“Most screenwriters are unemployed, chronically unemployed.”
Screenwriter Tom Lazarus (Stigmata)
Secrets of Film Writing
“It’s either very lucrative and exciting, or nothing.”
Screenwriter Anthony Peckham (Invictus) on screenwriting
(Note: Though this post is now several year old it continues to get solid hits because it’s such a primal question. I’ve chosen not to update the NFL references because that’s a continually moving target. Just exchange the names for the current hot players of what ever year you’re reading this post.)
When people think of how much professional football players make they tend to focus on the big numbers. Brett Favre’s $20 million dollar one year contract with the Minnesota Vikings. Payton Manning’s $99.2 million seven year contract with the Indianapolis Colts. But the truth is most rookies in the NFL earn around $300,000 per year. Deduct taxes, agent fees, a down payment on a house, and an expensive sports car or two and there’s not that much left. (Relatively speaking, of course.)
Then factor in that most pro football careers last less than four years (NFL=Not For Long) and you can see why the majority of players who play in the NFL really have under a million dollars to their name when they retire. And when you factor in a history of NFL players making bad investment decisions it’s not hard to understand why so many end up filing for bankruptcy when their short careers are over.
Often when people think of Hollywood writers they tend to once again think of the multi-million dollar deals. (Like Basic Instinct banking Joe Eszterhas $3 million—back in the early 90s.) But the truth is most writers (factoring both union and non-union) won’t make any money this year from their writings. (According to the Writer’s Guide of America-West (WGAW) recent report, of the 8,129 union members in 2007 3,775 were unemployed.) Depending on different sources working WGAw members seem to average between $40,000-$110,000. per year. (Key word there is “working” WGAw members.) Factor in the cost of living where most writers live (New York & L.A.) and that’s probably about the earning power of (just a wild guess) $20,000-65,000. in much of the country.
On the film side a good rule of thumb is scripts can make up between 2-5% of the total budget. So on a $50 million dollar film that could be as much as $2.5 million.(The highest paid spec script to date I believe is $5 million to M. Night Shyamalan for Unbreakable, though that may have included his directing fee.) But it also means on a $200,000 indie film could mean the screenwriter was paid $4,000. (And independent films make up the majority of the 500 or so feature films made per year. ) On the TV side writers can be paid per script or as a staff writer. The highest paid are the ones who create a hit network show and stay on as producer/writers. If that show stays on the air for five years and goes into syndication then they can afford to buy a small tropical island. A good gig if you can land it, but that doesn’t describe most TV writers.
“On balance, television writers today are the highest-paid practitioners of the literary profession in history. But mark the phrase on balance. If you can sell two one-hour scripts per year, which is a pretty good average for a freelance writer, that’s about $40,000 per year, before taxes. That figure is comparable to or less than the yearly average of elementary school teachers and considerably less than plumbers. The majority of working writers fall into this financial category. It’s only when you get the top 5 to 10 percent that you find writers and hyphenates who routinely earn six figures a year or more.”
J. Michael Stracznski, writer/producer
(Babylon 5, Changeling)
The Complete Book of Screenwriting
Granted that book was published in 1996 (and I think the minimum range for a 90 minute or less story & teleplay these days is around $30,000.*) but in a world of reality TV programing there is less scripted work being produced. (I know there are a lot fewer soap operas being produced than in 1996.)
“In 24 hours, NBC has just three hours of dramas and comedies. And, on some nights those make way for Dateline or Deal No Deal.”
Charles B. Solcum
Written By, August/September 2009
I have a writer friend with network credits in L.A. who was recently offered a job on a cable TV program that would pay her just a little more than her unemployment benefits. When you live in a land where rent is $1,500-3000. per month these are trying times. One more reason to live outside L.A., right? (Heck, for $3,000. I think you can still pick up a house in Detroit.)
Screenwriter John August recently wrote an excellent post What’s wrong with the business where he addressed some of these issues. I’ve quoted from that article before, but this is worth repeating because the industry is changing and the young, creative people coming up are going to embrace the changes;
“To become one of those inventors of industry, you need to surround yourself with similarly ambitious people. Film school is a good choice, but so is living and working in the right neighborhood in Silverlake or Brooklyn or Austin — or more likely, a place I wouldn’t even realize is a hotbed.”
Screenwriter John August
(Big Fish, Corpse Bride)
Could that hotbed be a place like Des Moines, Iowa? Steven Spielberg thinks so. He told Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show back in 1999, “I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”
Wait a minute, didn’t John August go to Drake University in Des Moines? That Spielberg is a genius, you know? And didn’t Diablo Cody go to school in Iowa City? If John August and Diablo Cody ever move back to Iowa then you know that this blog will at least be assured a small footnote in the history of screenwriting.
I wouldn’t bet on that anytime soon, but I would bet that within ten years places now known more for football like Minnesota & Indianapolis (as well as Detroit, Austin, Atlanta, Memphis…and, of course, Cedar Falls) will see writers and filmmakers rise up (and stay put) as they embrace the digital revolution and the opportunities it brings.
Related Post: Investing in Screenwriting. (I have a quote in there by Max Adams who explains how a $500,000. feature script option can really translate to a mere $3,500. per year for the writer who worked on that script.)
* To see current Writers Guild of America’s Theatrical and Television Basic Agreement visit the WGA-West website.
Update 12/09: Since this is a popular post as far as views I will update it from time to time and welcome your input on correcting any numbers. While reading over the WGAw report I made another connection between screenwriting & the NFL. On the film side there were 1,553 male writers employed in the last year of the report. That’s about 150 less writers than players in the NFL any given year. If you’re a female writer it just gets harder as they make up just 24% of all members in the guild. I don’t write these stats to discourage you but to help you know how solid your writing has to be to make a living doing this. And to also encourage you to keep your eyes open for alternative ways to earn a living in film, TV, and the Internet.
Update 3/12/10: Just read on Scott Myers’ blog Go Into The Story that the average production worker salary in the motion picture and tv industry is $74,400 a year.
Update 5/14/10: Residuals are another way film and TV writers get paid. I once worked with an actress who had worked on a popular TV show back in the day who told me she made $40,000 a year in residuals. A nice base. Check out the post Question: Do screenwriters get a percentage on the back end? by Scott Myers.
Update 10/24/10: Though it’s a few years old (2007) I just found this post by screenwriter Craig Mazin The Economics of Screenwriting.
Update 11/08/10: Interesting article about football player (Keith Fitzhugh) who turns down NFL offer to keep his train conductor job.
Update 2/11/11 “For every writer I know that lives high on the hog I know twenty who buy their bacon at Costco.”
Josh Friedman (War of the Worlds)
And this from the book Power Screenwriting:
“The truth is, the odds of writing and selling a screenplay are probably just as great as winning the state lottery or the next Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes. Yet, with the emphasis directed towards the big bucks sale, the aspiring screenwriter may be deprived of one of the greatest transformational processes known to man: spinning a well-told story.”
Michael Chase Walker
Update 3/24/11: “Most writers never sell scripts. Why should you be any different?”
Christopher Lockhart who is the Story Editor for WME
From the post The Right Stuff on his blog THE INSIDE PITCH.
Update 5/29/11: This is the WGA’s current minimum basic agreement (MBA) for a screenplay purchase:
Between $500,000 & $1.2 million budget: $42,930
Between $1.2 million and $5 million: $42,930
Between $5 million or more: $87,879
Keep in mind those are union numbers—and minimun numbers at that. (Top writers making much, much more than scale.) But if a non-union company buys your script expect less. If you wrote the screenplay with another writer cut those numbers in half, and of course, deduct for taxes, lawyers, agents, etc.
Update 7/6/11: This post is by far the most viewed post of all time on this blog and you may enjoy this post today from Scott Myers on his blog Go Into The Story: Reader Question: How much does a top screenwriter get paid for a rewrite?
Update 11/08/11: “Most writers are middle class; 46% did not even work last year. Of those who do work, one quarter make less than $37,700 a year and 50% make less than $105,000 a year. Over a five year period of employment and unemployment, a writer’s average income is $62,000 per year.” Writers Guild of America, West
Update 2/22/12: Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2010 listed the mean annual wage for writers (including screenwriters) and authors at $65,960 (with $109,440 being in the 9o percentile).
Update 2/28/13: Link to screenwriting quote where Oscar-winning screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo) talks about writing scripts for $5,000 and $10,000 coming up in the New York indie world.
Update 12/11/13: Even though this post is now four years old it continues to get steady hits and is by far the most viewed post I’ve ever written. But I’d like you to take the time to jump over to the post and read what Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arendt has to say about what I call The 99% Focus Rule. And a postive thing that’s happened since I originally posted this is quality cable TV has exploded —as well as groups like Netflix producing their own programs— opening up new opportunites and a broader income stream for writers.
Closing thought: “There’s more to life than a little money, you know?…Don’t you know that?”
Sheriff Marge Gunderson in Fargo
Written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen