How do screenwriters make money?
There are about seven ways that screenwriters make money. We will discuss all of them in this article.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not always the flat-out purchase of a script that keeps screenwriters’ bills paid. It might be the headline, but this big purchase is broken into many steps.
1.) The Option Agreement
Why is this first?
Because it’s usually, before that purchase, a production company that buys scripts will option it. Meaning they will offer you a lump sum payment upfront for the rights to your screenplay, anywhere from 3-18 months.
They do this to find:
- Broker deals
The company is unsure if they can pull off the job of turning your script into a movie, so they barrow your script. And in return, you get paid 5%-10% of the total purchase price.
If they can find all the things, they need. Only then will they proceed.
A script can be optioned over and over for years, generating money every year for the screenwriter.
Some writers earn a full-time living from script options. 3-4 scripts in rotation year after year. A typical script could sell for over $100,000. Four of those passing around Hollywood would be $40,000 a year.
2.) Purchase or Selling of a Screenplay
Say if your script is greenlighted. They now will give you the big payment. These are the hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions you see a company shell out.
But this is broken up into two buckets, a first draft payment, and a final draft payment.
The first draft payment is twice as much as the final one. Check out my article here to find out all the number data. This is every screenwriter’s dream.
3.) Adaptations of IP’s
A script that is being developed, generally backed by some IP ( intellectual property)—already developed story.
- Harry Potter
- Iron man
A producer could hire you to adapt these books, comics, video game stories into screenplays, which is a hard job but pays well all the same.
There’s a second way you can get your hands on said project.
Say if a writer isn’t working out on a project. A producer could fire them and bring you in. Every rewriting of said script, you get paid.
Simon Kinberg was brought in to rewrite many scripts in his day. He claims that nowadays,
“they will have as many as five writers working on five different drafts of a script simultaneously.”Simon Kinberg
He doesn’t like it but for a new screenwriter, itching to do anything. You will most likely jump at this opportunity.
This type of opportunity goes to screenwriters who have proven themselves with a script, like what happened to Simon after Mr. and Mrs. Smith.
4.) Writing a Treatment
A Film Treatment or the outline of a script is yet another money-making opportunity.
This is where writers can get paid for their ideas because it’s a written idea for a movie.
The great news is you get just as much money for your idea as your first draft of the idea. It is again reserved for writers who have proven themselves with at least an agent or manager in front of them but are still a great way to make money as screenwriters.
5.) Assignment Work
What is assignment work?
When you’re brought in to start a script, a producer/ studio has an idea to develop. The reason could also be for an IP but also an original idea.
The average everyday screenwriter in Hollywood lives off assignment work. Polishing, writing treatments, outlining, Commercial scripts, anything that your agent throws your way isn’t an original idea of your own.
6.) Distributors Income
Yes, screenwriters do get a percentage of everything once a movie has been released.
Screenwriters get 1.5% of the distributor’s income.
It might not seem like a lot, but if a movie makes 20 million in the box office. 1.5% of that is $300,000. And that’s not including the Netflix deals, DVD, airplanes, online rentals that will come in from now until forever.
Just imagine a writer like Stephen McFeely, who wrote Avengers end game. You do those calculations.
One caveat this only applies to the writer with a final credit on a film.
So if you were brought in to rewrite and didn’t use your draft, you only get paid for the rewrite job and get none of the final distributor income.
7.) Writers Room
Yes, there is a screenwriter salary, but it only exists on a TV Set. A writers room is where anywhere from 4 to 10 writers are given an idea to create an ongoing TV show.
You get paid on the regular like if it was a job. If that show were to be canceled at the end of the season, the payments stop, and the only one who gets rerun money is the person who gets the written credit on the show. Unless structured otherwise upfront.
Every way presented happens but not as often as you think. Only the top 1% of writers make any money at all.
Think about it. There are over 100,000 scripts written each year. Only about 400 movies get made a year. That means only 4% of those writers are getting paid, and some might not make not have made the 4% that year.
There you have it, the seven ways screenwriters make money.
As you probably noticed, most of these are given to screenwriters with already a history in the industry.
For a new screenwriter, the only two that would apply are the option agreement and the purchase. But after you get one of those, you are now a professional, and your agent could get you more opportunities like the other five.
Now its time to hear from you:
Did I miss anything?
What other avenues have you seen screenwriters making money?
Whatever your answer is, let’s hear it in the comments below.