Part of the attraction in pursuing screenwriting as a career is the expectation of a hefty salary. This expectation is not without basis because those who succeed in conquering Hollywood and the TV networks do make a fortune. These writers belong to the one end of the spectrum – a place where a 10 page script can command six figures. On the other end of the spectrum though, there are writers whose work has not yet raked in millions at the box office. It would be interesting to know the variance between the earnings of people who belong to these opposite ends. Certainly such information would be useful to those who dream of becoming screenwriters.
Jobs for Film Screenwriters
The word screenwriter automatically brings with it the image of an artist writing for a big time movie producer. Actually not all screenwriters write for the silver screen. Some write scripts for commercials; some write for the stage; some become part of a team that writes episodes for soaps. All of these jobs entail familiarity with the elements of a written screenplay and use the standard screenwriting format.
Of course the cream of all jobs is still writing screenplays for feature films or movies. Next to this is writing for television shows and soaps. These two jobs are the most sought after and have the highest screenwriter salary rates.
How Screenwriters’ Fees are Paid
Artists who earn a screenwriting salary usually have a job in advertising or they write for doing television series and shows. Those who write screenplays usually freelance and make their money as their work is sold. Payments for screenplays can come in the form of outright purchases but sometimes writers instead receive option money which means the client pays for the right to produce the screenplay within an agreed period. Some writers will get guarantee money which means he or she gets payments for the screenplay, for rewrites and for polishing the work regardless of whether the screenplay is produced or not. Then, other writers get a bonus or a back end payment on top of guarantee money. This means they receive additional payment when the script is produced or when its movie grosses an agreed amount in ticket sales. Often the bonus is a percentage of the gross sales.
Top Fees paid for Screenwriting in the last Hundred Years
The screenwriting salary and fees paid to writers over the last hundred years reflect the changing value of the dollar and the rising influence of the entertainment world. A popular and sought after screenwriter in the early 1900’s would have received possibly $20 for each scenario in silent movies which were serialized. Usually, a movie had ten scenes which meant a total income of about $200.
After the Second World War, cinema changed radically with new technology and the new post-war lifestyles. Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin were paid $100,000 for the screenplay of Woman of the Year, a Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn hit. This six figure payment, worth about a million dollars today, was rare in those times.
In the 1960’s the most popular movie stars began to earn seven figures from starring in hit movies; Elizabeth Taylor received $1,000,000 for her role in Cleopatra and went on to earn more than $7,000,000 from the film after it was shown. Top screenwriters began to collect six figures in fees. William Goldman received $400,000 for his screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This would be worth about $2,200,000 today. In the 1980’s the screenplay for Lethal Weapon sold for $250,000 and Highlander sold for $500,000. M. Night Shyamalan was paid $2.5 million for Sixth Sense in 1999 and $5 million in 2003 for Unbreakable.
New freelancers will find that their screenwriting salary is far removed from the six and seven million figures that icons in the field are paid. At the bottom of the pay scale, beginners might earn $20 to $50 per hour and gross anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 per year. A one hour script could sell for $5,000 to $20,000 so a freelancer could make $10,000 to $40,000 if he or she sold two scripts a year. The beauty of it all is that these figures are just for starters and there is no limit to how much a writer can earn if he or she makes it to the top. This optimistic prognosis is probably the reason why so many are drawn to screenwriting as a career.