If you have a passion for storytelling and scriptwriting, you’ve probably wondered how screenwriters actually make money doing what they love. How do they take those tales that unfold in their minds and turn them into a profitable career?
Like any writing profession, there are multiple paths to monetizing your screenwriting abilities. While selling that first spec script might seem like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for aspiring screenwriters, it’s rarely an overnight success story.
Most professional writers have had to tap into different income streams at one point or another to pay the bills while continuing to hone their craft.
The good news is that in today’s digital world, there are more opportunities than ever for writers to earn income. In this guide, we’ll break down the main ways you can make money as an enterprising screenwriter and offer actionable tips for success.
Selling Spec Scripts
One of the most direct methods for screenwriters to get monetary returns is to write original spec scripts on “speculation” — meaning there is no upfront buyer — with the aim of selling those scripts to studios, production companies, or producers. Spec scripts tend to fall into two main buckets:
- Feature film specs – Original ideas you’ve conceptualized for movies.
- Specs for existing TV shows – Scripts for specific television series written on spec to demonstrate your capability of writing for that show.
There are a few avenues for converting your spec scripts into dollars:
Pitch Your Material at Festivals and Contests
Industry gatherings like the Austin Film Festival and TrackingB as well as screenplay competitions like the Nicholl Fellowships bring together writers, agents, producers, and execs.
Use these live pitch events and script contests to get your ideas and writing in front of influencers who have the power to buy scripts. Come prepared with killer loglines and pitches that capture attention quickly.
The Black List Also Offers Options
This annual survey of popular unproduced scripts voted on by film executives is now also an online database used by producers to search for new material. Screenwriters can host their scripts on the Black List website for consideration by major studios and production outfits — leading potentially to script purchases.
Know the Standard Spec Script Sale Ranges
While prices fluctuate based on demand, content, and the writer’s experience, here are some typical spec script deal ranges to give you an idea of what selling your original screenplays could yield:
- Spec sales for amateur, unproduced screenwriters: $5,000 – $15,000+
- Sales for writers with credits/experience: $100,000 – $500,000+
- Ultra high-end sales for in-demand writers: $1 million+
Overall odds of selling a spec script remain fairly low, but memorable concepts crafted with impeccable writing skills can result in lucrative payout days for screenwriters each year. Do the work to create quality pitches and scripts that production companies crave.
Say your film or TV project not only gets sold but also moves forward into production. Now your script work turns into backend money through residuals as your project continues generating revenue.
As part of your initial sale agreement and contracts with studios/guilds, you should negotiate payment of residuals — essentially royalties that entitle you to a percentage of the project’s earnings from distribution in secondary markets like home video, streaming, syndication, etc.
This means for the life of the production, you can earn passive income from your scripts whenever the movie or show you wrote is generating profit in ancillary markets. Residual payout schedules and amounts depend on:
- Whether the production was made under the jurisdiction of the WGA (most film/TV projects)
- The type of distribution channel earnings are flowing from (theatrical, TV broadcast, streaming, etc.)
- Budget tiers for films or length per TV episode
While caps and sliding scales apply, the potential upside from your projects continuing to make money for years via residuals gives screenwriters significant backend income opportunities throughout their careers.
Getting Rewrite Work and Script Doctoring Assignments
Before and even after scripts get sold, they invariably go through revisions and reworking — providing opportunities for rewrite gigs. Production companies frequently bring in different screenwriters to take a pass at early drafts of scripts, punch up dialogues, or refine characters, scenes, and storylines.
These rewrite assignments — along with extensive uncredited “script doctoring” work — can be a lucrative income stream given the constant demand. Typical rates for rewrite jobs run:
- $50,000-75,000+ for feature film
- $15,000-$25,000+ for an hour-long TV
- $10,000+ for sitcoms
Established screenwriters with numerous credits to their names tend to be first in line for these plum opportunities. But breaking in is also realistic through diligent networking, entering writing contests, and leveraging any connections to producers you have. Signing with a reputable screenwriting agent who can get your writing samples on the right desks is highly advised as well.
Adapting Your Published Works
If you are already a successful novelist, playwright, or comic book creator, leveraging your established intellectual property (IP) into film and TV adaptations provides another means for monetizing your writing talents.
Major studios in particular are always hunting proven IP, making book-to-screen adaptations increasingly common sources of purchasable screenplays.
From securing outright sales of film/TV rights to negotiating back-end rights and producer credits, published authors have substantial financial upside in converting their popular books and comics into Hollywood projects — provided their writing stories and strengths translate to the screen.
When screenwriters create scripts that credit someone else as the “author”, typically a celebrity or influential figure who will star in the project, they enter the realm of ghostwriting.
This anonymous script work comes through private commissions, with pay rates typically exceeding $100,000 for features and premium cable/streaming projects.
Savvy screenwriters can also use ghost gigs to forge relationships with attached talent who tend to hold sway getting projects green-lit faster — benefiting the writer in the long run when their scripts sell quicker.
Writing Scripts on Assignment
While less common for amateur screenwriters, one of the most consistent ways to generate income from scripts involves getting hired by major studios and TV producers to write stories on assignment solely for existing properties or shows they own.
These coveted gigs are essentially full-time contracted writing jobs versus selling one-off spec scripts.
Income stability and structure are much higher when studios pay you regular salaries or flat writing fees to churn out multiple scripts centered around beloved franchises like Star Wars or popular series like Yellowstone.
Landing writing assignments comes down to stringent vetting, strong referrals, and versatile writing skills able to match the studio’s specific direction.
But for in-demand screenwriters who sign exclusive multi-year deals with heavyweights like Netflix, HBO, or AMC, this is where massive paydays stem from — providing financial freedom to focus on writing vs. scrounging for the next sale.
Tips for Becoming a Financially Successful Screenwriter
While talent is paramount, screenwriting also shares similarities with entrepreneurship when it comes to earning power. Savvy personal branding, promotion, and professional leverage also play key roles in script sales and financial outcomes regardless of your skill level.
Consider these tips:
Build an Online Portfolio Showcasing Your Best Scripts
Whether hosting your writing on The Black List site or your own screenwriting blog, use portfolios to display your creative abilities to prospective buyers. Include loglines and excerpts from multiple script samples across genres and formats.
Promote Your Writing Abilities and Accolades
Actively post about your screenwriting background, credits, contest wins, etc. on sites like LinkedIn to establish clout. Optimizing personal bios and resumés for search is vital as well.
Network Relentlessly to Make Industry Contacts
Attend screenwriting conferences and local writing events to build connections face-to-face with agents, managers, directors — anyone with production influence. Cold call, email, follow up. Relationships matter.
Know the Average Screenwriting Rates
Research standard prices studios/producers pay for specs, treatments, rewrites, etc. Posted WGA minimums are useful benchmarks before negotiating deals.
Consider Enrolling in a Screenwriting Lab
Respected labs like Sundance, Film Independent, Netflix Launch, and others provide intensive mentorship programs designed to help develop scripts while opening doors through networking.
Constantly Strive to Improve Your Writing Craft
Keep practicing different storytelling formats, characters settings, and genres. Welcome peer feedback via writer groups and script-sharing platforms to strengthen skills. Avoid stale writing ruts.
Making it as a financially successful screenwriter requires skill, perseverance, and thinking creatively about monetization. While passion for storytelling should remain central, you must also tap into a business mindset to open more income streams that amplify your earning power.
The expanding entertainment landscape presents plenty of opportunities today to get your scripts sold or contracted for film and TV projects in need of compelling narratives.
But you have to put in diligent work to understand the space and importance of selling not just your words but your personal brand to the right people.
Network constantly to make influential industry connections that get your writing to decision-makers. Choose contests and labs that expand your visibility.
Build an online portfolio showcasing your style and voice across scripts and genres. Sign up with an agent who can pitch and negotiate on your behalf. Understand what scripts are selling and for how much so you don’t leave money on the table.
Remaining creative in how you generate income from writing while building bridges into Hollywood is paramount. Use this guide as a roadmap that inspires ideas rather than restrictive rules.
The paths available to screenwriters making money from their talents are continually evolving much like the stories we love telling. Pursue your boldest ideas fearlessly and the profits from passion projects will follow.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do scriptwriters make good money?
Yes, experienced, high-demand script writers who work on major films and TV shows can earn six figures or reach million-dollar+ payouts for their screenplays. But profits are very top-heavy. Most working writers still make less than $100,000 annually from script work.
How to earn money by scriptwriting?
Key ways to earn from scripts include selling spec scripts, shopping intellectual property for adaptations, doing screenplay rewrites/doctoring, taking on ghostwriting gigs, earning residuals from produced projects, and negotiating backend rights and producer credits.
How much does Netflix pay screenwriters?
For series staff writers, Netflix pays $4,000-5,000 per episode on average. But top-tier Netflix movie/series screenwriters can earn over $300,000 or much more depending on credits/experience level. Their deals also include substantial back-end residuals.
How much can a beginner screenwriter make?
Most beginners make less than $30,000 annually from screenwriting gigs as they establish credibility. Entry earnings stem from contests, fellowships, selling short scripts, or doing rewrite work. Breaking into consistent paid writing requires proof of concept via produced credits.
How do I submit a script to Netflix?
You cannot directly submit unsolicited ideas or full scripts to Netflix. But you can upload scripts to host sites like The Black List and stage32.com which have relationships with Netflix development executives. Getting a reputable screenwriting agent to pitch your scripts vastly improves Netflix’s visibility.
Why are screenwriters paid so little?
Unlike directors, actors, or producers involved during actual filmmaking, studios buy screenplays outright for modest upfront sums and retain most backend rights. So subsequent profits rarely flow back to writers. Their pay is not tied directly to a film’s revenue. Most money comes from initial script purchases rather than packaged backend points.
How do beginner writers make money?
Beginner writers can earn income by entering reputable screenwriting contests, selling short scripts, securing college fellowships/grants for scripts in development, doing rewrite work, ghostwriting web series/commercials, and pitching original pilots to new media streaming platforms.
Is it hard to become a screenwriter?
Yes, because only a tiny fraction of the screenplays registered with the WGA annually ever get produced and the number of working screenwriters is very small. Gaining a foothold requires tireless effort perfecting your craft and skills to impress agents/ producers amid fierce competition. Most scripts fail to sell regardless of the writer’s obvious talent.
How can I sell my script fast?
Strategies to sell your script faster include attaching marketable talent before pitching, choosing genres/topics drawing studio interest, participating in respected labs/workshops that increase industry exposure, partnering with a reputable screenwriting agent, nailing your logline and elevator pitch, targeting independent film markets for lower-budget movies.