How Much Should Screenwriters Be Paid?


How Big Is A Screenwriter’s Pay Check?

What is the true value of your car or your house? The true answer is what the market will bear. There are several factors to consider. What is your status as a professional writer? Are you emerging or a veteran? What are your credits? In what genre? If you are a produced writer, what was the purchase price of your previous script? What are scripts in a similar genre being sold for? What is the box office revenue of similar films? Are their similar scripts to yours circulating in the marketplace? What above the line attachments, distribution or other industry accolades are associated to the script?

WGA Screenwriter Fees

Many of these questions have nebulous answers. It’s relatively easy to deduce the writer’s fee when dealing with WGA signatory companies. The low budget agreements set a floor price of around $50000 for movies budgeted under $500,000. This come in around 9% of the production budget. For movies budgeted up to $5 million, the writer’s fee is 1-2%.

Films outside the low budget WGA agreement offer 3 to 5% as a writer’s fee. The upper range applies most often when the writer takes on an additional roles such as director or producer.

If you’re an established writer, your “quote” is set by your previous script sale price. A ten percent bump is geneally added to  this amount as a starting point for script negotiations. However, this rule is gradually changing as fees trend downwards.

When dealing with non-WGA signatory companies, there is no legal minimum that a writer must be paid. Ascertain how much the production company has to spend on the project and estimate the writers fee based on 2-3% of the budget. Deflect pleas by the producer that writers are over-paid, a script can be completed over the weekend at minimum wage, writers are an unnecessary part of the film making process because the entire budget should be spent on production. Get as much up front as possible.

Screenwriters are typically paid a sign on fee, ranging wildly from 10 to 50% of the total fee. The balance is due on the first day of principle photography along with a production bonus or script publication fee for films produced for under $500000. Successful professional writers may try to wangle a back end deal whereby they are eligible for profit point participation. This is the coveted 1% of the screenwriter population.

Non-WGA Screenwriters

The rules are murkier for non-WGA writers. The rules are that there are no rules. It really comes down to a case by case basis. What is the writer’s relationship with the producer? Some writers work for a “deferred” fee (translation: for free) if they believe their film will get produced and will have a tangible asset to procure additional work. If they’re lucky, they may secure a “dollar” option. Be wary of producers who don’t want to pay anything or an extremely low amount. They have less financial investment in your project and less to lose. They will only test the waters with your project rather than aggressively sell it.

It’s also worth considering what your time is worth? Trying to negotiate a writers’ fee is no mean feat. If it is your original idea, you may consider a deferred fee for a producer’s draft or polish. Otherwise, try to maintain creative control through majority equity or copyright control.

I’ve heard anecdotal evidence that feature writers spend between one and three hours per feature script page. You may negotiate an hourly, daily or weekly fee for your writing services based on this estimate. These factors should be more important when writing someone else’s concept which will invariably take longer to write than producers will estimate.

If you’re considering writing for free, evaluate the career value of working with a name producer, actor or company. You may wish to set up production company with you as a co-producer. At least you regain creative control of your project and have an established producer to help you guide it. You will gain greater equitorial and financial control too. However the decade long lead-in time may have some writers reconsider this strategy.

Ultimately, every choice is a career decision. Do you only want to get paid or use it as a stepping stone to meet established industry folk, get produced or get noticed?

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For in depth Film & TV script analysis visit Script Firm.

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