
Of course, it could also be $0, in which case your dedication to your chosen craft will be severely challenged.
Those lucky and/or talented enough to earn at least $10,000 in each of their first three-to-five years will probably progress to at least Tier 2. For those that see nothing but zero, these are the circumstances that will weed out the dilettantes (as Robert McKee likes to say) with many neophyte screenwriters throwing in the towel after a few years of worst-case scenario, while a few worthy warriors of the craft will still resolutely refuse to give-up.
At this point, you might be ready to join the WGA, which states a minimum of 24 units and a fee of $2,500 to join. They measure 24 units as the following:
- Screenplay for a feature-length theatrical motion picture; radio play or teleplay 90 minutes or longer;
- Long-term story projection, which is defined for this purpose as a bible, for a specified term, on an existing, five times per week non-prime time serial;
- Bible for any television serial or primetime miniseries of at least four hours.
For more details on joining the WGA and their guidelines, read here.
Tier 2: Writer on the Rise
At Tier 2, you have a few years of professional screenwriting under your belt. Your tireless networking and subsequently solicited submissions have landed you an agent and you’re a fully fledged member of the WGA.
You’re probably aged between thirty and forty, unless you’ve been lucky enough while still in your twenties to have a film produced, or a series commissioned from an early spec, or TV scripts for long-running shows commissioned.
In this tier, your screenwriting salary will be made-up of produced work, commissioned scripts/pitches and feature re-writing. You may even have appeared on one of those industry lists of unproduced scripts, such as the Blacklist, or had your script unilaterally passed between development execs because it’s so damn good it reminds those execs why they’re in the industry to begin with.
Best case scenario your TV work might consist of —
Two-to-five episodes of either network (ABC/CBS/NBC) or cable and other (HBO/Netflix) shows.
- For Network Television you’ll be looking at circa $25,000 for a 60 minute Prime-Time teleplay or circa $19,000 for a 30 minute Prime Time teleplay. For a teleplay between 90 minutes and 120 minutes you’ll be looking at a fee of around $47,000.
- For Cable Television and others the fees average at around $19,000 for a 60 minute teleplay and at around $10,000 for a 30 minute teleplay.
- These fees can rise substantially (circa $72,000 for a 120 minute network show for example) once fees are added on for creation of the story idea. You could be paid for the story idea, the teleplay or both.
- If you’re writing a much smaller teleplay of less than 15 minutes, you’re looking at a fee of around $6,000 (for a non Network show for example).
- You also perhaps might be looking at around £20k for a commissioned pitch and/or pilot script for an original TV show, perhaps off the back of a particularly original or engaging episode of a long-running series.
On top of that, you’ll aim to earn money from treatments for Features or re-writes, in part down to your ever-expanding network of producers, directors and Heads of Development at film production companies.
- You could be getting between $23,000 and $37,000 for Feature rewrites, story ideas or treatment.
At this stage, realistically to be getting at least one these you’d be lucky. You’d ideally be looking at a total screenwriting salary of around $30,000 as a sign you are heading in the right direction with a few different types of commissions.
This is a critical stage: if you maximise your opportunities and connections, work collaboratively but know when to fight your corner, and your work hits – either critically or in terms of ratings/box-office – then you’ll be perfectly placed to move up to the third tier as a writer whose agent wants to give you time and with whom commissioners and development professionals want to take a meeting.
Tier 3: In The Game
Now you’re well and truly in the game. You’ve survived brutal attrition; valiantly coped with bad years interspersed with the good ones; graciously dealt with stupendously bad notes; shown that you can combine idiosyncratic brilliance with writing to order – sometimes within the same script.
You’re most likely aged between thirty-five and forty-five and in any given year your screenwriting salary could still be as low as $20,000, though you’ll be aiming for something more akin to $80,000 – $150,000. In this bracket you’ll be keeping very busy, maximising all your opportunities.
In a good year your screenwriting salary would comprise:
- Two broadcast hours of primetime TV on Primetime Network or Cable shows at between $19,000 -$72,000 per episode;
- TV or Feature pitch commissions and story ideas at between $20,000 and $40,000 each;
- Also, if you’ve already written some episodes of long-running drama, you’ll be starting to see those lovely royalty payments, generated when episodes are re-run. You could be looking at receiving circa $17,000 for a 60 minute primetime Network episode on which you are the credited writer.
Climbing to the next tier is tough – it’s about consistency, personality, professional relationships and a combination of an original voice in its own right with the ability to bring just enough innovation to a long-established franchise or long-running series to refresh a show without irretrievably breaking it.
Tier 4: Trusted
You’re now a trusted screenwriter aka a safe pair of hands. You’re probably aged between forty and fifty-five. You’ve bitten through your tongue when a director re-wrote your feature script, either ruining it or adding nothing tangible, but in either case still taking a screenwriting credit. You’ve demonstrated a sensitivity to multiple viewpoints and learnt how to steer a path through them while still creating strong work.
You’ve proven yourself in multiple genres and formats and created at least one successful TV show along with writing a couple of produced features. You may have won a BAFTA, OSCAR, GOLDEN GLOBE or EMMT and your agent always returns your calls.
As a trusted writer the expected floor of your screenwriting salary will be around $40,000, though your realistic earnings will be more like $100,000-$250,000.
Your earnings in a given year could comprise:
- Four broadcast hours of primetime TV at a rough average of around $25,000 per hour;
- Between circa $74,000 and $139,000 for a commissioned feature script and/or a couple of re-writes, possibly including a Studio movie;
- In addition, your residuals could be anything between $10,000-$40,000 per year, again depending on the number of TV episodes you’ve written to date as well as whether you are credited as just the teleplay writer or the story and teleplay writer.
At this tier, you might even receive some income from net points on a produced movie (at lower tiers this will be exceptionally unlikely, though not impossible – especially if you have a very good agent).
The step-up to the top tier is the most difficult of all and only a few writers will make this transition, though that doesn’t mean your career has stalled. Most of the screenwriters who reach Tier 4 will spend the rest of their careers there (though there’ll always be younger writers snapping at your heels and you’ll need to maintain your levels of craft and constantly refresh your levels of innovation).
Tier 5: Name/Brand screenwriter and Series Creator
So you’ve made it to the top. You are one of the elite band of screenwriters whose name is a trusted brand. You’re up there with Mike Schur, DB Weiss & David Beinhoff and Shonda Rhimes.
You’re most likely at least forty and you’ll probably have a minimum of ten hours of authored primetime TV on your CV.
Your earnings floor is probably about $80,000, though your target earnings are probably $250,000 or possibly much more.
You’ll no longer be writing episodes of other people’s shows and your feature rewrites will almost exclusively be Hollywood movies. You’ll probably have feature scripts set-up at several different production companies as well as original TV shows at various stages of development.
Your screenwriting salary in a year will possibly combine
- A feature commission between $75,0000 and $139,000 and an original primetime series commission totalling at least $250,000 (including multiple broadcast episodes and a producer credit along with the fees that come with it);
- Residuals from TV episodes and net points from produced feature scripts could add anything from $80,000-$150,000.
Most screenwriters will be ecstatic to spend the rest of their careers at this level.
And at that tier of your screenwriting salary the sky really is the limit…
Written by Nic Ransome. Copyright Industrial Scripts 2016, All Rights Reserved.
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