Just what is a screenplay writer worth?
Of course there is no easy answer. The writer that gets their script produced in a Halle Berry/Jodie Foster movie making over $200+ million profit is very different from the small indie film that sells a couple of thousand DVDs and just breaks into profit, with many movies showing no profit whatsoever. The difference is in the outcome and not necessarily in the quality of their work or their output.
The minimum pay rates in the United States are set at just below $7 per hour, until President Obama gets his hands on raising those rates. In the UK they suggest that just under £6 per hour in the lowest you should earn. At least in the US you’d benefit from the dreadful indirect taxation called ‘forced tipping’ in many jobs, while the Brits think you should only tip if the work was extra special. As a screen writer, don’t expect any tips that come in dollar bills. You can, however, expect many free words from mentoring, encouragement and correction.
Wait a moment, those rates are for employed positions – you’re writing a screenplay on spec; hoping that someone will want to buy it from you. You don’t get paid anything for writing on spec. You thought it was only the actors who had to work the tables in LA didn’t you? Most newbie screenplay writers carry second (or should that be first?) jobs to pay the bills.
You wouldn’t want to earn the minimum rates though, would you? So how many hours did you log writing your screenplay? You’d have to be one in a million to be logging how long it takes you to write and re-write a screenplay unless you’re being paid by the hour by a studio.
Go look over our previous article about WAG rates here.
If you look at average salaries, then $40,000 in the US and £30,000 in the UK is less than the Writer’s Guild of America’s (WGA) suggested rate for one screenplay. That doesn’t sound too tough, does it, but can you sell one per annum, every year? How many do you have to write to get to one success per annum?
The writing isn’t the problem (well it may be to some extent) it’s the selling that is the hard work. Some producers may only buy an option to produce your screenplay. That means they’ll give you a small advance (perhaps just $500) and hold you to a period of time while they try to get funding and attach actors and directors to make the film. Only when the next stage payment is due (yes, the film is going ahead!) will you receive real money. However, hold on a moment, because the bulk of your funds may only arrive when filming really starts. Could it really be three years since you wrote the script until someone brings down the clapperboard for the first time?
So now your earnings from the movie are over a much longer period so you might need to divide your rewards across a three year period (if you’re lucky). Fortunately you’re such a skilled writer that you write four screenplays a year, at least. That way you have one you’re trying to sell, one in development, one on at the movies and one that didn’t make it anywhere.
You’ll need to divide your time between writing, selling and having a real life with your family and children knowing that over 100,000 screenplays get registered for copyright in the US alone each year while just 1,000 movies get made. Can you hack it?