Friday, December 12, 2014

Mailbag: How Much Do Screenwriters Make?

Today I’m going to address a couple of questions that have been asked by blog readers.

Marilyn Thomas asked about the financials of a normal script sale (as opposed to a huge million dollar type of sale).

This is a tough question because there really isn’t such a thing as a “normal” script sale, especially these days. For the purposes of this question, we’ll assume it’s a WGA covered deal (an independent, non-union deal could be for as little as nothing up front in return for a vague back-end payment). We’ll also assume we’re talking about a studio film (i.e. high budget), and that we’re talking about a straight up spec sale.

You can look at the schedule of WGA minimum payments on the Guild website - it can be a little hard to follow, as it covers multiple time periods and budget levels. Currently the minimum (scale) for an original high budget spec sale is $93,257. Often your agent will be able to negotiate scale+10% for a new writer. To make the math easy, we’ll round off to $100,000

Typically, studios don’t purchase the script outright, they option the script (giving them the exclusive right to purchase the script for one year - if they don't you get it back and keep the option payment). A 10% option for one year with a renewal for an additional 10% is fairly standard. That means your option payment would be $10,000.

Of that, you’ll pay 10% ($1,000) to your agent, 10% ($1,000) to your manager, and 5% ($500) to your attorney, assuming you have all three. The Guild dues are 1.5% ($150). That means your revenue will be $7,500. Your tax rate will depend on a lot of other factors about your income, but let’s say it’s 25%. Fortunately the above commissions and dues are deductable, so taking 25% off $7,500, you’re left with $5,625 for the one year option.

If the studio exercises the option and purchases the script, they pay the difference between the option and the purchase price. That’s $90,000 more to you – minus $9000 to your agent, $9000 to your manager, $4500 to your attorney and $1350 to the WGA. That leaves you with $66,150, which, after taxes, comes to $49,612.50. There will probably be a few other expenses from that as well, such as for an accountant to handle your taxes.

Of course there’s lots of variables in there. Your option could be for more or less. The total price could be higher if there’s competition among buyers. But the market for specs is very weak right now. Bidding wars are rare and often producers don’t feel the need to option material because they aren’t afraid of someone else stealing it away from them, or else they option it for a token payment. Also, ideally you want to include a rewrite in your deal, which would add a minimum of $33,916 to the deal but comes with other issues.

Still, that should give you an idea of how a deal might look for a new writer working with a studio. The most important thing is to get experienced people to advise and represent you. You especially want a good entertainment attorney.

Now on to the second question:

David Bishop asked, “The usual wisdom says you should write within your wheel house to build a cohesive career. … You've blogged how Sweet Home Alabama was an outlier for you, and that created challenges when it took off. Could you talk about how overcome that challenge, or about what happened next?”

Today we refer to this as your “brand.” Successful screenwriters are typically associated with one type of film – a certain genre, and maybe budget level or style. There are big career advantages to this. You’ll build relationships with producers and execs who like that type of film. You’ll get called upon when they need someone with the skill set you’ve established. And it will be easier to keep track of the market and your competition.

One big advantage to being a screenwriter is you can change your brand simply by writing spec work of a different type. If you’re a horror writer and you decide you want to write broad comedy, just write a broad comedy spec and voila – now you’re a broad comedy writer.

However, you lose much of the clout from what you did before. Most of the producers and executives with whom you’ve built relationships writing horror won’t be interested in making a broad comedy. The few who are might read yours but they’ll be skeptical of your abilities since they only know your skills at horror. And broad comedy producers will not know you or your writing. You’ll be building your network again almost from scratch.

Furthermore, your agent or manager may not be interested in representing you for broad comedy (you should definitely discuss it with them before changing your brand). So you may have to seek out new representation. And since agents and managers generally want to see multiple scripts from a prospective client, that means you’ll need to write more than one broad comedy spec to prove your abilities - and your commitment to the new direction.

Essentially, shifting brands means starting over again almost as though you were a newbie.

After Sweet Home Alabama set records for a September opening, I got known as a romantic comedy writer with particular skills in writing female characters. It opened a lot of doors to me. I could get pitch meetings just about anywhere – as long as I was pitching romantic comedy. Most of my assignment work has been in that genre – just this year I got a gig to rewrite a romantic comedy.

But what I've always wanted to write is science fiction and adventure movies. Sweet Home Alabama was an unusual spec for me, something I did in school somewhat on a whim before I really thought about things like branding. I don’t regret it. I like being paid to write! But I decided a couple years after the movie came out that I wanted to do different things and set about changing my brand. So I wrote a new action-adventure spec. My manager at the time was very supportive, but my agents weren't. So when I finished the spec I started looking for a new agent. To my shock, about a third would not even read the action-adventure spec. "If he does a romantic comedy, we'll look at it," they'd tell my manager.

Fortunately, the agent I did sign with, Lew Weitzman, was very supportive of the new direction. With his help, I was able to do some new things. Unfortunately Lew passed away a bit over a year ago. My current manager understands what I want to do now… but he still frequently encourages me to reconsider romantic comedy. It’s just easier for him to sell me that way.

What I really need is for one of my newer scripts to get turned into a big hit movie. But that's easier said than done.

1 comment:


Thanks for the answer, Doug! I'm writing a rom-com at the moment, which is totally off-brand for me.

But since I've written mostly TV in the UK up to now, I figure it's far less of an issue.

To my way of thinking, what really counts is quality of my screenplay, and then the skills of my agent...