Screenwriters Getting Paid
Anyone who engages with screenwriting in a serious, consistent fashion, who works on their craft, gets notes, seeks to put together the strongest TV pilot or screenplay they can, wants to and should eventually get to a place where they get paid – hopefully handsomely – for their work. While you have to love the writing, it’s perfectly fair to expect that writing should and will lead you to an eventual payday, and hopefully a consistent income to follow that.
Traditionally, writers get paid in one of two ways: They get paid for services or products. However, the breakdown of those may surprise you. Not sure what I’m talking about? Let me explain:
Writing services include any and all writer-for-hire scenarios. This can mean anything from writing on a writing staff in a writers’ room or writing a freelance episode of an existing TV show, to OWAs (Open Writing Assignments) on the feature or TV fronts, in which the writer is hired to develop a pilot or screenplay from an original pitch or a concept originated by and developed with producers, do rewrites on previously-completed work, or come in for a polish or a joke punch-up.
Products refer to the writers’ original content, be it a screenplay, pilot, or even pitch, which may be purchased, developed and/or produced by a network, studio or production company.
While most writers I’ve spoken to over the years would love nothing more than to sell their screenplays, pilots and pitches to producers, the reality is that, in today’s industry, the majority of writers make their living writing pages (i.e. providing writing services) rather than selling their product. For every pilot produced, there are anywhere from 4 to 14 writers working on the show in the writer’s room; for every original screenplay getting set up, there are dozens of feature projects in development that are either original concepts born within a production company, studio or network, or that are already purchased and written but for which a writer is brought on to rewrite.
Over the years, I’ve had many writers approach me seeking advice because they have not sold a screenplay or TV pilot yet, which led them to believe that they have yet to find success. But that is not necessarily the case. As manager Jarrod Murray told me when I interviewed him for my book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES:
“The era of going out with a spec on a Tuesday and you assign territories the next day and you hopefully have a sale by end of the week – that’s just not the world in which we live anymore.”
Heroes & Villains literary manager Chris Coggins added: “A good spec is so few and far between. Seven to ten years ago, the spec market was really big. Every once in a while, there’s still a big spec that comes out and sells for a lot of money. More often than not, now there’s usually an element attached—a producer attached, a director attached, an actor attached—which is still technically a spec, but they’re fewer and farther between.”
Don’t get me wrong: spec sales still happen. Last year, my client Crosby Selander had his screenplay, BRING ME BACK, which also landed on The Black List, sell in a seven-figure deal. But the reality is that a sale, for either a pilot or a screenplay, is usually the narrowest of bullseyes to hit, the hardest thing to orchestrate. From my front-row seat as industry observer, I’ve had the privilege of seeing agents and managers take screenplays and pilots out with the intention of selling them. Some screenplays sold or got set up; some pilots found a home. Other failed to find a home in the industry which is just to say… there are no guarantees.
And, for the record, I am not here to temper anyone’s dreams to sell their pilot or screenplay. In this industry, everything is possible, and those products do find a home on occasion. But it’s also important to remember that a spec sale, be it a spec pilot or spec screenplay, is near impossible to guarantee. Therefore, it’s up to the writer to consider including other barometers for screenwriting success. And those barometers should include the hiring out of their writing services.
There are a number of different avenues through which a writer can get paid for their writing services and products. In addition to selling screenplays, pilots and pitches, those can include getting assignments for non-WGA jobs or with WGA signatories, as well as staffing. Let’s break it down:
OWA’s (open writing assignments)
There are different tiers and types of open writing assignments. OWAs may include any of the following:
- Development of producer-born concept into full screenplay
- Adaptation of book, article, podcast or blogpost to screenplay form
- Update of old movie into a market-relevant remake
- Page-1 rewrite of existing screenplay
- Partial rewrite of existing screenplay
- Punch-up of existing screenplay
- Polish of existing screenplay
Compensation for OWA’s varies; if the writer is working with a WGA-signatory producer, production company, network or studio, then compensation is expected to be commensurate with WGA guidelines. If the writer is working with a producer or production entity that is not a WGA-signatory, or a producer that does not have any development funds and is therefore developing on spec himself then compensation may vary wildly, from a few hundred dollars to well into the thousands and tens of thousands. Back to those independent producers without development funds… those can be scenarios where the writer is asked to develop on spec (i.e. without compensation unless the project goes forward and funding is secured later). The writer will determine whether the concept, the pedigree and connections of producers would make it worth-it for the writer to work, effectively, for free. Overall, it is ultimately up to the writer to decide what sort of compensation she is or is not willing to provide her services for.
Many writers see a clear career path in TV writing, and accordingly seek to work their way up from staff writer to showrunner. The basic progression in the world of TV writing is that the writer is supposed to constantly be upwardly mobile, working her way up from lower-level, to mid-level, to upper-level at a regular clip.
The writer positions in a writer’s room are:
- Staff Writer
- Story Editor (SE)
- Executive Story Editor (ESE)
- Consulting Producer
- Supervising Producer
- Co-Executive Producer (Co-EP)
- Executive Producer (EP)
Note that on any show, there will likely be non-writing producers at various levels.
In the lower levels of the writing hierarchy, there is little room for negotiations on behalf of the writer. There is specific compensation outlined for screenwriters at the Staff Writer, Story Editor and Executive Story Editor levels, as well as episode fees for those episodes that bear the writer’s name, which come into play at the Story Editor level. There is more room to negotiate at mid- and upper-levels, as the writer brings more experience to the table. Do note that, at this time, Netflix, Apple and Amazon shows do offer different pay as they are identified as digital companies, rather than networks, basic cable or premium cable, which means that they are on a different payment schedule. Payment for writers on adult animation shows operate under IATSE’s Animation Guild. For the complete pay schedule on live-action shows, check out the WGA pay schedule of minimums.
Selling Spec Pilots, Screenplays or Pitches
TV is more straightforward here, as all buying entities for live-action primetime content do have some agreements that outline base pricing in place with the WGA. While representation may negotiate the writer’s compensation and benefits based on previous quotes and precedence, as well as maximizing competitive situations should they arise, there is something of a pre-set precedence for that, as long as the purchase is being made by an industry buyer. That said, if multiple parties come to the table to compete on an original pilot or pitch, all bets are off, and representation will do what it can to push the numbers up and get the writer the very best deal they can.
When it comes to selling feature specs, things do get a bit more wonky. Sure, every writer would love a million dollar sale, but the truth of the matter is that those rarely happen, and doubly so for new writers without an industry track record. Even so, there are a number of factors that compute into the offers you may get for your feature spec:
- Is the buying entity a WGA signatory? If it is, there are clear starting points for negotiations, which are commensurate with expected budget. However, there are companies that are, technically, WGA companies, but go on to create non-WGA sub-entities for individual projects in order to be able to purchase screenplays for less than WGA-standards from non-WGA members.
- Is the writer a WGA-member? If so, compensation should be in line with WGA guidelines, in the very least.
- Does the writer have a quote? If the writer has an established quote from a previous, recent sale, then her representatives should be able to, in the very least, try to have the new purchase be on par with the previous purchase price, if not increased, as long as the new project being sold is of similar type and budget as the one in her previous sale.
- Is it a competitive situation? Should multiple entities come to the table to purchase the material, more aggressive negotiations may be facilitated as representation may play the various sides against each other in order to secure the writer the best deal.
Over the years, I’ve seen spec screenplays from non-WGA writers sell for anywhere from a few thousand dollars all the way to 1.5 million, although those mega deals for new writers come around about once a decade; additionally, what a production company is going to be ready to be spend on a script is going to be directly proportionate to the expected budget of the movie, so the lower the budget, the more limited the compensation. If there is only one party interested in purchasing the writer’s screenplay, pilot or pitch, the less opportunity they will have to negotiate. This is not to say that the writer should accept a payday they are unhappy with, but simply to state that it will be up to them whether to take money they are not thrilled with, or walk away.
Assignments, too, can run the gamut based on the producer’s available development funds (or not), the writer’s experience, previous quotes, union affiliations, and much more. But as the writer’s career, reputation and track record grow, so should financial reward. Because of this, it’s important to engage with a good, seasoned, knowledgeable entertainment attorney who understands how the industry works, knows what to expect for the level of purchase or assignment, which levers to pull and which offers to take.
Additional, more bespoke avenues for writers to get paid include: writers round tables (usually for brainstorming an upcoming feature or TV project without further writing commitment alongside other writers), writing of treatments, story areas, and pitches on assignment. These opportunities are few and far between and the range of pay will run the gamut based on the writer’s experience.
The industry and the various pay grades within it are intricate, and it’s important to temper one’s expectations accordingly while seeking to build the sort of screenwriting career that can sustain the writer financially for years and decades.