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Posts Tagged ‘Terry Rossio’

“One of the classic rules of coincidence is that fate — if it must be present — should always favor the antagonist. If our hero has a gun on the villain and the hero’s gun jams, it’s called drama. If the villain has our hero dead in his sights, and the villain’s gun jams, it’s called a lousy cheat, a not-very-inventive way to sneak the hero out of his predicament.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean)
Wordplay/Column 14

And if you don’t believe Rossio, here’s a similar quote:

“Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.”
Writer/director Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success)
On Filmmaking (edited by Paul Cronin)
page 41

Note: Both quotes pulled from the 2013 post Screenwriting & Coincidence 2.0.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Sometimes your convictions are the greatest stumbling blocks to fixing a story problem. It’s that thing that you’re certain of, that you don’t challenge — that you just know is right about a scene — that stops you from finding the inventive solution. It’s a good idea to have this general rule: challenge everything. Go through the problem scene step by step and consider the effect of doing the exact opposite of your story decisions.

“The audience will come to ‘know’ the character through their actions. When characters can make decisions that run counter to expectations, bringing immediate reversals into the story, that’s of immediate interest. (When Indiana Jones ties up Marion instead of releasing her [In Raiders of the Lost Ark], it’s a marvelous reversal, and we gain huge insights into Indy’s character by that one action.”
Screenwriters Terry Rossio & Ted Elliott (Pirates of the Caribbean)
Wordplay Columns/ Plot Devices

I couldn’t find the Indy/Marion scene online, but the classic opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark is a great reversal that goes from positive to negative.

And speaking of Rossio & Elliot, how about this reversal from their Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl script“You are without a doubt the worst pirate I’ve ever heard of” to “That’s got to be the best pirate I’ve ever seen.”

P.S. If you’re not familiar with Rossio & Elliot’s Wordplayer screenwriting columns you’re missing out on some of the best free screenwriting advice on the Internet—for almost 20 years!

Scott W. Smith

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“I think 10 bucks to escape to a different world is worth the 10 bucks.
Stuart Beattie

“No survivors? Then where do the stories come from, I wonder?”
Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp)

Though I was a lover of the Walt Disney World ride Pirates of the Caribbean since my childhood, when I originally heard they were making a movie based on the ride my first thought was, “Well, that’s not going to be any good.”  Pirates of the Caribbean, Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) ended up being nominated for five Oscars, earned over $650 million worldwide, and made the IMDB Top 250 listed tied with The Graduate, The Hustler, A Fistful of Dollars, Rope and Jurassic Park.

Empire Magazine’s list of The 100 Greatest Movie Characters named pirate Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) as #8—just behind The Dude (Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski) and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford). To date, the Pirates franchise of four films has a box office gross of  just over $3.7 billion. And as the word billion resonates in your head, you may be surprised to learn that the seeds of that franchise came from college students in Corvallis, Oregon. 

“Basically I was at Oregon State and I was hanging out with a friend and we were like, ‘Let’s write a movie.’ He’d never written a screenplay, but he liked that I was writing. I was like, ‘let’s do that–what’s a movie that hasn’t been done in a while?’ And we were thinking and thinking and suddenly we both said, ‘pirates.’ That hadn’t been done since Errol Flynn. And I end up writing this thing called Quest of the Caribbean, because I couldn’t use the actual Pirates of the Caribbean. But it had all the scenes from the [Disney] rides. The tongue in cheek Raiders of the Lost Ark version of pirates. And we sent that around town—got a lot of meetings, a lot of people interested, but it never ended up getting bought. And then years later I sold Collateral—this was in the period before it got made—and I submitted it again to Disney and  said, ‘Come on, you gotta do this.” And they said, “no, no, no—we’re actually working on our own now.” And so they had hired an in-house writer and he was doing a draft, but they wanted me to work on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. So I was working on that and they were like, ‘We not happy with this draft [of Pirates] would you like a go of it?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’ve been asking for 10 fucking years, yes please!’ So I went in—pitched and got the job. I did two drafts basically. The draft that got it going and got a draft to [Jerry] Bruckheimer and Johnny [Depp], and then [screenwriters] Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio came on.”
Screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Story credit on Pirates of the Caribbean, Curse of the Black Pearl, and character credit on the other Pirate films)
The Dialogue Interview: Learning from the Masters interview with Mike De Luca

Screenwriting from Oregon

Related post: Movie Cloning (Pirates) Ted Elliott talks about the movie The Prisoner of Zenda  (1937) as an inspiration.

Scott W. Smith

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“You’ll have a huge advantage if your concept contains irony.”
Carson Reeves
Scriptshadow

“The number one thing a good logline must have , the single most important element is: irony….Irony gets my attention. It’s what we who struggle with loglines like to call the hook, because that’s what it does. It hooks your interest.”
Blake Snyder
Save the Cat

“We teach best what we most need to learn.
And I sure hope this won’t come back to bite me on the ass.
Dramatic irony. What is it?
I got no clue — says the professional screenwriter.”
Terry Rossio
Wordplayer/Dramatic Irony

It’s hard to believe that I’ve written this blog on screenwriting for five and a half years and have never done a post specifically on irony. Probably out of fear of adding confusion to the subject of technically what is and isn’t irony. I think part of the confusion is words that have been used for centuries often have not only different meanings depending on the era, but sometimes even have contrary meanings.

For instances I’m told the word scan used to mean to examine throughly but when we say today that we “scanned the book” we tend to mean that we flipped through it quickly. So with that said I will dive into the territory of irony with the help of others in hopes that it will help you and your writing.

The word that I associate irony with the most is contrary—meaning the opposite. The example that jumps to my mind is in four-time Oscar-winner Rain Man when Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise)  has this exchange with his father’s lawyer, John Mooney, about being left out of the money portion of his father’s will:

Charlie: Disappointed? Why should I be disappointed? I got rose bushes didn’t I? I got a used car, didn’t I? This other guy, what’d you call him?

John Mooney: The beneficiary.

Charlie: Yeah him, he got $3,000,000 but he didn’t get the rose bushes. I got the rose bushes. I definitely got the rose bushes. Those are rose bushes!

That’s irony. Verbal irony. Charlie Babbitt is extremely disappointed that he got the rose bushes and a used car instead of $3 million. Now Babbitt is being sarcastic at the same time. But not all sarcasm is ironic, and not all irony is sarcastic.

“Irony is ‘a state of affairs that is the reverse of what was to be expected; a result opposite to and in mockery of the appropriate result.’ For instance, if a diabetic, on his way to buy insulin, is killed by a runaway truck, he is the victim of an accident. If the truck was delivering sugar, he is the victim of an oddly poetic coincidence. But if the truck was delivering insulin, ah! Then he is the victim of an irony.”
George Carlin
Brain Droppings

We don’t have George Carlin around anymore to split that difference between irony and coincidence, but it seems to be a perfect example of dramatic irony is in Back to the Future when the teenager Marty (Michael J. Fox) goes back to 1955 and tries to make sure his future mom and dad (then teenagers themselves) fall in love with each other and instead Marty’s mom starts to have a crush on him. That’s a little confusing if you’ve never seen the film—and you really should—but it’s a humorous result of  “the reverse of what was to be expected.” A good example of situational irony.  And at the same time that situation is full of conflict where the stakes are very high. (If Marty’s parents don’t fall in love and eventually get married and have kids, then Marty won’t exist.)

“Dialogue is a playground for dramatic irony… In PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL, the British Commodore, Norrington, thinks that Jack Sparrow is the worst pirate he’s ever seen. Later, when Jack manages to steal Norrington’s fastest ship, his First Mate comments, ‘That’s got to be the best pirate I’ve ever seen.’ Not only is the First Mate complimenting Jack, but he’s using phrasing that nearly mimics Norrington’s insult… a fact not lost on Norrington, or the audience.
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Co-writer of Pirate of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)
Wordplayer/Dramatic Irony

“For a clown fish, he’s not that funny. ”
Bruce the shark in Finding Nemo

Charlie Chaplin understood irony when he wrote The Great Dictator and told the solution of having 3,000 workers planning to strike: “Have them all shot. I don’t want any of my workers dissatisfied.” Alfred Hitchcock understood the use of irony in Vertigo, Rear Window,  and Rope. But one of his most memorable uses of irony was from his Tv program Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In Lamb to the Slaughter (written by Roald Dahl) a police detective investigating a murder (and looking for the murder weapon) eats a lamb dinner prepared by the woman who used the lamb when it was frozen to kill her cheating husband.

“Irony is a fancy word for saying ‘the opposite of which is perceived.’ A priest who murders. A pianist who’s deaf. A clown who’s depressed. Audiences LOVE irony. Therefore you should try and incorporate it into your concept, characters and plot as much as possible! The most powerful king in the world is tasked with giving the most important speech in history…yet he can’t speak (The King’s Speech). Irony is your best friend. Use it whenever you can!”
Carson Reeves
Script Shadow Secrets

Now perhaps I’m confusing irony and coincidence (or perhaps just contrasting situations), but some other films that come to mind that use irony in the way that Blake Synder used the word irony—to mean “unexpected”:
Seabiscuit (A lazy horse becomes a champion)
Rocky
(A club boxer who loses his locker at the gym gets a shot at the title)
Jaws
(A sheriff from the city who is afraid of water must go into the ocean to battle a killer shark)
Erin Brockovich (An unemployed and uneducated woman jump-starts a lawsuit against a corporate giant)
Liar, Liar (A lawyer prone to lying must tell the truth for 24 hours)
Rudy (A small guy who never played high school football wants to play football at Notre Dame)
Miss Congeniality (A tomboy FBI agent must join a beauty pageant to catch the bad guys)
City Slicker (A guy from New York City joins a cattle drive in the west to find himself)
48 Hours (A cop needs the help of a criminal to catch the bad guys)
Babette’s Feast (
A servant of sorts wins the lottery and spends her winnings on a grand feast for a religious group dedicated to a austere lifestyle)
Pieces of April (
A young woman in an attempt to make ammends with her family decides to cook dinner only to have her stove not working on Thanksgiving day)

“At the beginning of [The Incredibles], Mr. Incredible gets sued for saving a person attempting suicide. He later goes through a mid-life crisis, when superheroes are often considered ageless. Also, superheroes are done in by their iconic capes (and after Edna’s escapade in cape-related deaths, Syndrome is killed after his cape is caught in an airplane turbine).”
Irony: The Secret to Pixar Plotting

It would seem that Pixar long ago figured out how to use irony. In fact, the ending of Toy Story 3 was one great unexpected ending.  There are few things as powerful (and rare) as a satisfying ironic ending.

P.S. The title Screenwriting from Iowa was always meant to be ironic. As in that’s the last place you’d expect to find people writing screenplays. And it’s also meant as a metaphor to connect with screenwriters from remote areas around the world. Ironically (am I using that word correctly?) I’ve been surprised that working screenwriters in Hollywood read these posts from time to time.

Related Posts:
Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)
Screenwriting & Contrasts (Tip #18)
The Perfect Logline
Insanely Great Endings

Scott W. Smith

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Since much of the story of JAWS takes place over the Fourth of July weekend, it seems fitting on this Fourth of July weekend that on today’s repost Saturday I at least touch on the classic summer blockbuster movie. If you don’t have time to read the whole post, I’ve since found what I believe is the definitive comment regarding using coincidence—and boiled down to just one sentence:

“Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.”
Alexander Mackendrick
On Filmmaking (edited by Paul Cronin)
page 41

For those of you that want a little more to chew on, here’s the original post from September 9, 2008:

“Coincidence. It’s a screenwriter’s stock in trade. It lies at the very heart of storytelling; it’s been around even before Oedipus slept with his mother. It’s the essence of the ‘what if.’ Coincidence comes into play for inciting incidents, chance meetings, clever plot twists, surprising revelations. It’s a very necessary dramatic tool.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio
Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lone Ranger 

“There’s nothing wrong with coincidence, per se. Almost every movie is going to have some incidents where one character just happens to be in the right place at the right time.”
Screenwriter John August
Big Fish

Last week I spent two days in a town I had never been before and both mornings went to the same Starbucks at different times in the morning. And both times the same person was standing behind me in line. What are the odds? It’s hard to miss that kind of coincidence. It made me think about how coincidence is used in screenwriting,

All of us have real stories of coincidence ranging from simple to complex. Things like hearing a song you haven’t heard in years playing on the radio at the same time on two different stations. Or like the time I got on a connecting standby flight in Dallas and ended up on the same flight as a guy I went to high school with who I hadn’t seen in years.

Coincidence is a part of life so we shouldn’t be surprised when coincidence is used in the movies. But if it’s not a law it should at least be a rule that coincidence not be used throughout your story unless you are writing a farce (Groundhog Day) or a story where coincidence is built into the story. For instance we expect Forrest Gump to bump shoulders with Elvis, John F. Kennedy and John Lennon. It’s part of the fun.

But since coincidence must be used to one degree or another it’s best if you don’t use them at important moments of your script.

Coincidence is best used in the first act and as early as possible. Sure it’s a coincidence that the swimmer in Jaws just happens to take a swim at feeding time. But something has to start the story. Inciting incidents are often a fitting place for coincidence.

The worst time to use coincidence is at the end of the film.  As Robert McKee writes in Story, “Never use coincidence to turn an ending. This is deus ex machina, the writer’s greatest sin.” A phrase from ancient Greek and Roman theater where a god would be lowered on stage to fix everything.

You will find coincidence abuse across every genre. Perhaps the biggest offender is romantic comedies as writers work to get two people together. Could there be a bigger coincidence (or heavy handed metaphor) than after a man’s wife dies to have him  and fall in love with the recipient (via heart-transplant) of his dead wife’s heart? Critics used words like gimmick, contrived, and  creepy to refer to the plot of Return to Me. Yet the quirky comedy did find a satisfied audience.

So you can overcome heavy-handed coincidence but it takes work to avoid. The real secret of using coincidence is to sneak it in where needed. Avoid using coincidence at key moments of the story.

Terry Rossio writes in his Wordplay Columns:

One of the classic rules of coincidence is that fate — if it must be present — should always favor the antagonist. If our hero has a gun on the villain and the hero’s gun jams, it’s called drama. If the villain has our hero dead in his sights, and the villain’s gun jams, it’s called a lousy cheat, a not-very-inventive way to sneak the hero out of his predicament.

When the audience rolls back their eyes and has one of those “you’ve-got-to be-kidding” moments you know that coincidence has been misused.

It’s best when the audience doesn’t even realize the coincidence. For instance in Mystic River the novelist and/or screenwriters start and end the movie with coincidence, but the story is so compelling it’s not a stumbling block. (Spoiler alert) Sean Penn’s daughter is killed the same night that his friend Tim Robbins kills a man — big coincidence. And Sean Penn kills Robbins thinking he killed his daughter the same night that detectives arrest the real killers of Penn’s daughter–another big coincidence.

Perhaps coincidence is like subtext, exposition and other tricks of the trade in that it can be handled well or poorly. The best way to handle coincidence in your scripts is to do so organically. For instance it is not just a coincidence that at the end of Jaws Roy Scheider has a gun and knows how to use it (he is the police chief) or that there is an oxygen tank on the boat. Those were built into the story.

Scheider is simply forced to go to the end of the line because he has run out of options. May you strive with the same diligence to fight off heavy-handed coincidence in your scripts.

Scott W. Smith

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Even though I’ve traveled to all 50 states in the U.S. and have been to every major city and most midsized cities, I’ve never been to Kalamazoo (metro pop. 326,589). I have been to Grand Rapids, Michigan and South Bend, Indiana— so I’ve been close. But did you know there’s been some big league talent from Kalamazoo? Hollywood talent.

Since this is a blog on screenwriting why don’t I start with one of the highest paid screenwriters in the history of motion pictures—Terry Rossio. Born right there in Kalamafrickin’zoo before he went on to pick up major checks for co-writing Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and the upcoming The Lone Ranger.

Novelist Edna Ferber whose work made it to the big screen many times including Cimarron, Show Boat, and Giant  (which starred Elizabeth Taylor and James Dean)—yep, she was born in Kalamazoo.

McG who directed We Are Marshall and Terminator Salvation as well as executive producer on The O.C. and Check—born in Kalamazoo. Actor Tim Allen (Home Improvement) attended Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo where he majored in television production and worked as a DJ on the school radio station.

You can visit this IMDB link to see others in the film business with a connection to Kalamazoo, but perhaps the biggest name, highest achiever from Kalamazoo really does play in the big leagues.  That would be Derek Jeter who has played shortstop for the New York Yankees for the past 18 years. His list of accomplishments is astonishing; Rookie of the Year, American League MVP, All-Star Game MVP, World Series MVP, Golden Glove, and collector of five World Series rings. Recently he became just the 28th player in the history of baseball to cross the 3,000 hit plateau.

Jeter moved to Kalamazoo when he was four and played baseball at Kalamazoo Central High School where he was named USA Today’s High School Player of the Year his senior year in 1992. According to Wikipedia, when the Yankee’s were reluctant to draft Jeter because they thought he might take a scholarship to the University of Michigan, Yankee scout Dick Groch said, “The only place Derek Jeter is going is to Cooperstown.” And when Jeter’s career is over, he is in fact a sure bet to head to Copperstown, New York—home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Once again proving that talent comes from everywhere.

P.S. According to the Kalamazoo Public Library, Kakamazoo appears to be a Native American word from the Potawatomi tribe and the word is generally believed to mean something like “boiling pot,” ‘where the water boils,” or “reflecting river.” The name of the village of Branson was changed to Kalamazoo in March 1836. A 1823 Atlas identifies the area as “Kikalemazo.”

Scott W. Smith

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Since yesterday I quoted Pirates of the Caribbean co-screenwriter Ted Elliot, I thought today would be fitting to quote the other half of that writing team Terry Rossio. Elliot & Rossio’s fifth Pirates script Pirates of the Caribbean: On Strange Tide will be released later this year. Rossio won an Oscar for co-writing Shrek (along with Elliot, Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman). Here’s part of the secret of his incredible 20 year run in Hollywood:

“We’ve never cared so much for dark, bleak, and cynical. Though the entire town here seems to think that’s what audiences want. And so dark, bleak and cynical screenplays get attention, and dark, bleak and cynical films get made. Fine. That leaves the top of the box office to us, and Steven Spielberg, and James Cameron, and David Koepp. What’s really going on is producers, writers, development executives, directors and actors are overly worried about looking not-cool. They fear ‘corny’ so profoundly they err on the side of long dark coats, neon lights, reflections in the water, smoke, blue lighting, black sunglasses, and sneering looks. They are so afraid of heartfelt they take refuge in dim and bleak and ugly. You’ve never seen anything as funny as a producer wax all excited about how they’re going to reinvent Superman, give him a costume of chain and black leather.”
Terry Rossio

That quote comes from the excellent website Wordplayer.com that was created by Rossio and Elliot to provide some of the best advise on screenwriting that you can find on the Internet.

And if you need something anti-dark, bleak and cynical today here’s Terry Rossio-related  video for you:

Scott W. Smith



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“We didn’t intend to have sequels. The first [movie] is a story in and of itself, a sort of capital ‘r’ romance in The Prisoner of Zenda* sense that ends in an idealized love between Elizabeth and Will.”
Screenwriter Ted Elliot, co-writer on the first Pirates of Caribbean movie

Having grown up in Orlando and spending a chunk of my youth on the Disney World ride Pirates of the Caribbean I was not thrilled when I first heard that there was going to be a movie based on the ride. Just the whole concept seemed a step down from movies that became rides. Casting Johnny Depp at that time made it a little more interesting to think about the possibilities.

Depp’s three films before Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) were From Hell, Blow, and Chocolat. (Mix that around and it’s a pretty decent title: “Chocolat & Blow from Hell.”) Depp was also the actor who was in the off-beat roles Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands. He just wasn’t the kind of actor who you thought would pop up in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

A few Pirate film sequels & a gazillon box-office dollars later it was a fine move by several people. (Of course, I love the story kicking around that Disney executives didn’t care for Depp’s pirate interpretation when they saw the first dailies.)

“I think it was Michael Eisner, the head of Disney at the time, who was quoted as saying, ‘he’s ruining the movie.'”
Johnny Depp
BBC

Now, Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow has become one of the most memorable characters in modern blockbuster cinema.

The first Pirates of the Caribbean first script (which created the franchise that still has legs) was written by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, from a story that Stuart Beatie and Jay Wolpert. What DNA did they tap into for creating Johnny Depp’s iconic character?

“We wrote a very specific character and Johnny played that character but his performance was one neither of us could have imagined. We wanted to create this trickster. If you go all the way back to [Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel] Treasure Island, we kind of borrowed the moral ambiguity of that story. The whole thing comes down to [young boy] Jim Hawkins making the call as to whether [pirate] Long John Silver is a good man or a bad man—that’s the emotional crux of that story. Silver does kill people—he betrays everybody—and this moral ambiguity is inherent in the pirate/swashbuckler genre. To that regard, the trickster archetype seemed appropriate. That’s what we wanted to do with Jack Sparrow. Whether Johnny identified that consciously, he definitely found a perfect performance.”
Ted Elliot
Interview with Scott Holleran

I’ve also read on the DVD commentary that Elliot and/or Rossio say there was originally a little Bugs Bunny and Groucho Marx influence in the concept stages of Jack Sparrow. Of course, Depp himself said his inspiration behind Captain Jack Sparrow was Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.

* The Prisoner of Zenda is an adventure novel written by Anthony Hope and published in 1894.  It has been made into a film several times: 1913, 1915, 1922, 1937, 1952, & 1979 as well as a couple TV movies, a play, and an operetta. The 1937 movie, produced by David O. Selznick, has been called by Halliwell’s Film Guide as, “One of the most entertaining films to come out of Hollywood.” The bulk of the script appears to have been written by John L. Balderston (with five others writers said to play a part).  So before they spent a lot of money, they new they had the bones of a story that worked. Toss in a very popular theme park ride, a the classic novel Treasure Island —that’s movie cloning.

Scott W. Smith

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“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 years old it continues to get solid hits because it’s such a basic 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 whatever 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. (Hence, the ESPN documentary Broke.)

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. )

“When you’re not in the [WGA] you’re just grateful for anything that’ll you give you a month of rent or a couple months of rent. My first couple of jobs were New York independent things…of course, there wasn’t a lot of money for an untested writer. So if somebody had read some things you’d written, or a play you’d written, or a script you’d written on spec then sometimes you’d get paid 5,000 bucks, if you’re lucky, on a good day maybe 10,000 bucks.
Screenwriter Chris Terrio (Argo) taking about getting his start on DP/30

Of course, what screenwriters make globally will vary greatly. In Nigeria—Nollywood— they are making a lot of movies, but most budgets are sub-$100,000. And even in Hollywood what screenwriters make will vary. At the top of the Hollywood feature film food chain are working WGA writers who generate writing income several ways. Nailing down those exact numbers is hard, but this is how the top screenwriters can make $100,000 or $200,000 a week and millions over the course of the year:

—Writing assignment (developing new script from book, article, or an idea)
—Punch-up a script (take an existing script and add action and make it more dynamic, tweak the dialogue, and/or add humor to make funnier)
—One to three week polish of a script 
—Page one re-write. Take an existing screenplay that has promise, but needs a lot of work, and make it a script worth producing.
—Residuals (DVD/Blu-Ray/digital sales, Tv and foreign rights)
—Speaking (college and corporate work)
—Spec work (selling a screenplay without a deal from a producer or studio)
—Story meetings (A gathering of writers to kick around story concepts. Seen by some as a negative direction for the industry, as it’s the equivalent of kicking tires.)

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.  (Largely based on the success of the TV show Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld’s net worth is in the hundreds of millions—and maybe over a billion dollars by the time you read this.)  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
page 19

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?

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 11/08/10: Interesting article about football player (Keith Fitzhugh) who turns down NFL offer to keep his train conductor job.

Update 1/15/11:  “Let’s talk money, because no one ever does. A top tier screenplay deal these days might be for a million dollars or more. Most are far, far less, but let’s work with those crazy high numbers, in fact let’s say 2 million dollars, though nobody is paying that any more. Wow that’s a lot of money. But consider. With a writing partner, that gets cut down to $1,000,000., and after taxes, lawyers, agents, managers, and the WGA, let’s hope you get to keep $400,000.

That’s still a truckload of money, life changing, but they don’t give you that all at once. It might take six months to a year just to get the contract done, and the deal is contingent on the film going into production, and if it does that might take a year or three or five, and also the WGA has to grant full credit at the end of it all, which often doesn’t happen. But let’s say it all goes well, which means the ‘highest paid screenwriter in history’ is actually taking home around $200,000. a year, at least on that one deal. Which is good money, real good money, more than I ever imagined making, and let me tell you I do own a dream home in the hills … but it’s not in the fly-a-Learjet-to-your-own-private-island-in-the-Caribbean category.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (Shrek & Pirates of the Caribbean)
Interview with John Robert Marlow 

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 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 positive 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 opportunities and a broader income stream for writers.

Update 6/11/17: While this post was on how much screenwriters get paid in the U.S., I should at least touch on the various ways writers can get paid for their work. This seems to be the core areas:
Spec script (You don’t get paid to write unless the script sells.)
Writing assignment (A writer is asked to write the script.)
Open assignment (Where several writers are asked to come in a pitch their take on what they’d do with a concept and one of the writers is chosen.)
Rewrite/polish (Could be as short as one day, but one to three weeks seems to be common. Enough time to take a script in various stages of either pre-production, production, and post-production and work your magic. Punch up the humor, tighten the structure, round out a character—something that makes the script better. I’ve heard the numbers between $100,000-$500,000 a week tossed around so that’s great money for those who get that kind of work. (Though the WGA minimum for a polish is in the $12,000 range when I last checked.) And it could also be a page one rewrite where a studio or production company likes a basic concept of a script the bought, but it needs a complete overhaul before it goes into production.
Staff Writers on network on cable TV shows
Residuals Backend money that comes from things like DVD sales and when a feature plays on TV. Jerry Seinfeld has made hundreds of millions of dollars as the co-creator of Seinfeld which has made an estimated $3 billon in syndication. So if you really want to make a killing as a writer the gold at the end of the rainbow is having a hit TV show.

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

Scott W. Smith is the author of Screenwriting with Brass Knuckles

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