Screenwriting : "Industry standard" pay for screenwriters by Dave McCrea

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Dave McCrea

"Industry standard" pay for screenwriters

Okay this is a bit ranty, forgive me, I just got back from the gym :)
Here's the thing: Great scripts are very hard to find! If a producer is interested in your script, I bet he's much more excited about it than he sounds on the phone or email. He's probably told a bunch of people how he's found this script that's quite interesting. Call his bluff on the first offer, and maybe the second and the third too. Sly Stallone called their bluff on the first offer they gave him on Rocky and kept saying no, and the offer kept going up and up and up to like 10 times the first one!!! Don't go by the tone of his phone or email or his stock statements like "That's really all we can do for an unproduced writer, it's a low budget film, etc.". He needs your script to give his life meaning. Meaning ain't cheap.
Now I'm not hating on producers but producers are BUSINESSMEN and anyone who has worked even 3 months selling stereos at Circuit City has a bunch of tricks they can use to get a screenwriter to sign over their script for much less than it's worth. It's not that businessmen are bad, they're just wired completely differently from artists. Artists get excited about their creations and their characters and the worlds they make. Businessmen get excited when they realize some new way to cut costs and they plug it into Excel and it results in a 4% increase in profits.
The truth is without that awesome 106-page invention that the screenwriter has devised out of nothing but thin air and their own inspiration, talented cinematographers, makeup artists, directors, and actors are sitting on their couch at home twiddling their thumbs looking for guidance in their lives. It's impossible to understate the importance of the screenwriter's contribution - in fact it's more a creation than a contribution.
Let's face it the WGA minimums are too low. For example, I'm an unproduced writer, and on a film with a $5m production budget, I believe I deserve at least $100,000! I don't care what precedents have already been set for writer compensation. I don't care that Tarantino sold his first script for $30k. If you're investing $5m in something, that means you hope to make at least $1m in net profits off it, that is a reasonable minimum hope for profit (20%). So of that $5m, I'm asking for 1/50th of your investment and I'm providing the key raw material that attracts the other elements. If you were selling leather jackets, I think you would spend more than 1/50th on the leather, right?
And if I'm wrong or I don't understand the math at play, then by all means enlighten me but come with something better than "That's industry standard" or "That's what's in the budget."
And to anyone who did sell a script for a small fee, I'm not criticizing you one bit, just musing on the power dynamic here which seems to highly favor the producer. No surprise there, but i think writers can push back more, be more Stallone-esque.
Okay that's enough ranting for today.

Danny Manus

The biggest problem (though there are many) with your assertion of being more Stallone-esque, is that he sold that script in the 70s, when you could sell a pitch for a million dollars even if you were a no name and when there were maybe a few thousand scripts registered every year. It's a totally different world now. Now, there are upwards of 65,000 scripts registered every year and many more not registered. It's about supply and demand. The demand used to be greater than the supply so writers could demand a bit more, especially if they had a credit or an agent or just a great idea - now that is not the case. In fact, the immense gluttony of the supply and the number of producers who actually ARE on the creative side, have made your script worth nearly nothing. Because there's 64,999 other scripts waiting to be read right behind yours and if they don't find out, they'll write it themself. So, if you don't want to accept guild minimums or do some free rewrite work - guess what - someone else will. I would say 1/3 of any producers slate are INTERNALLY GENERATED ideas and projects. So they actually DON'T need your great ideas as much as they used to. That is not to say writers aren't vitally important and the lifeblood of this business - they are. Especially in TV. And I agree guild minimums should be raised. But it's just a case of supply and demand these days.

Dave McCrea

Thank you for your response Danny, though being a producer, naturally you are seeing it from a biased perspective. Your best point was about the self-generated stuff now being more prevalent, but a couple of things I would argue
firstly, the supply and demand ratio, sure it may be more skewed now but there are also way more films and TV series being made now than in the 70s so it's not as skewed as you make out.
Secondly, don't act like each of those 65,000 scripts is of equal value. You know as well as I do that a producer has to go through a LOT of scripts to find one he thinks is viable. So if he finds one, he doesn't just go to the next one in the list, but might have to spend time finding one he cares as much about. In fact, one could argue that now if a writer declines a producer's offer, that producer has to go read four times as many scripts to find the next good script, as in the 70s maybe 1 in every 50 was worth producing whereas now it's 1 in 250! As everyone can just buy Save The Cat and make a script.
And yeah "someone else will" take the money - that's exactly the problem. They'll take it because they've been beaten into submission by producers who know how to get what they want for the lowest price. Maybe they shouldn't take the money, at first, or even second offers. All I'm saying to that "someone else" is hey, REALIZE that you made something of serious value if any producer is interested in your work first off, and that he doesn't have 65,000 other options if you don't sell at his first offering price, UNDERSTAND the mindset of a producer or a salesman (some are sleazier than others) and don't be scared to negotiate given those two realities. Also don't forget that when you say no to a producer, psychologically the value of your script goes up in the producer's mind. We want what we can't have.
I just see that there is a real attitude amongst screenwriters of "I'll take what I will get" which when you consider how vital as you say their script is to the process, is weird. In most other endeavors, someone who has designed or created or invented something of value knows it has value and negotiates from a position of power, MUCH more than I see with screenwriters.
All I want to see is people getting compensated fairly for what their contribution is. And from what I can tell screenwriters often get the short end of the stick. Would love to see some stats and transparency on this.

Sylvia Marie Llewellyn

Dave, it's usually 2.5-3% of the budget.... or, more if they want it badly enough. Guess you have to hope it's a much higher budget. :)

Dave McCrea

Okay Alle that was an entertaining read, thank you but again, you are a producer, i.e. you have a rooting interest in keeping script costs down.
"that some Producer has spent hours and hours crafting a budget, probably the same time you spent writing your screenplay, so the producer can SELL the idea and get the budget" - yes I know I actually think the producer should get the most money from any movie; they are the entrepreneur behind it all, they make it happen for sure
"Shall we cut down on scenes, hire a cheaper actor, drop some CG?"
Yeah those are all great ideas actually! Or you could go find some more money to pay the writer?
"Just because a producer has sourced a $5m funding budget doesn't mean the EP's are looking to make a PROFIT. See this is where 98% of people fail to understand the film business is no different to any other at this point."
No, of course not, why on earth would they want to make a profit? What are you smoking out there in Oz? If that is true that people aren't looking to profit then it is quite different from any business I ever heard of
But your point is well taken about producing it myself. It's clear that he who has the power calls the shots!
HERE'S THE THING: I see screenwriters behaving like actors - i.e. it's such a tough business, they're grateful for any break they can get. BUT there's a huge difference between screenwriters and actors. Actors are much more replaceable than a very good script. I can be replaced on a set because I complained about the coffee - boom, there'll be another actor there in 2 hours who might even do a better job than me (well not likely but you get the point). But if you're a producer who's found a script they believe in or have invested time in, and the writer says sorry they changed their mind, they won't give you the rights, you can't dismiss them nearly as easily because now what are you going to do..? Yeah, you might have some other projects to consider instead, but it's not nearly the same thing as with actors. So don't get it twisted!

Danny Manus

Well, even if you're an amazing writer who wrote an amazing script, you're still going to be replaced just like any actor. Soon as you sell your script and do your contracted one rewrite pass/polish, you're going to be replaced anyway. And someone else is going to come in for REAL money and rewrite that masterpiece you just sold. And sorry, but the one person a producer doesn't want to replace is their lead actors. they are who sell the movie - not the writer. Unless the writer is a major name. Oh - but there is a way a writer can get to stay on a project longer and do more drafts...ready?.... work for cheap.

William Martell

I know I've said this before, the Stallone ROCKY story is complete BS created for PR reasons. And you even have the story wrong: Stallone was paid significantly less for ROCKY in exchange for starring in the film. C/W said the only way they would make the film with Stallone starring is if the film was made for under $1m, which meant Stallone was paid crap as writer and as actor. And, Stallone's hot script was never ROCKY, it was PARADISE ALLEY. He had to do a rewrite of PARADISE ALLEY into ROCKY when he basically sold the same script twice. But on to writer's pay... There are a million screenplays out there, and only a handful of actors who can open a movie... and only a handful of directors those actors want to work with. It's supply and demand... and there's an endless supply of screenplays. A producer I'd worked with in the past was starting a new company without his ex partner and asked if I would write a couple of scripts for him at below my quote. He'd get good scripts cheap, I'd get a lot more work if his company took off. I told him I'd only write one script cheap, and he got on the phone with me sitting there and made the same offer to another writer who said yes. I walked out with nothing... and I'd written the film that had made the most money for them (at the old company). You are replaceable. And, the first thing you learn as a screenwriter is that you will be replaced. That's the polite word for fired. I got to Hollywood by selling a spec script titled COURTING DEATH to a company on the Paramount lot. I did a couple of rewrites on it and then was replaced. A dozen screenwriters later (one who had an Oscar), they decided not to make the film. Yes, a dozen writers worked on that script after me, and each was replaced by the next. Writers are disposable in Hollywood. Get used to it. Like any other job, you will work your way up. You start at the bottom. As you write scripts that get made and make money, your quote goes up. I know the guys who wrote PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, I think Terry is one of the record holders for most paid for a spec screenplay ($5m). He did not start out making that much, he and Ted began making as little as the studio could pay, and doing a lot of work in animation where they pay even less than WGA mins! Why? Because they wanted to work. There are many more writers than jobs, and half of all pro writers make nothing in any given year. The half that did make a cent? Averaged $213k last year... that's an average, so you have to factor in those big shot writers who make more than that in a week to do some crazy production rewrite against the clock, plus those guys like Terry who sold a script for $5m... and that means a lot of writers got minimums. Probably minimum plus 10 percent. Which is great, because they could have been those writers who got nothing. Earnings for screenwriters declined 6.4 percent last year. Wait, I forgot some math: If the average earnings for those screenwriters who worked last year is $213K, and only half of all WGA members worked last year; then that kind of makes the average $107k, right? I mean, if chances are you will only work every other year, you can't spend all of that money, right? Oh, wait, average includes those highly paid writers... crap, if you make WGA low budget min, you may have to make that last for 2 years! This is not some get rich quick job. This is a job where you work your ass off. I used to work for Safeway Grocery, and a guy who got hired on the same day that I did (we trained together) is not a regional manager and makes more per year than I do... and more per year than that WGA average. Of course, he has to wear a suit and tie every day. You have to love writing. This is a job like any other job. You have deadlines. You will be expected to work your ass off while you are on the clock. You have idiot bosses. You will be asked to work off the clock, and sometimes it makes sense to do that. The one way it is different than any other job: you will be fired for no reason and be out of work and have no idea if you will ever be hired again. There is no such thing as steady employment in this business. John August on selling your first script: http://johnaugust.com/2008/money-101-for-screenwriters

Dave McCrea

Thanks for your responses. But first off, guys, where did I say star actors? I'm fully aware that a star brings much more revenue power than even a well-known screenwriter and therefore is much less replaceable. I was talking about actors starting out - and how they clearly bring less to the table than a writer with a decent script who is at a similar level with little experience.
And William, I get what you're saying about the realities of the biz from a writer's perspective, but don't you think writers could do better? Or do you believe, objectively, that all things considered, writers are fairly paid in comparison with everyone else on a film from the gaffer to the DP to the costume designer? i.e. proportionate to their contribution? Because it seems disproportionate to me.
Maybe they are. Or maybe it's me, but I find it a bit strange that every DP or sound guy I meet seems to be able to name his daily rate and get it and make an okay living while writers are always the ones who have to "take one for the team" and who should "work for cheap". Seems a bit ass-backwards.
Old habits die hard. Just because something is the way it is doesn't mean it always has to be that way.

Dave McCrea

By the way, this is where I got the Rocky story:
The producers definitely wanted the script, but they wanted the rights to make it and not Stallone as their lead. The offers began to come in.
"I really wasn't used to money and I had no idea of what I would be missing, but the temptations started to come in. $25,000, then $100,000 and I'd never even heard of that before. My $40 car had just blown up, so I was taking the bus to work!"
"Still the offers went up - $150,000, $175,000, $250,000. My head was starting to spin. It went up to $333,000 and I thought, 'you've really managed poverty well, you don't really need much to live on', so I was not in any way used to the good life.
"I went, 'I know if I sell this script and it does very, very well and I'm not in it, I'm going to jump off a building. I'm going to be very upset." So I decided that I was just going to do it myself, and maybe I'll be totally wrong and take lots of people down with me…"
In other words, a script that producers first offered $25,000 for they ended up offering $333,000 for. I know he ended up saying that he would take much less and he would star in it. And okay, maybe times have changed since then and bidding wars like that don't happen, but it's interesting to note just how lowball their first offer was compared to how much they were able to offer down the line. Something to keep in mind when you get an offer from a producer.

William Martell

You can't believe Stallone, he's creating his own legend. The script was PARADISE ALLEY, and there was even a lawsuit when Stallone sold the rewritten version he called ROCKY (which is public record). PARADISE ALLEY was the hot script that everyone wanted...

Danny Manus

I will worry about newbie screenwriters making more money about 10 minutes after I worry about TEACHERS making more money. not to mention writers get residuals for life which many cab live on if you've done enough successful work. So, no, I don't really think writers deserve that much more for what amounts to about 2-3 months of work on average.

Anton West

Alle, that's a very laudable attitude if somewhat idealistic! But how do you pay your bills then? You say you are a full-time producer/director/writer with no other job and have made little or no money from it for the last 15 years. I'm guessing you must have had someone who supported you financially for at least some of that time? Or did you win the lotto at some point? ;)

William Martell

Stallone is the one telling his altered version of history. Here's ROCKY background stuff: "In 1977, John Roach and Ron Suppa, producers of Force Ten Productions, filed at $30,000,000 suit against Winkler and Chartoff, according to an April 1977 Hollywood Reporter news item. The suit charged that Force Ten owned exclusive options with Stallone to write and star in a film titled Hell's Kitchen, which the company claimed was based on a theme about a "club prize fighter who would build a reputation...until a climactic fight which he would lose." Force Ten charged that Rocky was an outgrowth of Hell's Kitchen, which had a working title of Paradise Alley. An April 1977 Daily Variety article noted that despite the suit, Universal decided to finance Hell's Kitchen, which was released in 1978 as Paradise Alley." Stallone had sold HELL'S KITCHEN (PARADISE ALLEY) to Force Ten, who would not let him star. After closing that deal, Chartoff/Winkler came back to Stallone and said he could star if he could rewrite the script so that it could be made for $1m or less. Stallone did his 3 day rewrite of PARADISE ALLEY, changing names and locations and time periods to turn it into ROCKY and basically sold the same script twice, leading to this lawsuit. Stallone had been paid $25,000 for the PARADISE ALLEY script, and that was the high bid... the one Stallone went with (without him starring). Stallone is building his legend so that he looks great, like everyone does. No one tells the truth if it makes them look bad... like a $30m lawsuit would.

Gail Clifford

Interesting, controversial, sometimes contentious sounding post that brought me back to one word: PERSPECTIVE. Dave Napolielli just gave a talk and gave me an "ah ha" moment. Producers almost ALL work on spec - every time. With the Stage 32 article about the studio producers losing their offices, it seems appropo. Alle and Danny have given us, IMHO, a really interesting perspective. I think Danny said (forgive me Alle, please, if I'm mixing - it seems like so long ago now) that he thought the WGA minimums should go up. That doesn't sound like any writer-producer bickering to me. That sounds like WGA writers can work together to do something about that. I don't think those minimums are set by producers. As a writer, I'm thrilled to have interest in my work. I love writing. I love my day job, too, most of the time. My day job led me to a very specific set of skills that most (99%+) people in this business lack... so it's been fun to see how it translates into scripts and what translate to read-a-ble to a reader. It seems, too, that a contentious writer would be replaced, or the spec script thrown out, b/c the joy of arguing over x$ was more important to Mr. Unproduced Writer than the joy of collaborating. Hopefully, the collaborative spirit will emerge sooner rather than later.

William Martell

The lawsuit was dropped after ROCKY became a huge hit... in exchange for Stallone now starring in PARADISE ALLEY (they originally didn't want him!). Lesson learned: once you write a script that wins a pile of Oscars and makes a ton of money, people who didn't want to hire you before will now want to hire you! But we already knew that.

Anthony Mouasso

Emily, it's not that simple, listen to them carefully? WHO is going to evaluate what you deserve? That's the real question.

Aimee Kimmey

Earning enough money to quit my day job and write full time is definitely The Dream, but after writing for many fruitless years, I've realized I'd so much rather not make any money but see my script actually made! To have something tangible that I can look back on and say, "I did that!" That's rapidly becoming my new dream. Obviously I'm not much of a businessman, and probably never will be. Oh well.

Dave McCrea

First off, I'm not about screwing producers over, I'm simply pro fairness. It's about respect for the contribution. Is the money pie split up properly, or should writers have a slightly bigger slice? This writing shit is hard. And very few people can do it. In every other walk of life, a skill that is particularly difficult is highly rewarded. I've acted, directed and they are nowhere near as difficult as writing, at least to me.
Producing can require a certain ingenuity but that's the only thing that comes close.
Danny Manus, your assertion about how writing a screenplay amounts to 2 or 3 months work shows a blatant disrespect for the unique skillset and learning curve that a screenwriter must learn over perhaps 10 years to then be in a POSITION to write a workable script in 3 months... It doesn't take you 10 years to learn how to work the phones or lug sound gear or cast people. Writing is not house-painting. As an analogy, writing the code for the program Excel is a LOT harder than being a guy who trains people on how to use Excel or someone who enters data in Excel or someone who sells Excel to companies. A much higher proportion of people can sell Excel than be the guy who came up with it in the first place. A much higher proportion can sit in a boardroom and throw ideas around than those who can actually put all of those ideas together into a cohesive artistically viable yet commercially viable unit!
A screenplay is sometimes called a "property". So when a producer contacts you about your property, remember there is something actually there. Don't just be grateful that someone likes the way you've decorated your living room and finally someone loves you.
EVERYTHING is a negotiation. I think it's easy for a screenwriter to hear "That's all we have" or "you have to pay your dues" or "that's industry standard" or any other stock answer and forget that fact. Now maybe that is all they have, and your script isn't that good so your negotiating power is limited. It's possible that if you won't accept a producer's first offer, they'll say "see ya later", but I would take that as a sign that my script is not that great if they do that. In which case I need to work on my craft and get better and make something more irresistible.
If I'm a producer, and I stumble across a script like say Andrew Kevin Walker's Seven, and he rejects my first offer, I'm not shrugging my shoulders and going to the next script in the pile. There is no next script in the pile. I just read a uniquely valuable and viable blueprint that will attract above-the-line talent and audiences. I'm thinking "HOW do I get Andy to give me the rights?"
No two scripts are the same, no two producer are the same. Maybe my advice only applies to those screenwriters who are particularly driven to be the best. I have my work cut out for me because basically my goal is to be so good at screenwriting that people will tolerate my ego!

Dave McCrea

well put John

Nkosi Guduza

I think the key what Dave is saying here for all is that, why not just offer the right adequate deal that is worth fair for the actual, creator of that which you wish to purchase. Why try and skim a little bit of money to that which you will and possibly (are knowing) giving too. Which suggests to me that one MUST go in to negotiate because they obviously are.

CJ Walley

I think there are a few elements to this discussion which are crossing over. Firstly, I agree with the essence of what Dave is saying. We can be weak when it comes to making deals, and I think it's because; 1) We allow our position to be leveraged. We are too emotionally involved in getting our work produced and overly fantasise about how the results will likely turn out. 2) We typically don't come from any kind of business orientated background. We simply don't understand the deal itself or the bigger picture behind it. I feel the axoim that great scripts are very hard to find is misinterpreted by us and perpetuated by traders who are supported by it. Yes the industry always needs an influx of new material, but there's a delusion that specs are bought on objective qualities rather than subjective taste. I believe that the more established side of the industry is spoilt for choice when it comes to great scripts. The issue really arises lower down the totem pole with those who lack the access, time, or resource needed to filter through agent submissions, queries, recommendations, competition finalists, blacklists spotlights, directory listings etc etc. We also muddle up two completely different offerings we trade upon. There is the productised version of our writing in the form of spec scripts, and there is the service side of our writing in the form of assignments. In terms of establishing value and compensation, the two are poles apart. A spec script has an inherent value in its marketable content, where as a writer has a perceived value in their ability to create or improve marketable content. In my opinion, writers on assignment don't write movies and haven't for a long time. Producers and executives develop movies through screenwriters. They do so because they are in the business of leveraging a resource of brand, concept, and acute marketplace awareness. As a result, we have two routes to market; a) Sell a product in the form of a spec script where the dynamic is subject to desire vs availability. b) Sell our services in the form of writing assignments and become a cog in a machine. The key issue here is that the former is devoted and the latter is industrialised. The second we start talking about industry standard in terms of spec sales, we effectively cheapen what we are doing. Specs are not a standardised product, they cannot be metaphorically compared to a commodity like leather, they cannot be scored, they cannot be valued on craftsmanship, they can only ever be subject to appeal, and that appeal itself is a unique dynamic between the script and the buyer. And here's the thing, money demeans the deal at hand. Money should never be the reason to say yes or no (although sadly it often has to be). If a producer is faking their enthusiasm, lowballing, and being forced to meet unionised minimums, then all is already lost. A relationship like that is never going to work out to be fulfilling. Good deals are brokered between people bringing honesty to the table but sadly stories like the one about Stallone make them out to be more a battle of wits.

Norman Ray Fitts

I have a standard agreement that is signed every time I write a feature length script for hire or that I sell. I get my asking up front fee in advance of my writing a word when it's for hire and then 2% of the adjusted GROSS profit off the film paid to me on a monthly basis. I let them recover distrubition cost first. No script, no film. I'm part of the production cost. Forget net profit. To date I've written 30 shott films and 25 features and I've made money on a lot of them.

Patrick DelliGatti

Business Acumen: Base price for screenplay+ percentage of gross profit of screenplay films. The producers profit comes from your script. and sweat., if they want the play, they must pay. The profit will be made by both parties, in the end with smiles. Patrick DelliGatti Negotiator

Mark Barkawitz

Yes, well . . . Years ago, I was sitting in the office of the producer of the #1 film at the box office for five weeks running. He was interested in a spec script of mine. Took a four hour meeting with me, telling me what he wanted in a page-1 rewrite. Lots of work. But I didn't care; I was going to get paid for it. Then he offered me one-fifth of Guild minimum for a page-1 rewrite and option, which I pointed out to him. He didn't seem to care for that. He closed my script & the meeting. Next day, his assistant called to inform me that he was no longer interested in my script. I asked her: "Because I didn't jump at his offer?" She replied: "Exactly." So playing hardball doesn't always work.

Mary Ann Casalina

Always exceptions to a rule.

Dave McCrea

"I love your script! It's so great! Now let's change EVERYTHING about it, starting on page 1!" lol.

Aimee Kimmey

So Mark, do you regret turning down the offer? Or did things work out anyway?

Mark Barkawitz

I didn't actually turn it down. My gut reaction to the offer, which I expressed, wasn't well received. It would have been interesting to see how it played out. He was one of the big boys. I did, however, option the script to another production company a few months later. Played hardball again. (I was young & brash then.) Got what I wanted--Guild scale. Unfortunately, the executive producer, who was in love with the co-producer/lead actor, caught said actor with another woman at a local nightclub, and thus, squashed the deal. Funny, huh?

Sylvia Marie Llewellyn

Bummer. Life always gets in the way.

Aimee Kimmey

Sounds like the moral of the story is trust your gut! 'Cause let's face it, nobody can plan for love triangle deal breakers.

Norman Ray Fitts

I'm a novelist and screenwriter in Houston Texas. I've published 5 science fiction novels and over the last 20 years I've written more than 50 screenplays, short and feature length. Some I've written for me, of which severaL have sold, and some I've been hired to write for others. As to short scripts I've had over a dozen produced or are in the process of being produced. The features ar just coming into their own. There's an animated feature in production off one of my novels and three other features are in development. If I charged guild minimum here in Houston I'd never sell anything. For me, It isn't so much the money as getting the story up for the the world to enjoy. First and foremost I'm a story teller. I teach two writing classes and I work with kids, for free, in the art of writing.

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