The question of “Do screenwriters make a million dollars just by writing one script?” has been alluring movie fanatics for years. So is it true, or is it hype? We’ll be answering this question for you after a lot of research on a screenwriter’s salary over the years.
This article may surprise you, or you might have heard some of this before. But in any case, you can definitely be ready to make a decision whether to be a full-time screenwriter or not.
And if you are a bit confused on which screenwriting software to use for your scripts, I have reviewed the best software tools used by professionals, some of which are absolutely free to download.
And remember, you can directly go to the salary topic by clicking on the relevant field in the index below:
- What is the Job of a Screenwriter?
- Qualifications Required to Become a Screenwriter
- Screenwriter’s Salary Today
- How to Sell Screenplays
- Should you be a Full Time Screenwriter?
1. What is the Job of a Screenwriter?
Writing the script of the film to be made. That’s it. But this has many other aspects to it, like doing research for the film if it is a historical drama based on a true story. If it is going to be a sci-fi movie, then doing research by talking to scientists and professors.
The same goes for Teleplays. A one hour pilot has to be scripted in a way that the audience will be kept in suspense for the season of the show. Some writers think that writing for Teleplats is harder than movies because a TV series has a tight schedule for submitting drafts.
A script is an extremely important part of filmmaking. Hence, hiring a good scriptwriter for writing a movie based on an idea or a novel is of utmost importance.
As screenwriter and director Sydney Pollock has aptly said
“There’s no question that a great script is absolutely essential, maybe the essential thing for a movie to succeed.”
– Sydney Pollock
His post on how to write comic book scripts is worth a read.
According to screencraft.org, writing for video games is far more profitable than writing for film and television. To write for video games, you have to know how to make flowcharts. You have to write character biographies, goals of each player.
Writing for video games requires the flair for gaming more than the writing ability. The reason being, unlike movies, gaming is interactive.
2. Qualifications Required to Become a Screenwriter
You don’t need any kind of a degree to be a screenwriter. However that doesn’t mean it’s a piece of cake to write a script. It is one of the hardest parts in filmmaking. Once the formatting and basics of screenwriting is understood, you can start writing a script.
There are some schools like the New York Film Academy which have specific screenwriting courses. And you can also learn it online. But if you are serious about this profession then having at least a bachelor’s degree in any profession like Law, Engineering, BA in English will do.
Hollywood prefers people with a little maturity if not earlier experience as they may want to hire you full time as an intern and then put you on payscale.
Now there are many scriptwriting courses on Udemy and Coursera, which you can take for a minimum fee. These courses are by professionals and for beginner’s and writers with a little bit of experience. You will not learn everything about screenwriting in one course but definitely the basics.
One of the best alternatives is to buy a screenwriting guide to learn this art of writing scripts. These are many books on screenwriting that will help you to become a better writer. They offer some intricate details into screenwriting.
You can even go through some YouTube channels on screenwriting, or podcasts by some people in the industry. Listening to interviews of accomplished writers helps a lot in improving the writing process and boosting our confidence.
Some screenwriting websites offer writing tips and courses. You can subscribe to their email lists to receive the latest updates in the screenwriting world.
Writing, rewriting, practice and reading a lot of good screenplays is the best way to learn screenwriting.
3. Screenwriter’s Salary Today
Back in the ’80s and ’90s in the day, a list of writers used to get paid a million dollars for a script. Shane Black received $4 million for writing The Long Kiss Goodnight. But he was already an established writer by then. David Koepp also received $4 million dollars for Panic Room.
But in rare cases, does a writer get paid so much money. The studios really do not disclose how much was paid for a script. Since the last decade, the days when writers used to get paid a million dollars for a spec script or TV series are now gone.
The salary actually depends mainly on some of these points. They are:
- The experience of the writer
- Is it going to be an adapted screenplay or an original screenplay
- The research that the writer have to make
- Whether the writer is a member of the WGA
- Whether the writer is working on a Teleplay or feature film.
- The budget of the movie.
Here’s a table of estimated salaries for all types of screenwriters who are registered members of WGA.
|Writers for Films, Teleplays, Comic, Games||Minimum||Average|
|Low budget feature films ($10-20 million)||$72,000||$100,000|
|High budget feature films ($20-100 million)||$136,000||$220,000|
|Teleplay writers (30 minutes)||$19,244||$25,000|
|Teleplay writers (60 minutes)||$25,963||$32,000|
|Comic Book writers||$80 per page||$150 per page|
|Video Game writers||$4000||$20,000|
A writer is never paid the amount upfront. A certain amount, usually 40-50% is paid on the commencement, the remaining amount after the rewrite and completion.
There are different salaries for different credits according to the 2017 WGA agreement. This lays down the minimum wages according to the part being played by writers in the projects.
4. How to Sell Screenplays
Screenplays are sold daily in Hollywood. Deals are made, and projects are still shelved. But it doesn’t mean you can sell a script easily to any studio or a producer. The story, first of all, has to have a meaning to it. It has to be different from the movies being made today.
For example, if you write a script for a superhero movie and the script is really good, it would still be the worst mistake you would be making. That’s because there have been dozens of movies made on superheroes like avengers and the Batman franchise. So the studio doesn’t know if the audience will go for such a hero.
There are already good enough writers for writing superhero films. The more expensive a script will be for any to produce, the harder it will be to sell.
Michael Hauge (author of Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds) says;
“Convey the most powerful elements of your story clearly, succinctly and passionately”
One way of selling scripts is by applying to screenwriting contests. Festivals like the Bluecat Screenplay competition of the Final Draft Big Break competition can help you to land a deal or at least get noticed.
- Start building connections online if you can go to LA.
- Find an agent and get to know them better.
- Start asking questions of forums on screenwriting like Reddit.
There is no one way to sell your script. Meanwhile start connecting with other writers for collaborations. Patience is the key here.
5. Should You be a Full Time Screenwriter
So you have sold your first spec script for $150,000 to a big studio through an agent. After paying the agent and lawyer and taxes you have $90,000 with you. And you had written the script in just 3 months with your day job. So now the question is, should you quit your job?
Absolutely not! You got lucky my friend. You may not sell another script for 5 years. You have the storytelling ability and the writing skills but get to know the people in the business of filmmaking first.
Start writing another script. Have meetings with agents and producers. There are many things that you can do to be sure that you’ll sell another script. And then quit your job. And that is what most screenwriters who have made it big will say (if they are honest enough).
To make a story look good onscreen is a collaborative effort of the producer, editor, director, writer and a whole bunch of other people. Even if you get paid just $2000 for a script, there’s still a lot to learn in terms of writing and selling.
Writing passionately along with working smartly in the industry will get you that million dollars you want for writing those wonderful stories you have in your mind.