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Hollywood's established screenwriters can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for a script, or even millions, but a first-time screenwriter will probably end up settling for less. Think five figures to low six figures – and that's assuming you find a buyer. If and when you finally break through and sell a script, don't quit your day job just yet.
Writers Guild Payment Agreements
A writer's very first accepted screenplay will likely be subject to the minimums spelled out in the Writers Guild of America's contract with the movie studios. The compensation agreement in effect in early 2017 called for a minimum of $71,236 for an original screenplay on a low-budget production, and $133,739 for a high-budget production. Films with a production budget of less than $5 million are considered low-budget. For non-original screenplays, the minimums were $62,334 and $115,922 respectively. The contract calls for a writer's fee to be paid in installments upon delivery of the treatment, the first draft and the final draft. The treatment is essentially a detailed outline of the script.
New Screenwriter Sales
A screenwriting website, The Black List, produces an annual analysis of sales of spec scripts. These are scripts written by screenwriters "on their own time," rather than scripts that have been commissioned by a studio. According to its analysis, studios and production companies made 75 deals for spec scripts in 2016; of those, seven were from first-time screenwriters. The analysis, however, doesn't account for dozens of other first-time writers who, while failing to sell their spec scripts, were able to use them to find management or agent representation or snag an open writing assignment. Keep in mind that those seven new writers are only representative of the 75 specs sold and not of the thousands of scripts flooding the offices of studios and agents every year. Once a spec script is sold, the WGA contacts the writer – or the writer can contact the guild first – for membership.
First-time writers don't usually make as much money as screenwriters who've been at it for a while. To put this in perspective, look at 2016's top sales for spec scripts, as compared to the minimums. According to The Black List, the screenplays for "Moonfall," by Roland Emmerich, Harald Kloser and Spenser Cohen, and "The Aeronauts," by Jake Thorne, were both sold in seven-figure deals. "American Rebel" by Christopher Cosmos, "The Miserable Adventures of Burt Squire Aboard the Horn High Yo " by Ben Bolea and "Stuber" by Tripper Clancy all brought mid- to high six figures.
Tips for When You Sell a Script
If you manage to sell your script, your first reaction might be to quit your day job. Don't do it. Not yet, at least. Writers see payments in installments, and it may be months before you even see a check. Other than that, selling one screenplay doesn't guarantee you'll sell another one or land a high-paying writing job. Ensure the stability of your finances for at least the next six months before packing it in at your day job. A good rule of thumb is to keep working a regular job until the demands of your writing career force you to quit.
Johnny Kilhefner is a writer with a focus on technology, design and marketing. Writing for more than five years, he has contributed to Writer's Weekly, PopMatters, Bridged Design and APMP, among many other outlets.