Every year thousands of aspiring screenwriters flock to Hollywood with dreams of selling their scripts for big money and having their stories turned into blockbuster movies. But for new writers, the path to getting paid is filled with confusion. Just who exactly pays screenwriters in this complex Hollywood system?
From production studios to agencies and distributors, there are many parties involved that compensate writers for their work. In this article, I’ll break down the key players who pay screenwriters at different stages of the development and production process.
The Long Road from Spec to Screen
To understand who shells out the money, you first need a high-level view of how a script makes its way through the Hollywood ecosystem.
Spec scripts – those written on speculation without upfront payment – represent a screenwriter’s best shot at getting discovered. Once a writer has a solid spec, they’ll look for a manager or agent to get the script in the right hands.
With some luck, buzz builds over an exciting spec script and a production company will option it, usually for 12-18 months. During this time the screenwriter will take a stab at rewrites while the producers package the project. If all goes well, the script gets greenlit into production. More rewrites may happen during filming.
Finally, after post-production, the movie will be distributed and released by a major studio or streaming service. It’s a long road, but at each stage of the process, the screenwriter has an opportunity to earn payment for their work.
The Screenwriter’s Guild Sets Rates
The first organization that determines baseline compensation for screenwriters is the Writers Guild of America (WGA). This is the screenwriter’s union, and they establish minimum terms that writers must receive to participate in guild-signatory projects.
There are two branches – the WGA West covers film/TV writers, while the WGA East covers broadcast/radio. Some minimums set by the WGA for the film include:
- Spec script purchase: $78,785 + 1.2% gross profits
- Rewrites: $57,732 weekly prorated fee
- Sequels: Same rates as original screenplay
While the WGA doesn’t directly pay writers, every studio that wants to hire guild members must abide by these minimums. The WGA also collects residuals on the writer’s behalf. Understanding these baselines helps screenwriters value their work.
Upfront Payments from Production Studios
Once a talented writer has a hot spec script making the rounds, the first real payday often comes by selling the script to a production company or studio. Major studios like Disney, Paramount, and Warner Bros have first-look deals with writers to buy their latest scripts.
Getting an original screenplay optioned by a studio usually nets the writer an upfront fee in the low to mid-six figures. The studio will then pay additional fees for rewrites as they develop the project and work to attach a director and talent. Original stories are rare gems in Hollywood, so studios pay well for unique scripts they believe have box office potential.
Known screenwriters can also earn hefty sums for accepting writing assignments to adapt bestselling books, remake existing films, or pen sequels and spinoffs of blockbuster hits. For A-list writers, assignment fees can reach seven figures.
Producers Add Rewrites
During active production, producers will frequently hire (and pay) screenwriters for polishes and rewrites as needed. While onset rewrites don’t pay quite as much as upfront development fees, they provide steady income while a movie is filming over several months.
daily rewrites may be needed to adjust dialogue, punch up jokes, or trim scenes during shooting. The producer then pays the screenwriter per week as outlined in their writing agreement.
Residuals from Distributors
Once a movie wraps production, the next paydays for screenwriters come from residuals distributed as the movie generates profit through release.
Theatrical residuals are paid out when the film is shown in theaters based on a percentage of gross ticket sales. With domestic box office returns averaging around 50% of total revenue, theatrical residuals are modest – typically 1-3% of the gross. The more successful a film, the bigger this residual paycheck (which is true of all residual payments).
Additional residuals are generated when the movie is distributed internationally and globally on DVD, Blu-Ray, streaming platforms, and broadcast networks. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime are now major sources of residuals.
Distributors pay residuals to the WGA, minus commissions. The guild then distributes payment to screenwriters and other rights holders. Between initial release and residuals, writers earn additional income for years from a produced film script.
Scribes for Hire on Streaming Shows
In the modern streaming era, there are now more opportunities for screenwriters to be hired and paid directly by companies like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. With these studios producing more and more original content, they maintain a staff of screenwriters to create binge-worthy shows.
Streaming services develop original series like mini-movies, often bringing back freelance screenwriters from previous seasons or shows. A staff writer on a streaming drama can expect to earn around $14k per episode on average. In addition to upfront fees, streaming residuals can be quite lucrative, especially for hit shows.
Navigating Who Pays What
As evidenced above, screenwriters need to stay savvy in navigating who owes them what during each stage of the script-to-screen lifespan. Tracking your own progress, deliverables, and payment schedules is equally important. That’s where talent agents come in.
Reputable agencies have systems and protocols in place to make sure their screenwriters get paid accurately and on time. By taking a 10-15% commission, they handle the business side so writers can focus on the craft. That said, it behooves new writers to learn the compensation structures and timelines in Hollywood.
The road from spec script to produced film is a marathon with many milestones. While competitive, Hollywood rewards great writing. Understanding who pays for screenplays at each landmark helps writers better value their work and secure a livelihood from their art. For those who persevere, the payoff – both financial and creative – justifies the journey.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does a screenwriter get paid?
Screenwriters are paid through a combination of upfront payments and residuals. Upfront fees come from selling specs, getting writing assignments, and doing rewrites/polishes. Residuals are ongoing payments based on the movie’s profits from distribution.
Who pays the screenwriter?
Production studios pay upfront for specs and assignments. Producers pay for rewrites during filming. Distributors pay residuals over time as the movie is released and generates profit.
Who do I sell my screenplay to?
Most screenwriters sell their scripts to production companies, major studios, or streaming services like Netflix. Getting a reputable agent to shop your script around is key.
Do screenwriters get paid upfront?
Yes, typically screenwriters receive an upfront payment when they first sell or option their script to a producer or studio. Additional upfront fees come with rewrites.
How much will Netflix pay for a script?
For original features, Netflix pays in the low to mid-6-figures upfront. For TV series, they may pay around $14k-$20k per episode delivered as a staff writer.
How do I sell my screenplay to Netflix?
You need to have a great high-concept script. Get an agent who can leverage connections to get your script directly to Netflix development executives.
How to sell a script to Hollywood?
Create a solid spec script in a popular genre. Get an agent to represent you and pitch your work. Network to make connections and get referrals. Enter contests to build buzz.
Do screenwriters sell scripts?
Yes, selling an original feature spec script is how many screenwriters break into Hollywood. Writers are also paid for assignments, rewrites, and TV scripts.
How much can I sell my screenplay for?
Script sale prices range widely, but as a first timer, you may get around $50k-$150k for an original spec. More established writers sell scripts for over $1 million.