So You Scored Your First Six Figure Screenplay Deal

Here are extracts from BOSI on how much six figure deals for screenwriters are really worth.

At the start of 2008, a screenwriter’s spec script that I along with a major agency represented was introduced to an executive for a major production company. This particular entity wielded significant clout at the studio.

The executive responded favorably to the spec and requested a meeting with the writer. About a month later, the executive phoned to inform us that an idea had developed internally and they felt the aforementioned writer would be ideal to execute. They wished to discuss the idea, and a meeting was immediately set.

Following the meeting the writer was asked to draft a detailed treatment on how he would execute the idea. It should be noted this was to be done on spec (read deferred pay).

The treatment was developed extensively with the guidance and direction of the executive. There were many drafts. Every draft was written on spec.

Four months into 2008, the executive was thoroughly satisfied with the final draft… of the treatment. At this point he committed to enthusiastically introduce the treatment and the writer’s spec sample to his boss. You read that correctly. The boss had yet to read the screenwriter’s sample. Very common.

A few weeks later the executive rang to share the wonderful news: his boss was on board. With the boss’ blessing, a meeting was scheduled to pitch the studio executives. It should be noted that the screenwriter had yet to meet the boss. And compensation had still not been discussed.

About ten people were in attendance at the pitch meeting, but the boss did not attend. He simply called ahead and expressed his strong feelings for the project.

The pitch was executed in just under fifteen minutes, followed by a few questions from the most senior executive and the meeting concluded.

About an hour later, we received THE call. The writer nailed the pitch, he was hired. Finally, deal time. Break out the check book.

I can honestly say that to use the phrase negotiations would be a distortion of the truth. The studio simply told us what they would pay. Take it or leave it. We took it.

A low six figure deal closed about three months later. If you didn’t know, studios do not pay until the agreement is fully executed. For further clarity, they don’t pay all at once. They pay in steps. Baby steps tied to delivery of the draft(s).

Are you following me? We’re almost seven months into 2008 and the screenwriter has yet to see one red cent.

Finally, after badgering accounting at the studio, the first check arrives. Without revealing the exact number of the total deal, for simplicity let’s take a nice round number. Let’s use $100,000 as the figure to represent full payment and do a brief breakdown.

The studios pay a percentage upon signature of the agreement and a percentage at commencement of the draft. Other steps follow.

Payment on delivery of first draft, commencement of draft two, delivery of draft two, and in some cases a polish may be included.

Traditionally, payment tiers range between fifteen to twenty percent. For simplicity, let’s assume the studio used its might and would not budge off of fifteen percent to trigger the first series of payments. Keep in mind, he who can walk from the deal has… the power.

Therefore for this brief example, a check totaling $30,000 for execution of agreement and commencement of script would be delivered by the studio.

Be aware that agents (10%), managers (10%), and attorney’s (5%) commission on the gross, not the net. Uncle Sam does too! Uncle Sam won’t negotiate either.

15% for signing on $15,000
15% for commencement $15,000
Total Paid $30,000
Less Tax (approx) $7,000 $23,000
Less Agent (10%) $3,000 $20,000
Less Manager (10%) $3,000 $17,000
Less Attorney (5%) $1,500 $15,500

There you have it. Almost eleven months later, the screenwriter celebrates with a cool $15K for 2008. Oh yes, one more payroll payment to make. It will be the newest member of your team… the WGA. You MUST become a guild member upon entering your first deal (spec or work for hire) with a signatory company. All studios are signatory. Yay!

As you can see a six figure deal isn’t quite a six figure pay day. And payment itself can be delayed for some time.

There are a few lessons one can glean from this:

  • Don’t quit your day job after your first sale or gig! It’ll be tempting, but don’t. Not immediately.
  • Schedule time to write NOW. You must MASTER the discipline of scheduling time to write while you have a day job and… a life. And more importantly, before your first sale or writer for hire gig. I promise you it will come in handy.
  • Reward yourself, but don’t go nuts. A screenwriter I know treated himself to an ergonomic executive chair for his writing station. He’d been eyeing it for years.
  • Save the rest. You never know when you’ll be hired again or when you will sell a script again.

In summary, the screenwriter is no different then the entrepreneur who’s enthusiastic about and committed to building their business.


One Comment Add yours

  1. This is extremely helpful. Thanks!

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