The Average Salary of a Screenwriter's First Script

by Johnny Kilhefner
Screenwriters may get a lot of money for sales, but it doesn't always pour in at once.

Screenwriters may get a lot of money for sales, but it doesn't always pour in at once.

If you think screenwriting is the ultimate career, then you're not the only one with this dream. Movie studios aren't going to shell out millions of dollars to make just any movie. Your screenplay should be well written, feasible in terms of budget and visually possible. First-time writers can make a lot of money but shouldn't bet everything on breaking into the exclusive club of film writers.

Writers Guild Payment Agreements

The most recent Writers Guild of America compensation agreement, as of 2013, cites $66,151 as the low end of payment for an original screenplay. The high end is $124,190. Payments come in installments, with the first paid upon delivery of the original treatment at the low end of $29,972. Delivery of the first draft yields $26,049. Delivery of the final draft pays $10,130. At the high end, payments are $49,633, $49,633 and $24,924, respectively. Nonoriginal screenplays earn $57,884 at the low end and $107,646 at the high end. Original screenplays excluding treatments or the sale or purchase of the screenplay average $44,445 on the low end and $90,982 on the high end.

New Screenwriter Sales

Black List, a membership site hosting a screenplay database and recommendation engine, broke down all of 2012's spec script sales, finding that 14 of the 99 sales were by first-time writers. It doesn't, however, account for dozens of other first-time writers who, while failing to sell their spec scripts, were able to find management, agent representation or snag an open writing assignment. Keep in mind that those 14 new writers are only representative of the 99 specs sold and not of the thousands of scripts flooding the offices of studios and agents every year. Once a spec's sold, the WGA contacts you -- or you can contact them first -- to make you an official member -- after paying your membership dues, of course.

Top Sales

First-time writers don't usually make as much money as screenwriters who've been at it for a while. To put this in perspective, look at 2012's top sales, as compared to the minimum and even high-end rate for screenplays. According to Black List, the screenplay for "White House Down," by James Vanderbilt, sold for $3 million. "Bloodshot," by Jeff Wadlow, sold for between $450,000 and $1 million. Other screenplays in the top earning list sold within the mid-six to seven-figure range.

Tips for When You Sell a Script

If you manage to sell your script, your first reaction might be to quit your day job. Don't do it. Not yet, at least. Writers see payments in installments, and it may be months before you even see a check. Other than that, selling one screenplay doesn't guarantee you'll sell another one or land a high-paying writing job. Ensure the stability of your finances for at least the next six months before packing it in at your day job. A good rule of thumb is to keep working a regular job until the demands of your writing career force you to quit.

About the Author

Johnny Kilhefner is a writer with a focus on technology, design and marketing. Writing for more than five years, he has contributed to Writer's Weekly, PopMatters, Bridged Design and APMP, among many other outlets.

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