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Screenwriter Salary:
What You Can Expect As An Average Salary


A Quick Guide to Navigating the Choppy Waters of Screenwriters’ Salaries In Film & TV

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by Script Reader Pro in Screenwriting Tips/Hacks
May 23, 2018 5 comments
screenwriter salary

TV and Screenwriter salary guide: What can you expect as an average salary

The goal of any aspiring screenwriter is to get paid for, well, writing. But what exactly does it take to be compensated for your work? What do you do once you’re offered money for a script? Is there even such a thing as a “screenwriter salary” in the first place?

The answer to these queries—as with most things in the entertainment world—can be rather complicated, but this post aims to shed some light on all these screenwriting money matters and more.

In this article you will learn:

  • Whether there’s such a thing as a screenwriter salary
  • All about your screenwriter salary as a non-WGA member
  • All about your screenwriter salary as a WGA member
  • What happens after a sale
  • If it’s ever okay to write for free
  • When you can quit your day job to just focus on writing

Without further delay, let’s dive on in.

Is there such a thing as a screenwriter salary?

screenwriter salary

We’ll be using terms like “screenwriter salary” and “TV writer salary” throughout this post but, in all honesty, they’re rather nebulous. The truth is, there’s no such thing as a fixed screenwriter salary—the kind you might expect to find in a more traditional industry such as, say, the medical or hospitality industry.

This is because rather than the fixed yearly salaries workers receive in traditional industries, screenwriters are paid on a freelance, ad-hoc basis common to most creative industries.

Whether a screenwriter has zero credits or a hundred, they’re essentially in the same position: looking for the next paycheck. Granted, established screenwriters—whether they be A-list writers, such as Christopher Nolan, or successful independent writers, like Mike White—have a distinct advantage in the form of a track record.

However, they’re essentially still living from check to check without the guarantees of a “screenwriter salary” in the traditional sense, bringing in steady money from month to month, year after year.

Nevertheless, for ease of communication, we’ll be using terms like “screenwriter salary” and “TV writer salary” when talking generally about the kind of remuneration a writer can expect to receive on individual projects.

Your screenwriter salary as a non-WGA member

screenwriter salary

In a broad sense, writers can be divided into two distinct camps that dictate the kind of financial compensation or “screenwriter salary” they’re eligible to receive: those who are members of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), and those who aren’t.

What is the WGA?

The WGA is a labor union created to represent the interests of film and television writers. To join the WGA, a prospective member must meet certain criteria, which they break down into “units” (a full breakdown is available here).

Membership is compulsory by law once you either sell a screenplay or are hired to write one by a WGA signatory company. But let’s presume for now that you’re not yet in the WGA. What should you expect to be paid for your blood, sweat and syllables?

That answer again depends on (you guessed it) a number of moving pieces, none of which can be easily standardized from one case to the next.

Non-WGA screenwriter and TV writer salaries

WGA or no WGA, a general rule of thumb states that the higher the page count, the higher the screenwriter’s salary. Similarly, if the script you’re being paid to write has to be completed within, say, six weeks, you deserve more money for your expedited efforts than you would if the same script was to be written in six months.

After all, the less time you have to finish the project, the harder you’re going to have to work in each writing session. Additionally, you must take stock of your own time: how much of it are you willing to sacrifice, and at what potential price?

Getting paid a non-WGA rate of, say, $2,000 dollars to write a TV pilot (all WGA rates are in the next section) might sound great on its face. But what if the amount of effort you’re putting into it is going to interfere with your day job or freelance gig, thus causing you to lose money as a result?

We’d never advise taking on too much at one time, lest you risk being unable to deliver on the work promised in the first place. As enticing as a paid gig may be, never accept someone’s money to complete a task unless you feel sure in your heart of hearts that you’re up to the challenge.

Not doing so might sour a potential connection on your work, and even potentially scare off future employers should word get around that you are unreliable.

screenwriter salary

Risk vs. reward

Indeed, it all boils down to risk vs. reward. We think it’s best to grade the viability of potential paid offers on a sliding scale, with “money” on one end and “reputability” on the other.

Consider if your work has a high chance of actually being produced, thus making up for the fact that you’re being paid less. Or are you being offered a decent chunk of money, but with a strong likelihood that nothing will ever come of the script you end up writing?

Now, there are some that might put more value on the almighty dollar than they would on having their script made. But, a solid credit is worth its weight in gold because it opens the door for other potential projects down the line—which, in turn, might ultimately pay out more than the initial amount you might get from a producer who doesn’t know what they’re doing.

These are the kind of highly subjective, moment-to-moment internal calculations a writer must grapple with once money enters the equation.

Your screenwriter salary as a WGA member

screenwriter salary

As previously mentioned, once you sell a script or are hired to write one by a signatory company, you’ll be forced to join the WGA and contacted by them to fill out the relevant paperwork. (You can, of course, expedite the process by contacting them first.)

Membership costs $2,500 (which can usually be spread over set payments) but the biggest benefit is the health insurance that comes with it. Although you will have to keep working as a writer in order to remain in the guild.

In layman’s terms, being in the WGA essentially guarantees that you will be paid a higher screenwriter salary than if you’re not in the guild. This is because they have an established list of “minimums”—the minimum amount a company or producer can pay a writer for any given project.

For feature films, these minimums are also broken down into “high” and “low” budget productions, which by guild standards is defined as any film with a budget below 5 million dollars.

Below, you will find a condensed list of some of the most common WGA minimums for theatrical and TV writers (as of 2017.)

Screenwriter’s salary for feature screenplays

Original Feature Screenplay, including Treatment
High- $136,413
Low- $72,662

Non-Original Feature Screenplay (Adaptation), including Treatment
High- $118,240
Low- $63,581

Original Feature Screenplay, without Treatment
High- $99,937
Low- $48,819

Non-Original Feature Screenplay (Adaptation), without Treatment
High- $81,763
Low- $39,729

Feature Story or Treatment alone
High- $36,346
Low- $23,841

Rewrite of a Feature Screenplay
High- $37,255
Low- $24,437

screenwriter salary

TV writer’s salary for TV scripts

60 Minute Network Prime Time Teleplay
$25,451 – $25,963

30 Minute Network Prime Time Teleplay
$18,864 – $19,244

60 Minute other than Network (Cable) Prime Time Teleplay
$18,778 – $19,728

30 Minute other than Network (Cable) Prime Time Teleplay
$9,690 – $10,180

As you can see, the feature minimums fluctuate depending on the presence of additional materials, such as treatments, which require more work.

On the TV side, the numbers are smaller, but, for a staff-writer on an ongoing show with numerous episodes per season, they can come much more frequently that those on the feature side. A TV writer salary, therefore, is potentially more lucrative than a feature screenwriter salary.

It’s also worth noting that the “low” and “high” budget split does not apply to TV. For more information, a full list of all minimums is available here.

WGA screenwriter and TV writer salary: the lowdown

If you happen to be a hungry aspiring writer looking for your big break, these numbers look like pretty enticing payouts, but looks can be deceiving.

Once you factor in the amount of time it’ll take before you see a cent for your endeavors—potentially months and months—and remove all the taxes and attorney/agent fees, you’ll find this figure has considerably diminished.

Essentially, you’ll soon realize there really is no such thing as a traditional “screenwriter salary” or “TV writer salary” as payments will arrive in chunks, spread out over months. And out of every chunk the taxman, and anyone working for you—your writing partner, agent, manager and/or attorney—all take a percentage.

Even a six-figure sale of $100,000 is very unlikely to be paid out all at once and can fritter away remarkably quickly, leaving you with around a third of the initial sum.

The structure of a screenwriter’s salary, as such, is that you’ll get paid in three stages:

  • first draft
  • rewrite
  • polish

And each stage is paid in halves—one at the commencement of the project, and the other upon completion.

As you can imagine, this makes being able to predict just how much and when you’re going to get paid a little tricky. The two key words here are planning and saving. The structure of a screenwriter salary makes it super necessary to plan your finances in advance and also keep as much cash stashed away for a rainy day as possible.

Keep a spreadsheet noting all screenwriting gigs, incoming payments and outgoing expenses. And don’t, whatever you do, go crazy and spend a huge chunk of your screenwriting salary all at once.

There’s absolutely no guarantee at all that just because you’ve made one sale you’ll make another. A steady 9 to 5 in insurance this ain’t.

What happens after a sale?

screenwriter salary

But let’s forget about all the stress to come and put ourselves in that brief moment of mana when we’ve just heard someone wants to pay you to write a screenplay. What do you do now?

The screenwriter/TV writer salary contract

First, if your employer doesn’t immediately offer to do so, it’s important to ask for a contract or “deal memo” to be drawn up, so as to make firm the project’s expectations and deadlines, as well as the amount you’re to be paid.

If you don’t have representation in the form of an agent or a manager, we suggest bringing this document to an attorney (ideally one that specializes in entertainment law, but any kind might do) and having them look it over to ensure everything is in order.

You need to make sure that you’re aware of how much work you’re agreeing to take on.

For instance, you might think you’re being paid a lump sum for one draft of a script. Your employer, however, might actually be expecting a treatment and three successive drafts with an extra polish on the side—all for the same amount of money.

Speaking of money, if you’re working outside the WGA, it’s still wise to ask to be paid half of the promised amount up front, and the second half upon completion of the task at hand.

This up-front pay acts as a kind of “collateral” to ensure that the person hiring you won’t try to back out of paying up after you’ve put in all the required work (this, unfortunately, does happen more than it ought to).

After these terms are agreed on, don’t put a word to paper until that first amount clears and lands in your bank account. Once it all checks out, you’re off to the races on your first paid screenwriting assignment. Go you!

Is it ever okay to write for free?

TV Writer Salary

We would dissuade even semi-experienced writers from accepting credit in the place of financial compensation, as we strongly believe you must take pains to not undervalue the worth of your creativity by working pro-bono.

That being said, if you’re completely new to the industry and without a credit, reference or sample to your name, your only means of connecting with potential future employers might well be to take on a pro-bono gig in order to get the ball rolling.

We would only advise doing so if you think you can use this free credit as a resume-booster down the line. Oftentimes, especially on screenwriting jobs websites, we see amateurish employers offering “deferred” payment on highly speculative projects as a means of enticing young writers.

Usually, “deferred” in this case means “nonexistent”, as they’re banking on paying you using budgetary funds that they more than likely won’t ever receive.

This is the harsh reality of the business: the vast majority of scripts that are developed never get made. It’s hard for even big-shot Hollywood development people to ensure that any project is a “sure thing” so employ caution when you hear such descriptors being thrown around by those with significantly less clout to their name.

Indeed, many other factors must play into your financial expectations. Realistically, you couldn’t ask to be paid the same amount for a ten-page short film, as you would for a 30-page pilot, as you would for a 120-page feature.

It’s also worth noting that there are many established writers out there who still write for free from time to time. Essentially, all scripts at the professional level are broken down into two categories: assignments and specs.

Assignments

Assignments are gigs that pay up front; generally, they’re pre-existing concepts or properties that are developed by studios/production companies, who then bring various writers in to pitch their “takes” on the material (the film/TV version of a job interview).

Whoever is chosen then brings home the WGA-approved bacon.

Specs

Separately, there are specs— or speculative—screenplays. These are usually wholly original brain-children which writers toil away sans charge in the hopes that they can eventually be sold wholesale to the aforementioned companies.

Some of Hollywood’s most enduring classics started as spec scripts, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thelma & Louise and Good Will Hunting.

During the ‘80s, ‘90s and early ‘00s, writers like Shane Black and David Koepp churned out specs and sold them for rates as high as 3 to 4 million dollars per script. However, in the years since, the market has slowed, as pre-existing IP (intellectual property) and “cinematic universes” have come to take up a bigger piece of the pie.

Nevertheless, more recent movies such as A Quiet Place and The Post were written on spec—and thus, initially, written for free, before being bought on the market.

When can I quit my day job and just focus on writing?

screenwriter salary

Ah, the million dollar question. As with most screenwriting + money questions, though, there isn’t one clear, definitive answer. In short, it depends.

Assuming you’re able to join the WGA at some point, you’ll then be guaranteed fixed amounts of compensation according to the specific writing project undertaken.

However, despite these fixed WGA-member amounts, the lack of a fixed screenwriter or TV writer salary as such, means there are a number of factors you should consider very carefully before throwing all your eggs in the screenwriting basket and quitting your day job.

  • What’s your writing ability? Outstanding or average?
  • What stage of life are you at? In your 20s and unattached? Or middle-aged and married with three kids?
  • What kind of job do you have? A low/high paid 9-5 job you love/hate? A low/high paid creative job you love/hate?

All of these factors should be taken into account when deciding whether or not to quit your job and pursue writing full-time. We find, however, that often it’s not a good idea for an aspiring writer to quit anything until the frequency and/or standard of writing gigs makes it impossible not to do so.

For example, if your day job will prevent you joining the writers’ room on a TV show, or from accepting a game-changing writing assignment from the Duplass brothers, then it may be time to quit.

On the other hand, if the gig isn’t life-altering and you can still find the time to write, attend meetings, fly in if necessary from out of state (or country) then it might be worth holding on to your day job. At least for now.

Sometimes, however, it makes sense to quit your day job that much earlier in order to really give “breaking in” a shot. Let’s say you’re a fantastic writer in your 20s, unmarried, with no kids and working as a barista. In this case, quitting your day job could make sense as you don’t have too much to lose.

If you do decide to do this, we advise saving up enough money to able to live for a significant amount of time—say a year—without working. Then, commit to writing as many screenplays as you can in that year and treat becoming a screenwriter as a job in itself.

Write every day, keep 9 to 5 hours, dedicate yourself to the craft, only read the trades and the best screenwriting books out there, and so on. Take it seriously and you’ll find yourself grow exponentially as a writer, and end the year with a portfolio of work ready to take out into the industry.

What can I expect as a screenwriter salary? Conclusion

In closing, there really is no magic formula to determine a “correct” or average screenwriter salary without parsing through a host of modulating factors: WGA vs. non-union, spec vs. assignment, up-front vs. back-end, and so on.

Ultimately, it’s important for any nascent writer to keep in mind that pursuing the screenwriting dream is, at its core, a gamble.

If you go down this path expecting a quick payoff, you’ll probably end up disappointed and defeated. So, instead of writing with money in mind, we advise you write with your heart, bare your truth and share your unique vision on the page.

If you’re able to do those things (and with a little bit of luck), the money might end up chasing you rather than the other way around.

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Are you receiving a screenwriter salary or TV writer salary? What do you think of our assessment in this post? Leave your comments in the box below!

screenwriter salary

5 Comments
  1. pat caleb says:

    enjoyed this script knowledge, thanks

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, thanks for the feedback, Pat.

  2. Joseph C. says:

    Seems like it’s not the best career to get rich quickly, but I’m not in for the money, writing is my passion!

  3. flikwrtr says:

    Concisely put and well said. I’m a working screenwriter and was just googling a kind of convoluted question about payment on a guaranteed second step in one of my contracts that’s gotten a bit complicated, when I came across this. While it doesn’t answer my question, I wanted to thank you for the time you took to answer this for folks. You did it well. 🙂

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the feedback, really appreciate it.

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