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Screenwriter's salary

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Title: Screenwriter's salary  
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Subject: Screenwriting, Screenwriter, Screenplay, Income
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Screenwriter's salary

Minimum salaries for union screenwriters are set by the Writers Guild of America. Non-union screenwriters may write for free; an established screenwriter may write for millions of dollars.


  • Definitions 1
  • Standard Purchase Agreement 2
  • History of screenwriters' pay 3
  • Current records 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


  • Against: A word used to describe a script's unproduced price relative to its value if approved for production—for example, if a script is sold for $300,000, but the writer gains an extra $200,000 if it leads to production, the screenwriter's salary is described as "$300,000 against $500,000"
  • Option: If a script is not purchased, it may be optioned. An option is money paid in exchange for the right (the "option") to produce—and therefore to purchase outright—a screenplay, treatment, or other work within a certain period.
  • Feature assignment: The writer writes the script on assignment under contract with a studio, production company, or individual
  • Pitch: The writer works up a five- to twenty-minute presentation of a prospective movie and presents it to buyers in a short meeting
  • Rewriting: The writer rewrites someone else's script for pay. The writer pitches his "take", much like he would an original pitch
  • Spec script: Short for "speculative". The writer writes the script (original or someone else's idea) without being paid, and, subsequently, tries to sell it.

Standard Purchase Agreement

A typical screenwriter's purchase agreement will typically contain the following:

  • Guarantee: Literally, the money the writer is guaranteed to receive, whether the script is produced or not. This amount is usually divided into steps with payments and due dates. For example, a "three step deal" might include:
Step One:
  • First Draft Commencement (50% paid upon Commencement)
  • First Draft Delivery (50% paid upon Completion)
Step Two:
  • First Rewrite Commencement (50% paid upon Commencement)
  • First Rewrite Completion (50% paid upon Completion)
Step Three:
  • Polish Commencement (50% paid upon Commencement)
  • Polish Completion (50% paid upon Completion)[1]

The guaranteed money is sometimes referred to as the "front-end."

  • Optional Steps: The deal may often define optional steps that the studio can trigger at their discretion. For example:
Step Four:
  • Second Rewrite Commencement (50% paid upon Commencement)
  • Second Rewrite Completion (50% paid upon Completion)
Step Five:
  • Second Polish Commencement (50% paid upon Commencement)
  • Second Polish Completion (50% paid upon Completion)
  • Bonus/Bonuses: Also known as the "back-end". Typically, a production bonus is paid once the script goes into production, or, if there is more than one writer, after the final credit is determined. A typical contract will specify a smaller production bonus for shared credit. There may also be bonuses contingent upon budget (e.g., "if the movie's budget is greater than x") or grosses. The cousin of the bonus is the "penalty", which might be paid by the writer if, for example, the script has not been put into production by a set date; penalties are rarely included in writer's deals, however.

History of screenwriters' pay

  • 1900: One of America's first screenwriters, New York journalist Roy McCardell, is hired to write ten scenarios (each about 90 seconds long) for $15 each (has the buying power of about $332 today)[1]
  • 1947: The original screenplay Woman of the Year is bought by MGM for $100,000 (about $950,000 today)
  • 1949: Ben Hecht is paid $10,000 a week [2] (about $77,000 today). Claims David O. Selznick paid him $3,500 a day (about $27,000 today)
  • 1967: William Goldman's original screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was purchased for $400,000 (about $2.25 million today)
  • 1972: Leonard and Paul Schrader's spec script The Yakuza is sold for $350,000 (about $1.6 million today). Paul Schrader and his agent receive 40% each; novelist Leonard Schrader, who conceived the idea for the story, is persuaded to take just 20% and a story credit
  • 1984: Shane Black sells the screenplay to Lethal Weapon for $250,000
  • 1985: Ex-firefighter Gregory Widen sells his university thesis screenplay Highlander for $500,000
  • 1989: David Chappe sell his modern-day, hurricane-hits-coast, and pirates-take-over-town spec Gale Force to Carolco for $500,000
  • 1990: Jim Gorman and Michael Beckner sell their action/comedy Western "Texas Lead and Gold" to Largo Entertainment for $1 million. Jim Gorman also on as Producer
  • 1990: Kathy McWorter, who was promoted by her agent as a 21-year-old wunderkind, though in fact she was 28 years old, sells her sex comedy The Cheese Stands Alone for $1 million. This was followed by nuclear-terrorist technothriller The Ultimatum by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool and WWII action comedy Hell Bent... and Back! by Doug Richardson, both of which sold for a million dollars. None of these movies have been produced so far
  • 1990: Brian Helgeland and Manny Coto sell their nuclear-armed robot spec The Ticking Man for $1.2 million. The script was sent out with a ticking alarm clock attached
  • 1990: Shane Black is paid $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout
  • 1990: Joe Eszterhas sells Basic Instinct to Carolco for $3 million, but is replaced by Total Recall scribe Gary Goldman when he argues with director Paul Verhoeven over explicit content. Verhoeven later came back and made peace with Eszterhas and shot Basic Instinct unchanged from Eszterhas' Original Screenplay. There will not be another million dollar spec script for over two years
  • 1991: Jim Gorman and Michael Beckner sell their action/comedy Pirate Adventure "Cutthroat Island" to Carolco Pictures for $2 million. Jim Gorman also on as Producer
  • 1991: Front page of Variety mourns the end of the modern spec market, announcing "the candy store is closed"
  • 1992: Sherry Lansing is hired [3] to run Paramount and spends $3.6 million in less than a week, $2.5 million [4] for a two-page outline of Jade by Joe Eszterhas, and $1.1 million [5] for the script Milk Money by John Mattson. At the time, both deals are records, respectively, for outlines and romantic comedy specs
  • 1994: After a bidding war, Shane Black is paid $4.5 million by New Line for The Long Kiss Goodnight
  • 1999: M. Night Shyamalan, who received $2.5 million for breakout script The Sixth Sense, is paid $5 million for Unbreakable, plus another $5 million to produce and direct. Later receives same sum for Signs
  • 2003: M. Night Shyamalan is paid $7.5 million for The Woods, later renamed The Village, but with a reduced fee of $3.21 million for producing and directing
  • 2004: Peter Jackson is paid the higher of $20 million aggregate or 20% of the gross to write, produce and direct King Kong. Jackson wrote the screenplay with his partner, Fran Walsh, and Phillipa Boyens
  • 2004: Bobby Florsheim and Josh Stolberg are paid $1.5 million against $2.5 million + 2% for The Passion Of The Ark, later becoming Evan Almighty. Daily Variety reports this as the highest price paid for a spec script by unproduced writers
  • 2005: Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii are paid $3 million against $5 million for the script of Deja Vu[6]

Current records

Some of the highest amounts paid to writers for spec screenplays:

$5 million:

$4 million:

$3 million:

$2.75 million:

$2.5 million:

$2.25 million:

$2 million:

$1.8 million:

$1.5 million:

$1.3 million:

  • Monster-In-Law by Anya Kochoff, at $1.3 million against $2.3 million

$1.25 million:

$1.1 million:

$1 million:


  • Medieval (unproduced) by Mike Finch and Alex Litvak, at $800,000 against $1.6 million
  • Stanley's Cup (unproduced) by Jeffrey Alan Schechter, at $800,000 against $1.1 million


  • Steinbeck's Point of View (unproduced) by Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson, at $750,000 against $3,750,000 with a potential $2 million bonus cast contingent
  • Man-Woman by Bobby Florsheim and Josh Stolberg, at $750,000 against $1.5 million
  • Cardinal Bay (unproduced) by Mitchell German
  • The Karma Coalition by Shawn Christensen, at $750,000 against $1.5 million


  1. ^ "Money 101 for Screenwriters"
  2. ^ Chris Lee (2005-05-16). "A tale of Hollywood e-harmony".  
  3. ^ Myers, Scott. """Spec Script Sale: "Arthur & Lancelot. Go Into The Story. Retrieved 29 November 2012. 
  4. ^ Kit, Borys. Zombieland' Writers Sell Sci-Fi Project 'Epsilon' to Sony (Exclusive)"'". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 29 November 2012. 
  5. ^ Deadline Hollywood

External links

  • Spec Script Sales Analysis 2008: Top Sales
  • Are Million $$$$$$$$ Specs Back? A sampling of million dollar spec script sales from April 2008.
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