Difference Between a Screenwriter and a Scriptwriter
There lies some confusion between the difference between the term screenwriter and scriptwriter.
While one may find that the two have different meanings according to specific sources, these terms are almost always used interchangeably in Hollywood.
Screenwriting is the more widely used term, but using scriptwriting isn’t wrong either.
The Job of a Screenwriter
The basic answer to this question is that a screenwriter’s job is to write a screenplay.
According to Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, a screenplay is a story told with pictures, dialogue, and description; placed within the context of dramatic structure.
The more detailed explanation of what a screenwriter does can be answered from two viewpoints:
- The creative one
- Business-oriented one.
The Creative One
Creatively speaking, a screenwriter must tell a story using the visual medium of the screenplay.
This requires a screenwriter to:
- Set up characters
- Introduce the dramatic premise (what the story is about) and the dramatic situation (the circumstances surrounding the action)
- Create obstacles for the characters to confront
- Resolve the story.
Writing a script also requires knowledge of different kinds of structure. The most straightforward screenplay structure is the three-act structure.
But some books and writers use an eight-act story wheel, a beat sheet with checkpoints for different events that must take place throughout the plot, or a list of seven steps that one must take to write a story.
Deciding which paradigm fits with one’s story and then using said paradigm is the screenwriter’s decision.
After finishing the first draft, the screenwriter must revisit the screenplay for a rewrite.
A rewrite involves changing or modifying certain script elements for them to better fit in the plot or improve the overall story.
This also where the screenwriter must polish the dialogue and scene descriptions of a script.
The business-oriented one
The business side of a screenwriter’s job starts after the creative aspect of their job is completed.
Screenwriters are essentially always working as freelancers.
However, the duration of employment does change depending on whether a writer is asked to work on a movie or a season of a TV show.
“To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script, and the script”-Alfred Hitchcock
Why is a screenwriter’s work duration not fixed?
Because a whole season of a TV show will need the writer for a longer period than a movie would.
For a screenwriter who is just starting, their number one job is getting exposure. This can be done by entering screenwriting competitions or sending out scripts to different agents, managers, or producers.
The final and most challenging task of a screenwriter is to sell their script. This is the process that comes with many hurdles and is difficult even for experienced writers working in Hollywood.
One way of making a script easy to sell is by having name talent attached to a project. That is hard for new writers.
Hence, it is prudent for those new to the industry to gain exposure and send spec scripts to different producers or managers before tackling the obstacles that come with wanting to sell a script.
How are Screenwriters paid?
The way screenwriters are paid and how much money they make off scripts can vary from writer to writer.
Some screenwriters sell their scripts for two or three million dollars, while others might sell their scripts and walk away with forty to fifty thousand dollars.
This process is not something that can be generalized. It must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis depending on the writer and the project in question.
Screenwriters can also are many deals. Based on these deals, the details of how they are paid vary.
For example, if a writer’s screenplay is optioned for six months. This means that the writer is paid to work on the script and rework it according to studio notes for six months.
After this, the script may be put in development or be optioned again.
It is important to note that writers are paid in installments. They are paid for their first draft, the second draft, and maybe to rewrite a script based on production difficulties or producer feedback.
Suppose a headline says that a script was sold for millions. It doesn’t mean that the writer was paid a million dollars upfront.
Another point to keep in mind is that while a script might sell for a million dollars. The screenwriter will only get a whole million dollars if the movie gets made.
If a movie does not get made due to whatever reason(difficulty in actor’s schedules, production costs, etc.). The writer is only paid a part of the million dollars that were promised. Those details would be specified by the contract.
Every year the WGA(Writer’s Guild of America) establishes a minimum amount that a writer is to be paid for a certain kind of project. This minimum is known as “scale”.
While writers are sure to earn the scale amount, screenwriters are also offered royalties for when their movies or shows are aired on TV, bought on VOD platforms, etc.
These royalties are determined by contracts and the rates set by the WGA.
Screenwriters’ role in Production
After a screenplay is decided to go into production and a director has been assigned. It is customary for the writer and director to go over the script together.
The director may suggest some changes or tweaks to the script or ask for the significance of a certain element in the story.
After the screenwriter and director have agreed upon the very final version of the script. The director is given a shooting script, which is made specifically to make the shooting process easier.
Whether a screenwriter gets to be on set is depends on the production.
Sometimes a screenwriter may be present for the director to do justice to a scene in the way it was intended in the script.
Other times it may be because the writer wanted to learn more about directing and being on set.
“Once you crack the script everything else flows”– Ridley Scott (Director/Producer)
In TV productions, showrunners do get to visit sets. But staff writers do not have the same option in most cases.
This is because the writer’s room for a show might be in LA, but the film production might be based in Vancouver or Atlanta. It is not feasible to fly the writers out to the set multiple times.
Do Screenwriters go to movie sets every day?
Once the screenplay has been finalized and locked in, the creative control is more or less in the hands of the director or producer. The screenwriter has a more supportive role on set if any.
Then again, it depends entirely on the relation between the screenwriter and the director if in case he or she requests the advice or opinion of the screenwriter on set.
It is also possible that actors may require the assistance and input of the screenwriter in interpreting their roles or making any last-minute adjustments on set.
Big budget productions normally have a team of different screenwriters working tirelessly in coordination with the filming crew to make urgent rewrites as and when required.
This may be because certain actors and their roles need to be reduced. Or in cases of movies taking place within expanded universes, the story of a future project may affect the scenes or dialogue of a script already in production.
Their involvement may vary depending on the project they are hired for. Usually, once the story has been successfully put to paper, the screenwriter would move on to the next project at hand.
Do Screenwriters have inputs while directing?
A screenwriter indeed has the liberty to set up an interesting plot through research and rewrites but the idea in the screen writer’s mind may not often get replicated on screen, warts and all.
It is important to remember as a general rule of thumb that there are always three films made during the production – the film that got written, the film that was shot, and the film that was edited.
Given the involvement of multiple creative personnel during production, the screenwriter may rarely get an opinion while directing or editing.
Often, the circumstances of the film determine the creative liberty of the screenwriter.
If he or she is a part of a team of screenwriters hired to manage rewrites as insisted upon by the director then they probably are only required to do as they are told.
The producer of the film or series may ask for several cuts in the plot to manage costs in which case the screenwriter would need to adjust the script accordingly.
All of this is still very much dependent on the individual team and the liberties shared therein.
To summarise, what we know is that the screenwriter is the primary architect of the story in terms of the screenplay.
Their job is primarily concerned with the aspects of the film set in pre-production.
This involves doing research, developing the plot and characters, and making an interesting script for the screen after which they must focus on getting the project developed by a studio.