Screenwriting Representation: Payments, Commissions and Percentages

Getting an agent or a manager is often a critical step in the development of the screenwriter’s or television writer’s career. Being represented by a good, industry-known agent or manager instantly grants the writer credibility, and provides potential exposure for the writer’s work in the professional space. Because of this, this is not the first time I’ve dipped my toe into the representation topic; past posts include How to Get a Screenwriting Agent, How to Get A Screenwriting Manager, Screenwriting Representation: To Query or Not to Query and Getting Representation: Do’s and Don’ts.

Today, I wanted to dig into the practicalities of it all: Once you do get an agent or a manager, how much are you supposed to pay them?

You, the client, pay your representation (agent, manager, lawyer), by commission, i.e. once your feature screenplay or television pilot has sold, or once you’ve gotten a writing assignment or a TV writers room position. Once work is booked, regardless of the amount, your agent and manager are expected to collect 10% each, while your lawyer will be expected to collect 5%.

Sounds simple, right? Yes, but… there are nuances. A few things to remember here:

  • Agents and managers should not be collecting fees off work you booked prior to working with them. If you got your deal before they were your agent or manager of record, they should not be collecting fees off of it, unless they become involved in the negotiating of your contract.
  • In any particular agency or management company, you may get multiple reps on your team. Example: In an agency, you might have both a TV rep and a feature rep if you work in both formats, or else a junior and senior rep in a particular space. This does not mean that you pay 10% to each of them; you pay 10% collectively to the agency or management company.
  • You are expected to pay commission whether or not the rep got you the work, or you got it yourself through industry relationships. The idea here is that you are a team, and everyone benefits when you get working, no matter where the work comes from.
  • Should you be a writer on a TV show, and have your contract renegotiated once your original contract expired, new reps, who may not have been with you and therefore eligible for commission when the deal was originally signed, will likely seek to commission your new contract, either at a fraction or at the full 10%.

In the 90’s, some management companies attempted to make a shift to collecting 15% as a new standard; this move received an immediate backlash, and management companies, for the most part, shifted back to collecting 10% from their clients. Today, it is the standard that your manager will collect 10% commission. One reputable management company, that up until recently was bucking the trend and demanding of its clients 15%, recently suffered an implosion, when half its management force walked away to start its new shingles, complaining that while big showrunners may be fine paying 15%, it became near impossible to sign new, up and coming talent that was used to the 10% commission standard.

There is one scenario in which I am comfortable with a manager collecting 15%: IF the manager is extremely reputable, and IF, when the time comes, the writer refuses an agent and instead requires that the manager (who is not supposed to negotiate for the writer in the first place) oversee the lawyer’s contract negotiation, then, and only then, can I stomach said manager collecting 15%.

You are never to pay an agent or a manager out of pocket. Request for money up-front for administrative fees, printing fees, presentation fees or any other fees should be a big huge red flag. There absolutely no exceptions to this: Reputable, industry agents and managers will never ask you for money up front, or for additional funds.

Should your manager seek to become a producer on your TV show or movie, she will be collecting producing fees. In order to do so, the manager must waive her 10% commission off the project, which means that you will not be paying her commission on a project that she is attached to produce. The idea here, and in the next paragraph, is that reps are not supposed to get paid on a project twice.

Equally, should an agency staff you on a show for which it collects packaging fees, then the agency will not get a commission from you for that job, as the agency is already collecting 3% commission for the life of the show. For more on this, check out Gavin Polone on TV’s Dirty Secret.

Should you have an agency of record at the time your contract is drawn for any particular job, film or television, your agency will be collecting your pay, as well as distributing commission to your manager and lawyer before they issue your pay. If you want to get paid directly, you can ask for exceptions.

The taxes that you pay on any money earned as a screenwriter will be collected BEFORE your agent, manager, or lawyers commissions are deducted from your pay. On the flip side, commission is paid to the agent, manager and/or lawyer off the whole, pre-tax sum, or your gross, rather than your net.

Agents, managers, and lawyers are entitled to collect commission for the life of the contract as negotiated while they were representing you; If you signed a 3-year television contract and decided to fire your manager at the end of its first year, the manager will still continue to collect commission for the life of the contract. Should the contract be renewed or renegotiated following the expiration of the original contract, then the original manager that you had since fired will not be entitled to additional commission off the new contract.

Alright! I think that about covers it! But if I left anything out that you are looking to find out as it relates to the commission and fees collected by agents, managers and/or lawyer, don’t hesitate to leave a comment, and I will address this to the best of my ability!