Are you hoping to break into screenwriting and hit the big time? Or perhaps you’re a struggling screenwriter wondering what you’re doing wrong. In either case, you might be questioning if most screenwriters are rich, and how you become one of them.
Most screenwriters aren’t rich, yet many make more than enough money to live comfortably. While the top 10% receive six-figure wages, the median annual salary for screenwriters in 2022 is around $65,000.
A hardworking screenwriter can make a decent living, yet can it make one rich? Well, that depends on what “rich” means to you. This article explains what you need to know about screenwriters and how much money they really make.
3 Things to Know About Making Money as a Screenwriter
Many writers get sucked in by the tales of fortune and fame and tend to aim their sights high. Yet, becoming a big-time screenwriter doesn’t happen overnight, if at all. It can take some writers years to have one of their scripts picked from the spec pile, while others may never catch their lucky break.
More often than not, however, professional screenwriters get by “just fine.”
They hustle and stay dedicated to pitching, selling, writing, and creating content every day, and in return, they earn a respectable living wage. Nonetheless, how much screenwriters ultimately make often comes with obstacles or limitations in the industry.
Let’s look at some realities in screenwriting to understand how much money screenwriters earn.
1. The Average Salary for Screenwriters
Generally speaking, how much screenwriters make tends to vary based on several factors, such as where they live, how much experience they have, or who employs them. For instance, a big production company like Walt Disney will pay much more handsomely than an independent studio.
In addition, these factors result in a wide range of salaries among those in the field.
According to disclosures on Glassdoor, a difference of over half a million is potentially earned between the lowest and highest-paid screenwriters, with salaries stretching from $30k – $540k annually. The average salary reported is around $90,000.
Similar, though less dramatic, gaps are seen on other job compensation reporting websites. Salary.com, for example, determined the median salary of screenwriters in 2022 to be around $66,000, with a window of $43k–$101k making up the majority of writers’ wages.
Comparatively, Payscale notes a range of $34k–$206k between the bottom and top 10% and a median salary of $79,000.
2. How Screenwriters Get Paid
Screenwriters get paid in three ways:
- Specs: Screenwriters don’t always get paid to write specs, as these are usually self-initiated. Yet, screenwriters can make money selling specs. If a screenwriter has an idea they’re passionate about, they write a script in the hopes of selling it. Even if a writer can’t sell their work, specs are an excellent way to gain experience and build a portfolio to show potential employers.
- Assignments: These are as close to a “regular” job interview that screenwriters get. When production companies have a story concept they wish to pursue and develop, they seek studio executives to make it happen. This is when screenwriters come in to pitch their ideas and try to snag the job.
- Residuals: When writers sell a screenplay in the U.S., the studios own the copyright and pay writers residuals each time their work is reused. Notably, TV reruns offer one of the largest residual incomes.
Professional screenwriters can become members of the Writers Guild of America (WGA).
The union represents writers in radio, TV, film, and new media to ensure that production companies pay minimum dollar amounts to screenwriters for their material, per guild rules.
These amounts are updated in negotiations determined by the union every three years and published in the Schedule of Minimums. Take note that these minimums aren’t promised to newer screenwriters who have yet to join the WGA.
Every writing job has a fixed payment amount, typically paid out in installments, and rates are tiered based on project budgets or show type. The table below shows some minimum amounts for feature film and television screenplays for 2020-2021.
For a complete breakdown, see the full WGA 2020 Schedule of Minimums booklet.
|Screenplay Job||Low Budget Minimum Payout||High Budget Minimum Payout|
|Story Idea or Treatment Only||$25,424||$38,759|
|Original Film, no treatment||$52,059||$106,571|
|Original Film & treatment||$77,495||$145,469|
|Adaptation Film, no treatment||$42,366||$87,191|
|Adaptation Film & treatment||$67,802||$126,809|
|30 Min. Non-Network Teleplay||$9,690||$10,180|
|30 Min. Network Prime Time Teleplay||$19,436||$20,420|
|60 Min. Non-Network Teleplay||$18,778||$19,728|
|60 Min. Network Prime Time Teleplay||$25,451||$25,963|
While the figures for television screenplays are lower than for movies, the salary of a TV writer piles up considerably. Multiple episodes provide consistent assignments, which only increase as the seasons continue. Furthermore, potential bonuses are made through the following:
- Recurring characters
Additional factors for screenwriters to consider when it comes to earnings are:
- Project budgets
- Time spent on a project
- Page counts
Most wages are contingent upon how much money is available in the budget for any given project. From there, the screenwriter earns more money with higher page counts, as the more pages written, the more money paid.
Employers may also offer higher wages when providing writers little time to finish tasks that require more significant effort to get the job done.
3. Supply vs. Demand concerning Job Opportunities for Screenwriters
A screenwriter is a vital part of TV and film production, and producers are out to find the top talent to help bring stories to life, eyes to the screen, and money to their pockets. At the same time, screenwriting is a highly coveted career by many writers, resulting in an overflow of potential workers seeking relatively few jobs.
Still, opportunities can be found all over the world. It may seem as though the big names like Universal and Warner Brothers monopolize the market, yet numerous independent markets and other media companies are also working the grind.
Aspiring screenwriters can find plenty of job postings from such employers, most offering competitive salaries and consistent work.
While most screenwriters aren’t rich, many earn a respectable wage throughout their careers and live comfortable lives, even if not as lavish as fantasized. Nonetheless, the opportunity and potential exist for talented, dedicated screenwriters to become rich.